Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

BRITAIN-COLOMBIA: ‘Ethical’ Foreign Policy Under A Colombian Cloud

Dipankar De Sarkar

LONDON, May 13 1997 (IPS) - Britain’s newly-announced plans to inject a new ‘ethical dimension’ into its moribund foreign policy have been clouded by a fierce human rights spat over a ministerial appointment for the chairman of oil giant British Petroleum.

Prime minister Tony Blair’s decision to appoint British Petroleum (BP) Chairman Sir David Simon as the country’s minister for trade in Europe has been sharply criticised by human rights campaigners who say BP is involved in rights violations in Colombia.

According to Richard Brenner of the London-based Coalition Against BP in Colombia, the oil multinational is mentioned in a 1995 human rights report commissioned by the Colombian government.

Brenner says the report “contained claims that BP had been cooperating with the Colombian military intelligence which is involved in a dirty war against environmentalists and trade unionists who have been opposing the company’s operations in the Casanare oil field.”

Brenner says the report accuses the company of handing over photographs and video footage of local campaigners and activists to the military.

“Since the discovery five years ago of the world’s largest discovered oil field, containing crude oil worth an estimate 23 billion pounds (about 36.8 billion dollars), BP’s operations in the Colombian region of Casanare have caused severe damage to the environment,” Brenner says.

He says protesting peasants have been assassinated or issued death threats by the military. “The report names six local campaigners against BP. Each of them was abducted by the military and later found dead,” he adds.

Brenner’s views are hotly contested by BP, which claims the report makes no reference to any rights violations by BP itself.

The company’s managing director Russell Seal says BP in November 1996 asked the Colombian Prosecutor-General to mount a full inquiry into all the accusations made against BP. “We have promised full cooperation with this investigation,” he says.

There are other serious allegations against BP’s role in Colombia: Brenner claims the company funds the Colombian military “to the tune of millions.” He says BP last year signed an agreement to provide 39 million pounds (about 62.4 million dollars) to establish a new military squad and has paid 375,000 pounds (about 600,000 dollars) specifically to the military’s 16th Brigade.

An independent Colombian government commission has have accused the brigade of execution without trial, kidnap, torture and rape.

“If Labour’s intended code for human rights and environment were serious, then it would launch an open investigation into BP’s role in Colombia, and immediately throw Sir David Simon out of office,” Brenner says.

In defence, BP’s Russell Seal says it is “public knowledge that BP and our partners have an agreement with the (Colombian) government to support the army in certain limited areas, such as food, accommodation and health.

“The choice is simple. Without protection, all the projects directed at increasing Colombia’s economic and social prosperity could be threatened by guerrillas and terrorists,” he adds.

Seal is supported by Colombia’s ambassador to Britain, Carlos Lemos Simmonds, who wrote in a letter to the London daily Guardian newspaper that an objective reading of the report “cannot lead to the assertion that BP, through the Colombian army, financed, promoted or aided the death of local campaigners” in Casanare.

“The document simply does not say that; nor do its contents even make that suggestion.”

The World Development Movement (WDM) is a non-governmental organisation leading a high-profile campaign to force the British government to ‘delink’ the arms trade from its official development assistance. It did not specifically comment on the BP controversy, but said it has “broad concerns” about the way multinational corporations behave.

“Multinational corporations have undue influence over the business of government all over the world and are shaping the agenda to meet their own needs,” WDM’s Harriet Lamb said.

Lamb said there is a need for multinationals to be “responsible” and welcomed a call by Britain’s new international development minister Clare Short, for a global code of conduct for multinational corporations.

Embarrassingly, the row over BP came just before foreign secretary Robin Cook, a man seen as belonging to the left wing of the ruling Labour Party, announced Monday that foreign policy under him will have an “ethical dimension”.

“Our foreign policy must have an ethical dimension and must support the demands of other peoples fro the democratic rights on which we insist for ourselves,” Cook said.

“The Labour government will put human rights at the heart of our foreign policy and will publish and annual report on our work in promoting human rights abroad.”

Cook’s plans include entering bilateral agreements with developing countries to check exploitation of child labour; considering imposing sanctions against Nigeria until there is a return to democratic governance there; and seek international regulation of the arms trade, particularly through a European Union code of conduct.

Cook, however, refused to say if he will ban British arms sale to Indonesia. NGOs such as WDM have accused Indonesia of using British military equipment against pro-democracy campaigners.

As part of his mission, the Foreign Secretary will despatch to British diplomats abroad copies of a video which exhorts Foreign Office staff to help make Britain “a force for good in the world.”

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