Foreign Minister John Manley owes the people of Canada, and the people of southern Sudan, an answer: does he believe Talisman Energy’s claim that helicopter gunships use Talisman facilities for “defensive purposes only”—or does he believe the evidence supplied by his own Khartoum-based political officer and by a recent Canadian/British human rights assessment mission? A pointed article in The Globe & Mail this weekend makes the question both urgent and inescapable.
Eric Reeves [May 7, 2001]
Northampton, MA 01063
The Globe & Mail [May 5; article attached below] put the question squarely in the public domain, and Mr. Manley either answers it or we must assume that the question, and the fate of southern Sudan, simply don’t matter to him, despite vague and ineffectual protestations to the contrary.
Talisman Energy is cited in the Globe & Mail article as declaring that the ongoing use of its airstrips in the oil concession areas of southern Sudan is “purely defensive.” But they offer no evidence, and indeed have actually recently admitted in a public document that their airstrips were used for offensive military purposes on a number of occasions in 2000. They have also conceded that they have negligible influence with the Khartoum regime that is orchestrating these helicopter gunship missions from Talisman’s facilities.
So, does Mr. Manley nonetheless take Talisman at its word, that these helicopter gunship operations are now “purely defensive”? Or does he look at the massive evidence pointing to offensive military use of these gunships in attacking civilians in and near the oil concessions?
This evidence paints a damning picture of continual and significant use of Talisman airstrips by Khartoum’s military aircraft going back at least as far as 1999. The Harker Assessment Mission appointed by Lloyd Axworthy, reporting on its findings from 1999, declared:
“[H]elicopter gunships and Antonov bombers of the Government of Sudan […] have armed and re-fueled at Heglig and from there attacked civilians. This is totally incontrovertible” [page 65 of the Harker Assessment Report].
Even Talisman recently admitted in its disturbingly disingenuous “corporate social responsibility” report that its airstrips were used for offensive purposes in 2000.
So what about the present? What is the evidence for 2001? Georgette Gagnon, a member of the original Harker Assessment Mission, is just back from an assessment mission to southern Sudan with John Ryle, a London-based Africa specialist with extensive experience in Sudan. Their mission was funded by Canadian and British nongovernmental organizations.
Ms. Gagnon presented their telling findings in comments picked up by Reuters:
“‘Defecting soldiers from the government of Sudan army base in Heglig and victims of gunship attacks testified to us that gunships fly regular sorties from Heglig (the oil project’s base) to attack civilian settlements in a continuing campaign to clear and secure territory for oil development,’ [Ms. Gagnon] said.” [Reuters, May 1, 2001]
This not only comports exactly with the findings of the authoritative Christian Aid (UK) report issued this past March (which found increasing use of helicopter gunship attacks on civilians), but with the (now) unedited version of a report compiled by Nicholas Coghlan, Canada’s Khartoum-based political officer. This report was filed immediately after Mr. Coghlan’s investigative trip to Talisman’s concession areas in late February 2001, and was originally released on April 28, 2001 in suspiciously and unjustifiably edited form in response to an Access to a Information request.
The unedited version has now been disclosed, and it has Mr. Coghlan finding:
“The G[overnment O[f] S[udan] is meanwhile taking the Tamur attack seriously. For the past month there have been two Hind gunships stationed at Unity Field, and interlocutors told me they had been flying sorties almost every day, taking on large amounts of ammunition, ‘and unloading none…’. There is a third Hind at Rubkona, apparently out of action, having taken excessive dust into its intake. By some accounts, this represents half of the GOS’s entire fleet of combat helicopters. Talisman have indicated to the GOS their unease at this situation and have sought assurances that the Hinds’ presence is purely defensive.”
It should be noted first that this report by Canada’s political officer in Sudan indicates that the Government of Sudan is using both Talisman’s Unity airstrip, as well as the Heglig airstrip reported on by the Harker Report and by the Gagnon/Ryle Mission (though relatively close, they would have different flying radiuses and would be deployed for different attack targets from the different sites).
Mr. Coghlan’s findings—that the helicopter gunships were “flying sorties almost every day, taking on large amounts of ammunition, ‘unloading none'”—are simply not compatible with Talisman’s claim that these missions are “purely defensive.” Both the intense frequency and the full expenditure of all ammunition loaded aboard can only signal offensive military action. This is indisputable. Moreover, there have been no reports from the SPLA opposition forces of attacks on the oil facilities since January, and we may be sure that they would publicize such attacks if they had occurred.
What we do know is that the time frame established by Mr. Coghlan, and by the Gagnon/Ryle mission, corresponds with known attacks on civilian sites, attacks that were distinguished by the use of helicopter gunships. These are ongoing, and the human displacement created by the attacks is sharply increasing the number of the people at risk of famine, even as it dramatically increases insecurity that prevents the delivery of humanitarian aid.
We will know a great deal more, and in a good deal more detail, when the full Gagnon/Ryle report is released in the next couple of weeks. But we know more than enough at present.
And what we know most clearly is that John Manley must answer some morally urgent questions:
“Do you believe Talisman Energy’s claim that Khartoum’s helicopter gunship use of Heglig and Unity airstrips is ‘purely defensive’?
If you do, what is your evidence?
And if you don’t, what does this say about Canadian policy toward Sudan?
What does it say that the Government of Canada knows that Canadian corporate facilities are being used to stage deadly helicopter gunship attacks on civilians as part of Khartoum’s ongoing scorched-earth policy in the areas of Talisman’s oil concessions in southern Sudan—and does, and says, nothing?”
Mr. Manley’s response to, or silence before, these questions will inevitably define the moral character of his tenure in the Foreign Ministry.
[Email address for John Manley at the Canadian Foreign Ministry:
From The Globe & Mail, May 5, 2001
“Ottawa covering up for Talisman in Sudan, MP says”
Saturday, May 5, 2001
OTTAWA — The Department of
Foreign Affairs has tried to cover
up information about the Sudanese
military’s use of an airstrip at an
oil-consortium compound to launch
attacks in Sudan’s bloody civil war,
MP Svend Robinson charged
Mr. Robinson, a New Democrat,
made the charge after revealing
previously secret passages from a
report showing a Canadian diplomat
told the government more than two
months ago that he believed the
airstrip was being used by the
military. The report was released
earlier, but those passages were
deleted. The airstrip was built for a
consortium that includes
Calgary-based Talisman Energy,
Canada’s largest independent oil
producer, and it was not supposed
to be used for military operations.
In a report in late February, a
senior Canadian diplomat based in
Sudan, Nicholas Coghlan, told
Ottawa headquarters that two
Sudanese Hind helicopter gunships
had been stationed at the airstrip,
Unity Field, for at least a month.
He added: “. . . and interlocutors
told me they had been flying
sorties almost every day, taking on
large amounts of ammunition, ‘and
unloading none. . . .’ ”
He also reported that “Talisman
have indicated to the GOS
[government of Sudan] their
unease at this situation and have
sought assurances that the Hinds’
presence is purely defensive.”
The Inter-Church Coalition on Africa
sought a copy of Mr. Coghlan’s
report under the federal Access to
The coalition, an alliance of
Canadian churches, is opposed to
Talisman’s involvement in Sudan
because they believe it is helping
to prop up an oppressive regime
and prolong a bloody civil war.
The coalition received a censored
version of the report.
The passage dealing with the
gunships at Unity Field had been
Mr. Robinson obtained a leaked
copy of the full text, and
yesterday, in the House of
Commons, he accused the
Department of Foreign Affairs of a
Foreign Affairs Minister John Manley
said the passage was deleted to
avoid revealing the whereabouts of
Canadians working in the war zone
and thus put them at risk.
But critics of Talisman aren’t buying
There is nothing in the
unexpurgated version of Mr.
Coghlan’s report that names his
“interlocutors” or says where those
people are located, said Eric
Reeves, an American academic who
has been spearheading an effort to
have investors in Canada and the
United States dump their Talisman
It is clear the deletion was
“designed to obscure the real
nature of Talisman Energy’s
complicity in deadly
helicopter-gunship attacks on
innocent Sudanese civilians,” Mr.
Reeves said. Talisman
acknowledges that the military has
used the airstrip, but says it is
strictly for defensive purposes.