Talisman Energy has been fiercely criticized for its role as the only Western participant in Sudan’s Greater Nile oil project. According to all credible accounts, this oil project and the revenues it generates are extending and exacerbating Africa’s longest and most destructive civil war. Numerous human rights reports have established conclusively that brutal scorched-earth warfare serves as security for Talisman and its Asian partners. At the same time, all Sudanese oil revenues go directly to the extremist National Islamic Front regime in Khartoum, which continues to declare publicly its military ambitions for these revenues. Still, Talisman and its apologists speak of “constructive engagement.” Is there anything “constructive” about this “engagement”? Is there any morally cogent argument for Talisman’s staying in Sudan?
Eric Reeves [July 5, 2001]
Northampton, MA 01063
Despite Talisman’s clearly established complicity in the oil driven-destruction of Sudan, there continue to be voices calling for the company to stay, and not all come from Talisman management in Calgary. Some in the Canadian financial press, a number of oil analysts, the Government of Canada in some of its pronouncements, and even a few northern Sudanese opposition figures argue that Talisman should stay. Obviously no representative southern Sudanese voices echo this view. (Virtually all the oil concessions are in the south.)
The arguments that Talisman should stay have a superficial plausibility, insuring that they are thoughtlessly recycled. This is especially true of the Canadian print news media, which are largely “asleep at the switch” on Sudan as an issue that has become, and will remain, deeply defining of Canadian national character.
Talisman’s presence in Sudan, so the claim goes, keeps Sudan in the spotlight and brings company pressure to bear on human rights issues. Talisman’s provision of local social services is also cited. But what seems to clinch the argument for most is the facile assertion that if Talisman were to be forced out of Sudan, their place in the consortium would be filled with a less “responsible” oil company (most likely Malaysian or Chinese).
Such replacement may well occur, but this hardly justifies Talisman’s staying.
First it should be noted that there is not a shred of evidence that Talisman has had any positive influence on human rights in Sudan. Indeed, the UN’s Special Rapporteur for human rights in Sudan (Gerhart Baum) very recently declared (June 27) that the situation has deteriorated over the last year—and he highlighted oil development. Khartoum’s human rights record continues to be among the very worst in the world, characterized by arbitrary detention, torture, political repression, the abetting of human slavery, and appalling conduct of the war in the south.
In the south the regime continues to deny emergency food aid to many tens of thousands of starving people; it deliberately bombs clearly civilian targets and even humanitarian relief efforts; and the regime’s ferocious scorched-earth warfare generates immense human destruction and displacement that have been repeatedly and authoritatively chronicled (e.g., in the Harker Report commissioned by the Canadian Foreign Ministry).
In the almost three years Talisman has been in Sudan nothing has improved, even as oil-related violence continues to exact its terrible costs among countless innocent civilians. All this is what must be put in the balance with Talisman’s very local and modest social service effort, which benefits only a very few.
Further, Talisman’s continuing presence gives not only a corporate “imprimatur” to Sudan’s brutally destructive oil project, but a national one as well. Canada’s previously enviable international reputation on human rights is used relentlessly by Khartoum to create a veneer of respectability for the project. Indeed, officials of the regime have gone so far as to declare publicly that the presence of Talisman “can only be evidence of a prosperous and peaceful atmosphere in Sudan.”
Such brazen distortion is one means by which Khartoum hopes to lure other Western oil companies to participate in new projects. But clearly such an extension of oil development will insure the spread of scorched-earth warfare. Authoritative reports on the newer concession explorations of the Swedish oil company Lundin Oil confirm that this is already occurring (e.g., “The Scorched Earth: Oil and War in Sudan,” Christian Aid, March 2001; Christian Aid is a humanitarian organization with almost 30 years of service in both the north and south of Sudan).
Talisman’s continued presence also gives Khartoum hope that it will be able to secure additional Western capital, Western technology and technical expertise (of the sort Talisman has provided in abundance), and Western economic integration. At the very moment in which the international community should be forcefully demanding good faith peace efforts on the part of Khartoum, Talisman’s presence sends the signal that at the close of day, the Western democracies are really more interested in oil than in ending the most destructive civil conflict in half a century.
It is a signal that is not lost on Khartoum, a fact reflected in the failure of any peace forum to secure from the regime some real commitment to loosening its totalitarian ways and Islamic extremism. The recent revival of the so-called “Libyan-Egyptian Peace Initiative” hasn’t yet provided any real evidence that Khartoum is willing to negotiate the separation of religion and state, or to consider seriously southern self-determination—the key issues in any successful peace agreement.
Finally, Talisman’s continued presence sends a more profoundly disturbing signal, viz. that extraction ventures in developing countries—no matter how destructive—will in the end be countenanced by governments and businesses more interested in profit and natural resources than human life. Talisman’s leaving Sudan would only be the first step toward peace; but their staying makes more likely other irresponsible investments in the world’s most troubled nations.