bp: Beyond Petroleum?

In 1996 BP was accused of human rights violations in Colombia, leading to damaging media publicity in the UK. Its Casanare oil field has oil reserves valued at approximately $40 billion. The Colombian government has a poor human rights record, and both the police and army are held responsible for serious abuses of human rights including extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, torture and beatings. These official security forces are much feared by the people, as are the right-wing paramilitary forces, which appear to operate as death squads with government impunity, attacking local protesters, communities they suspect of being sympathetic to guerrillas, and people they deem socially undesirable, such as prostitutes and street children. Antigovernment guerrillas have also made enemies among the local population. Combined violence by government forces, the paramilitary and the guerrillas resulted in between 2,000 and 3,000 deaths in 1998 and 300,000 civilians being displaced from their homes.

BP’s oil operations in Colombia have been a target for guerrillas who believe the oil industry should be nationalized. BP has installed several layers of preventative protection for its staff and installations. Firstly, it depends on the Colombian army, which created a special brigade of 3,000 soldiers for the purpose. In 1996, BP agreed to pay the Defense Ministry between $54 and 60 million over three years to augment the battalion with 150 officers and 500 soldiers.

BP also depends on the police force, which patrols the perimeter of its facilities; the company pays $3 million a year for the service. In 1992 BP hired the British firm Defense Systems Limited (DSL), which set up a subsidiary Defense Systems Colombia (DSC) for its BP operations. According to World in Action’s research, based on the testimony of former DSL officers and the police themselves, DSC has given Colombian police “lethal military training” since 1996.

But critics say this physical security has come at too high a price in human rights abuses. BP has been accused of forming its own army and of being associated with state repression. The military forces that protect its assets in Colombia are said to have connections with the right-wing paramilitary. And BP has been accused of hiring security people with past histories of human rights abuses and even murder.

The heavy security had troubling implications for local people protesting about the environmental impact of BP’s operations. The company admitted to early environmental damage, as a result of what Browne calls “honest mistakes” made before local regulations had been clarified rather than “willful and reckless mistakes.” BP’s operations in Colombia have caused problems including deforestation, pollution of crucial water sources, landslides, earthquakes and ground contamination. World in Action pointed out, “The company which had gone into Colombia trumpeting the highest green standards was fined $215,000 the biggest-ever environmental fine in Colombian history.”

Members of the local community involved in legitimate protest against the impact of the oil companies, including BP, have frequently been labeled subversive and subsequently been victims of human rights violations by security forces and their paramilitary allies,” according to Amnesty International. Daniel Bland, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, said local people have testified that if there is “any kind of organized protest against BP in any way, the leaders of those protests are singled out for persecution for harassment and for death threats.” Such threats are taken very seriously, as six members of one group, the El Morro Association, have been murdered since it began its campaign against damage done by BP to their road and their water supply.

In March 1997 BP was cleared of human rights abuses by a Colombian government inquiry. However, according to Blowout Magazine, the Special Commission conducting the inquiry found the army brigade protecting BP’s assets guilty of “civilian massacre, extrajudicial execution, rape, kidnap and torture.” Human Rights Watch also claims there have been “reports of killings, beatings and arrests committed by those forces responsible for protecting the companies’ installations.” BP denies any responsibility for military repression of anti-BP protesters and says it has no control over the soldiers it hires to defend its Colombian sites. But Human Rights Watch argues that BP cannot avoid responsibility for human rights violations committed by government forces in defense of its own interests.

Moreover, Richard Howitt, a British member of the European parliament, obtained internal Colombian government documents that stated BP had given the Colombian military photographs, videos and other information about peasant protesters concerned about environmental damage. The information had allegedly led to intimidation, beatings, disappearances and deaths. A former DSC adviser also told World in Action “about a controversial proposal by DSC to set up a spy network in Casanare to target anti-BP protesters.”

BP CEO John Browne responded, “We don’t pass materials to the military...We have, as part of the licensing process, in order to produce evidence that we have had meetings on the environment, passed videotapes to the environmental department with the full knowledge and agreement of the community involved. That’s the extent of it.” Human Rights Watch noted that when the contract between the Colombian military and BP came up for renewal in June 1999, the flow of funds was altered so that rather than paying the army directly, BP paid the state-owned ECOPETROL, which in turn paid the Defense Ministry. It continued making direct payments to the police.

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bp: Beyond Petroleum?
Sharon Beder