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International attention has once again turned to the murky record of BP’s oil operations in Colombia. The High Court in London is to hear a case against BP, filed on behalf of Gilberto Torres, a former trade unionist who was kidnapped and tortured by state-linked paramilitaries in 2002. In a trial in Colombia, the kidnappers said that they took direct orders from pipeline operator Ocensa, in which BP had a 15% stake. They stated that Ocensa paid them an extra $40,000 for the job.
Legal cases such as this are vital: they aim to hold corporations to account and to contest systematic impunity. Torres’s London-based lawyers hope the lawsuit will open the way to hundreds of other cases on behalf of community leaders, activists and trade unionists killed or ‘disappeared’. BP, which withdrew from the Casanare region of Colombia four years ago, denies any connection with paramilitary groups. It has said it will ‘vigorously’ defend the action and that Ocensa was not under its control when Torres was abducted.
The case is particularly significant because Casanare can be considered the birthplace of big oil’s concern with human rights. In the mid-1990s, BP faced extensive criticism for its links with the Colombian army and — by extension — with paramilitaries accused of assassinating environmentalists, community activists and trade unionists. The company was quick to ‘learn from mistakes’ and was one of the first corporations to establish a dialogue with international development organisations. In 1997, BP representatives sat down to discuss human rights with an ‘Inter-Agency Group’ comprising Oxfam, Save the Children, Cafod, Christian Aid and the Catholic Institute for International Relations.
BP went on to become a frontrunner in the recognition of human rights as a matter of concern for corporations. It has set the agenda by promoting corporate responsibility as an integral part of companies’ performance. In 2000, BP became one of the original group of signatories of the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights for the extractive sector. The UN Special Representative on Business and Human Rights, John Ruggie, visited BP’s human rights training facility for the Colombian army in January 007. He subsequently stated that the Voluntary Principles had been ‘implemented most extensively at the country level in Colombia’, with a positive impact on the ‘once notorious 16th Brigade’.
Meanwhile, in Casanare, the 16th Brigade was continuing to ensure it’s ongoing notoriety. According to a report by Colombian human rights organizations, soldiers killed Angel Camacho, just by BP’s Cupiagua oilfield, the very month of Ruggie’s visit. The report recorded over 30 extrajudicial executions at the hands of the 16th Brigade over the course of 2007 alone. I spent a year as a researcher and human rights volunteer in Casanare shortly after the UN Special Representative’s brief visit and witnessed directly how the 16th Brigade continued to carry out illegal surveillance of community activities around the oilfields. I spoke to numerous people who told me of children, partners and neighbours killed by the Brigade’s soldiers.
Even suspicion of being left-wing was a death sentence. During one community human rights meeting that I attended, Sergeant Ávila of 44th Battalion stated that his battalion had killed several people in the vicinity. Ávila claimed that fault lay with the victims’ neighbours, who had ‘told us that they were left-wing’.
In November 2002, just months after Torres was kidnapped, the El Morro Community Association coordinated a civic strike near the Cupiagua oilfield. Surviving members of the Association said they had wanted a response from BP for ongoing ecological devastation, precarious and underpaid employment and the company’s continued failure to comply with agreements that it had reached with the community.
In the aftermath of the protest, Jorge Guzman, of BP’s community affairs department, was reported to have said that he was ‘tired’ of the El Morro Community Association, because they did not ‘let the company work’. Over the weeks and months that followed, members of the Association began to receive threats, including ‘stop fucking with BP’. In September 2004, on his return from a meeting with BP representatives, the Association’s treasurer, Oswaldo Vargas, was shot dead. Five days later, another leading member of the Association, Fasio Holguín survived an assassination attempt.
Investigative journalist Gearóid Ó Loingsigh interviewed the paramilitary commander Carlos Guzman Daza (alias Salomón) in November 2007. Salomón stated that ‘when peasants organized strikes or protested about any situation that they considered to be affected by oil companies, the paramilitaries went in to threaten the peasants…. As I say, the paramilitaries never did anything for free. If they gave a service to someone, it is because this someone was financing or giving money or some bribe in exchange’.
Ó Loingsigh was also passed an internal email from BP. In September 1997, shortly before a visit of representatives of the Inter-Agency Group to Colombia, BP Policy Director David Rice wrote the following to a colleague who had been liaising with NGOs’ in Colombia:
‘Andres, Well done. I agree with your view that we would benefit by working more with Oxfam in Colombia. They have been a great heklp [sic] to us here and are getting closer to us all the time. Your visitors have a lot of influence in the development ngo community in the UK, and hence in how allegations against [us] are picked up or not. Good and closer relationships with Oxfam will be a significant factor in differentiating BP globally’ (1).
Meanwhile, BP representatives, the British ambassador in Colombia and anonymous ‘independent experts’ were quoted in the media saying that criticism of BP was a ‘smear campaign’ orchestrated by National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas.
Michael Gillard, the journalist who first broke the story of BP’s links with the Colombian military, has said that he too was the target of this line of argument: ‘For BP it was helpful to try and undermine my journalism by suggesting [that] one of Colombia’s guerrilla groups was pulling my strings. I was first alerted to this smear campaign in 1997 after talking to an oil journalist in Houston who’d been briefed by Roddy Kennedy, [then BP CEO] John Browne’s Chief Press Officer. I later heard through various sources that BP was smearing me as the ELN’s man in Europe’ (2).
‘In general, BP’s was a classic strategy of creating a division between so-called “reasonable” activists that they felt they could do business with and so-called “unreasonable” ones, who were subtly labelled as militants and guerrilla sympathisers, which in Colombia is a death sentence,’ he added.
Voluntary corporate responsibility is more than whitewash. It is a powerful means of disciplining dissent. Unable to recognise the struggles of others who did not mirror their own understanding of ‘civil society’, the Inter-Agency Group unwittingly fed into a process of neutralising resistance. They encouraged BP to promote human rights, failing to apprehend how, for peasant organisations in Casanare, rights were demanded precisely to contest oil extraction and all its harmful consequences.
During their dialogue with BP, the Inter-Agency Group refused to publish a report they commissioned from Colombian researcher Pedro Galindo. The report included a critique of how royalties on oil were calculated so as to ensure, in Galindo’s words, ‘maximum profits to the multinational and minimal benefits to the population’. Galindo said his report aimed to ‘show how oil exploration represented the imposition of a culturally and economically alien model … and to put forward the idea that people in Casanare should be allowed to take responsibility for finding solutions to their own problems’ (3).
Voluntary codes of conduct purport to promote rights. What they actually do is reduce rights to precarious and private contract. The holders of corporate-fostered ‘rights’ do not have those rights as citizens, still less because of their humanity (the basis of notions of universal rights). They possess rights only as ‘stakeholders’, a figure premised upon the process of capital accumulation in which they can have a ‘stake’.
BP has placed great emphasis upon its work with ‘stakeholders’ in the vicinity of its oilfields. In practice, however, the reach of its community investment has been sparse. ‘We are of course very grateful to BP for giving us a ball for the children, but we would prefer genuine support’, one community leader commented.
In 1994, BP and other oil companies in Casanare established the Fundación Amanecer. This development NGO runs a series of projects in the immediate vicinity of the oilfields, fostering competitive agricultural production and an ‘entrepreneurial culture’ among the population. One farmer summed up how she perceived the effects of this: ‘First BP destroyed the social fabric, now they are trying to build another one in their image.’
Where community organisations continued to mobilise around ongoing environmental damage, lack of social investment and the killing of their neighbours, representatives of the Fundación have turned up uninvited at their meetings and actively encouraged people to participate in their projectsinstead of protesting.
Protest, meanwhile, continues to carry high risks, as is made clear by the cases of Gilberto Torres, Oswaldo Vargas and documented killings as recent as 2014. Outside the allocation of rights through corporate responsibility, the population has continued to be disposable. They can be killed with impunity — without anyone being held to account for a crime.
If oil companies are implicated in human rights violations, this is not because they are bad examples of corporate responsibility. Corporate responsibility is the other side of the armed elimination of dissent. It works its own, ethical violence, erasing experiences and struggles of those around the oilfields. By substituting law, corporate codes of conduct reinforce impunity for abuses. Rights are promoted as abstract values, tacked on to the existing state of affairs. Companies can claim to have ‘learnt from their mistakes’, and their operations can be affirmed as ethical from hereon in (4).
Legal cases such as that filed on behalf of Gilberto Torres defy this logic. To challenge impunity is not just to attempt to confine abuses to the past. It serves to expose crimes committed, to preserve memory of the past within the present, and to highlight contradictions between corporate recognition of rights and an economic model that has implied the systematic violation and dispossession of workers and populations around the oilfields. It is part of a process of re-building communities and social organisations wiped out by the violence.
Torres’ London-based lawyers are crowd-funding his case. They have teamed up with War on Want and Cos-pacc, an organisation established by displaced peasants from around BP’s Colombian oilfields, to launch the Oil Justice campaign.
Lara Montesinos Coleman is a lecturer in International Relations at the Centre for Global Political Economy at Sussex University.
(1) Rice, David P. Email sent on Thursday, 18 September 1997, 10:40am. Quoted in Ayala et al, Por Dentro E’Soga: Un Analysis de los Impactos de BP en Casanare, Desde Abajo, Bogotá, 2010.
(2) Personal interview with Michael Gillard, 24 December 2007.
(3) Personal interview with Pedro Galindo, 27 December 2007.
(4) For in-depth discussion, see Lara Montesinos Coleman, ‘The making of docile dissent: neoliberalization and resistance in Colombia and beyond’, International Political Sociology, 9:2, 2013, and ‘Struggles, over rights: humanism, ethical dispossession and resistance’, in Third World Quarterly, 36:6, 2015.
This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.