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Sudan: Oil and Rights Abuses

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Nov 28, 2003 (031128)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

While diplomats say there are good chances of achieving a peace settlement in Sudan by the end of the year, fighting nevertheless continues in western Sudan, and the United Nations has appealed for $450 million to support some 3.5 million displaced Sudanese. Human Rights Watch has just released an extensive new report documenting the complicity of oil companies with human rights abuses in Sudan, and warning that disputes over oil revenue have the potential to further prolong the conflict.

The report, entitled Sudan, Oil, and Human Rights, notes that despite the recent withdrawal of Canadian and Swedish companies, Asian companies are continuing the operations together with the Sudanese government. This issue of AfricaFocus Bulletin contains a press release and excerpts from the summary of the report.

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++

Sudan: Oil Companies Complicit in Rights Abuses

Human Rights Watch

(London, November 25, 2003) The Sudanese government's efforts to control oilfields in the war-torn south have resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Foreign oil companies operating in Sudan have been complicit in this displacement, and the death and destruction that have accompanied it.

[The full report, Sudan, Oil, and Human Rights, is available at:]

The report, "Sudan, Oil, and Human Rights," investigates the role that oil has played in Sudan's civil war. This 754-page report is the most comprehensive examination yet published of the links between natural-resource exploitation and human rights abuses.

"Oil development in southern Sudan should have been a cause of rejoicing for Sudan's people," said Jemera Rone, Sudan researcher for Human Rights Watch. "Instead, it has brought them nothing but woe."

The report documents how the government has used the roads, bridges and airfields built by the oil companies as a means for it to launch attacks on civilians in the southern oil region of Western Upper Nile (also known as Unity state). In addition to its regular army, the government has deployed militant Islamist militias to prosecute the war, and has armed southern factions in a policy of ethnic manipulation and destabilization.

Human Rights Watch urged that the current peace negotiations deal comprehensively with the legacy of Sudan's oil war, particularly the ethnic divisions that persist in oilfields of the south and threaten the long-term peace.

The report provides evidence of the complicity of oil companies in the human rights abuses. Oil company executives turned a blind eye to well-reported government attacks on civilian targets, including aerial bombing of hospitals, churches, relief operations and schools.

"Oil companies operating in Sudan were aware of the killing, bombing, and looting that took place in the south, all in the name of opening up the oilfields," said Rone. "These facts were repeatedly brought to their attention in public and private meetings, but they continued to operate and make a profit as the devastation went on."

Conditions for civilians in the oilfields actually worsened when the Canadian company Talisman Energy Inc. and the Swedish company Lundin Oil AB were lead partners in two concessions in southern Sudan. Amid mounting pressure from rights groups, Talisman sold its interest in its Sudanese concessions in late 2002, and Lundin followed in June.

These Western-based corporations were replaced by the state-owned oil companies of China and Malaysia - CNPC, or China National Petroleum Corp., and Petronas, or Petrolium Nasional Berhad - which had already been partners with Talisman and Lundin. Following CNPC and Petronas, a third state-owned Asian oil company, India's ONGC Videsh Ltd., began operations in Sudan.

Statistics from the Sudanese government and the oil companies show how the major share (60 percent) of the US$580 million received in oil revenue by this poverty-stricken country in 2001 was absorbed by its military, both for foreign weapons purchases and for the development of a domestic arms industry.

"The Sudanese government has used the oil money in conducting scorched-earth campaigns to drive hundreds of thousands of farmers and pastoralists from their homes atop the oil fields," said Rone. "These civilians have not been compensated nor relocated peacefully-far from it. Instead, government forces have looted their cattle and grain, and destroyed their homes and villages, killed and injured their relatives, and even prevented emergency relief agencies from bringing any assistance to them."

The 20-year civil war in Sudan has been fought between the Islamist, northern-based Arab-speaking government and the vast marginalized African populations of southern Sudan, where the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) has been the largest rebel group. The war spread to eastern and central Sudan, and while the parties signed a cease-fire agreement in October 2002 western Sudan remains engulfed in war.

The report also covers the SPLM/A's role in the struggle over oilfields. The regular SPLM/A forces have carried out serious human rights abuses, including summary execution of captured combatants. Commanding officers of the SPLM/A have taken no steps to investigate or punish these crimes.

Peace talks promoted by a troika of the United States, Britain and Norway have been underway in Kenya since June 2002. However, the Sudanese government and the SPLM/A, the only parties to the talks, have yet to agree on how to share revenue from the oil reserves, most of which lie in the south. The northern-based government has agreed to a self-determination referendum for the south, but not until 6 1/2 years after the peace agreement is signed.

"The hundreds of thousands of persons displaced from the oilfields should be allowed to return, with guarantees of safety and compensation for their losses," Rone said. "This needs to be a central part of the peace agreement."

Sudan, Oil, and Human Rights

[excerpts from report summary; full 22-page summary and full report available at:]


The first export of crude oil from Sudan in August 1999 marked a turning point in the country's complex civil war, now in its twentieth year: oil became the main objective and a principal cause of the war. Oil now figures as an important remaining obstacle to a lasting peace and oil revenues have been used by the government to obtain weapons and ammunition that have enabled it to intensify the war and expand oil development. Expansion of oil development has continued to be accompanied by the violent displacement of the agro-pastoral southern Nuer and Dinka people from their traditional lands atop the oilfields. Members of such communities continue to be killed or maimed, their homes and crops burned, and their grains and cattle looted.

The large-scale exploitation of oil by foreign companies operating in the theatre of war in southern Sudan has increased human rights abuses there and has exacerbated the long-running conflict in Sudan, a conflict marked already by gross human rights abuses two million dead, four million displaced since 1983 and recurring famine and epidemics.

Forced displacement of the civilian population, and the death and destruction that have accompanied it, are the central human rights issues relating to oil development in Sudan. The government is directly responsible for this forced displacement, which it has undertaken to provide security to the operations of its partners, the international and mostly foreign state-owned oil companies. In the government's eyes, the centuries-long residents of the oilfields, the Nuer, Dinka, and other southern Sudanese, pose a security threat to the oilfields because control and ownership of the south's natural resources are contested by southern rebels and government officials perceive the pastoral peoples as sympathetic to the rebels. But the Sudanese government itself has helped to create the threat by forging ahead with oil development in southern territory under circumstances in which its residents have no right to participate in their own governance nor share the benefits of oil development. Brute force has been a key component of the government's oil development strategy.

The oil in the ground and flowing through the pipeline to the Red Sea supertanker port has driven expulsions from Western Upper Nile/Unity State, the area of the main oil production today. In earlier campaigns in the 1980s government troops and horsebacked militia of the Baggara, Arabized cattle nomads of Darfur and Kordofan, invaded from the northwest, destroying communities and expelling much of the population from the initial exploration areas, in Blocks 1, 2, and 4, dangerously situated on the north-south border of Sudan. (Map B)

In the 1990s the government embarked upon a more sophisticated displacement campaign, through the use of divide-and-conquer tactics: it bought off rebel factions and exacerbated south-south ethnic differences with arms supplies. Mostly Nuer factions with political and other grievances against the Dinka-officered rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A, referred to as SPLA when discussing the military wing), emerged and a bloody south-south war ensued, concentrated in the oilfield areas. Campaigns of killing, pillage, and burning, enabled by government troops and air support for their southern allies who served as front troops, cleared the way for Western and Asian oil corporations to develop the basic infrastructure for oil extraction and transportation: rigs, roads, pumping stations, and pipelines.

The relationship of the war and displacement campaign to oil development is evident: the oil areas targeted for population clearance are those where a concession has been granted and a pipeline is imminent and/or nearby. The availability of the means of transport of oil to the market makes the nearest undeveloped block economically viable. The agro-pastoralists living there then become the target of forced displacement. Since 1999, when the pipeline was nearing completion and Blocks 1, 2, and 4 came on line with 150,000, then 230,000 barrels of crude oil produced daily, the main military theatre has been in the adjacent Block 5A. Oil revenues enable the government to increase its military hardware: it tripled its fleet of attack helicopters in 2001 with the purchase abroad of twelve new helicopters used to deadly effect in the killing of twenty-four civilians at a relief food distribution site in early 2002, to cite only one example.

In a number of cases, international oil companies in Sudan have denied that any abuses were taking place in connection with oil exploration and production. Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, oil company executives have claimed that they were unaware of any uncompensated forced displacement as a result of oil operations. They have also claimed to have undertaken investigations establishing that abuses are minimal or nonexistent. As noted below, such efforts do not stand up to scrutiny. Increasingly, under pressure from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and some concerned governments, oil company representatives have claimed instead that they are playing a positive role in difficult circumstances to monitor and rein in abuses. As detailed below, such claims have consistently been self-serving. Human Rights Watch believes that oil companies in Sudan, seeking to make a profit in areas of the country wracked by civil war and often brutally cleared of indigenous peoples, have an obligation to see that rights abuses connected with oil production cease.


Ongoing armed conflict has led to continued flight; establishment of government garrisons has prevented the displaced from returning to their homes. While both sides employ modern weapons, the government has produced and purchased more and better weapons with its new oil money, including sixteen new attack helicopter gunships in 2001-2002, more than tripling its military helicopter fleet.

The government made civilian suffering worse by banning relief flights from reaching those who try to cling on in areas the government wants cleared. The government repeatedly refused international relief access to Nuer and Dinka oilfield areas that were in rebellion against the government, calculating that the civilians, who have lost everything in attacks on their villages, would be forced by famine to migrate elsewhere anywhere in search of food. It also prohibited humanitarian access to those recently displaced, if they remained in areas near the oilfields.

Even as the government entered into peace negotiations in 2002, it stepped up its attempts to close off Western Upper Nile/Unity State to all relief except that which went to its garrison towns. Finally, under extreme foreign pressure and in the middle of peace talks, the Sudanese government relented on humanitarian access in October 2002. The ceasefire, signed that same month, was broken mostly in Western Upper Nile/Unity State's oilfields.


Like other oil companies engaged in Sudan, Talisman knew or should have known that oil production was taking place in areas where local pastoral populations lacked the basic rights necessary to defend their interests. Talisman also knew or should have known of government displacement and attacks on civilians in its and adjacent concessions prior to its investment in Sudan; it knew or should have known that the government was attacking civilians in Talisman's GNPOC concession in May 1999 and thereafter, and that forced displacement of civilians by government forces was occurring in this and adjacent concessions. Although Talisman would occasionally protest to the government of Sudan (for instance, on the use of the airstrip), it also knew or should have known that government forces were targeting civilian infrastructure, including aerial bombings of hospitals, churches, and schools throughout the south and the Nuba mountains.44

Talisman's complicity in the government's abuses was not limited to its inaction in the face of the continued displacement campaign rolling through the oil areas. Its activities in some cases assisted forcible displacement and attacks on civilians. For example, it allowed government forces to use the Talisman/GNPOC airfield and road infrastructure in circumstances in which it knew or should have known that the facilities would be used to conduct further displacement and wage indiscriminate or disproportionate military attacks that struck and/or targeted civilians and civilian objects. Its activities also allowed the government to expand its program of forced displacement into Block 5A, which had been overlooked in the conflict until the pipeline neared completion just seventy-five kilometers from Block 5A's first drilling site.


Based on the findings of our research, Human Rights Watch concludes that CNPC and Petronas operations in the GNPOC Sudanese oil concession Blocks 1,2, 4 (and the operations of Talisman Energy prior to the sale of its interest), and Lundin, Petronas, and OMV operations in Block 5A have been complicit in human rights violations. Their activities are inextricably intertwined with the government's abuses; the abuses are gross; the corporate presence fuels, facilitates, or benefits from violations; and no remedial measures exist to mitigate those abuses. Human Rights Watch believes that a corporation should not operate in Sudan if its presence there has an unavoidable, negative impact on human rights. Human Rights Watch therefore recommends that all foreign oil companies immediately suspend their operations in Sudan, and agree to resume them only when certain minimum human rights benchmarks are met.


The peace talks in August 2003 were to discuss the outstanding issues. The parties were to decide, among other things, on deployment of troops and police during the interim period; the SPLM/A wanted two armies (the SPLA and that of the Sudanese government) and the government wanted a united army.

The future role of the pro-government southern militias, mostly Nuer, is crucial for a lasting peace, as this report illustrates. As of the writing of this report, the parties to the peace talks do not seem to have reached this vital topic. The government-backed southern militias, now organized under the umbrella of the SSDF, are not party to the talks, and their political counterparts, some of which are technically in the government, have not been allowed to play any role at the IGAD talks. An SSDF delegation was permitted to attend security talks in April 2003 and tabled a proposal for three armies during the interim period (the third being the SSDF). This proposal was not discussed nor addressed by the parties to the talks.

The mostly Nuer militias remain a stumbling block for the SPLM/A, which lays claim to govern the entire south. These militias (or armed groups, as they ask to be called) are also a challenge to the government, which does not trust them because they are southerners and continue to insist on the right of self-determination as outlined in the Khartoum Peace Agreement of 1997. Although the SPLA seems to have a position, from time to time, within Block 5A sufficient to block its development, the government militias are situated in different parts of Blocks 1, 2, 4, 5A, and 5 in Western Upper Nile/Unity State, and in Blocks 3 and 7 in the Melut Basin in Eastern Upper Nile also. These areas have changed hands often, even after the October 2002 ceasefire, demonstrating the parties' and the militias'/armed groups' continued high interest in controlling the valuable oil resource.

If peace is reached, it should mean that there will be no more fighting or displacement of civilians from the oilfields or elsewhere, and that the displaced may return to their homes. Whether they will return with compensation for the losses suffered and international monitoring of the parties' respect for human rights is not yet known. The serious human rights abuses detailed in this report have never been accounted for by any of the parties to the conflict.

Nor is it clear that the fighting and the abuses will end with a peace agreement. If peace means that the SPLM/A is the sole government of the southern region and it refuses to compromise or reconcile with the other southern military and political forces, it is likely that Sudanese government hard-liners will continue to use the SSDF militia/armed groups to foment war in the south in order to frustrate the goal of a self-determination referendum. In these circumstances, displacement and death in the oil war will continue to be the fate of southern Sudanese, even if a peace agreement is signed by the Sudanese government and the SPLM/A.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is a free independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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