Sudan: Oil Companies Alleged to be Complicit in War Crimes

Southern Sudan — A coalition of 50 non-governmental organizations claims a consortium of international oil companies may have been complicit in the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sudan during the country’s two-decade long civil war.

The oil companies accused include the Malaysian energy company Petronas, the Austrian energy group OMV and Sweden’s Lundin Petroleum, which had the majority of the shares and control of the oil areas.

The Swedish public prosecutor announced June 21 that he would investigate the involvement of Sweden’s Lundin Petroleum.

A report released last month by the European Coalition on Oil in Sudan (ECOS) details international crimes committed during a military campaign led by the government of Sudan to secure oil fields.

ECOS estimates that some 12,000 people were killed and 160,000 were displaced in the oil concession area known as Block 5A.  ECOS coordinator Egbert Wesselink said the military attacks constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.

“We’re talking about rape, murder, torture, arson, looting, arbitrary bombing by high-altitude bombers as well as by helicopter gunships, driving people into uninhabitable areas like the swamps where many people suffered and died due to exhaustion, hunger, diseases,” said Wesselink, who worked on the ECOS report entitled “Unpaid Debt.”

According to ECOS, the oil consortium knew, or should have known, that Block 5A wasn’t under full government control and that the government had previously “violently displaced the population to prepare the ground for oil companies.”

“That doesn’t yet make them complicit,” said Wesselink. “The complicity comes in when their operations not only triggered but also assisted the war.”

Wesselink cited the example of a road that was constructed to reach the oil fields that allowed the government troops to reach the villages and displace the populations.

Human Rights Watch found that oil revenues enabled the government to triple its fleet of attack helicopters in 2001 with the purchase of twelve new helicopters, the same type used in a February 2002 attack against a food distribution center in Bieh in Sudan’s oil-rich Unity State.

James Ninrew saw the attack, which happened as thousands of residents waited to receive food from the World Food Program.

“All of a sudden, a helicopter gunship appeared from nowhere,” said Ninrew. “First of all it surrounded the area. For sure they have seen that these are not army people. These are people distributing food. Those of us who know … this kind of [attack] helicopter, we warned people that these people should run away because this is not a relief plane. This is coming to kill you.”

Next, people fled and sought shelter in nearby bunkers. The gunship attacked, firing five rockets, according to the UN. Ninrew said he saw one woman who didn’t know what was happening.

“She kept on in the line, thinking that it is her turn,” Ninrew said. “So she was killed.”

Sixteen others also died in the attack. Ninrew, who is now the director of Assistance Mission for Africa, said targeting a food distribution site was part of a systematic effort by the army to clear out the population so that the oil companies could move in. He said the food distribution gave people hope.

According to Ninrew, the army wanted the area “clear of anybody so that they can claim legitimacy that the area is theirs. Then they can prove to the company, ‘You can come and do your drilling and exploration [here].’” Ninrew explained that because the area for the intended oil operations was not previously secure, “the government of Sudan proved to [the oil companies] that it can clear the area by displacing its own people, by killing its own people and that’s what happened.”

George Riak is one of the victims of this violence in the town of Leer in Block 5A. “Thank God that I was not shot but I lost materials. I lost 79 cows, I lost 51 goats and sheep. I lost my two luaks [cattle containers] plus my farms,” said Riak. In southern Sudan, cattle are essentially currency.

Under the comprehensive peace agreement signed in 2005 between the predominantly Muslim Arab north and the mostly Christian black African south, people whose “rights have been violated” by oil contracts are entitled to compensation.

Wesselink said now it’s in the oil companies’ “best interest” to reconcile with the population through compensation.

According to Riak, compensation should be for the community, not just individuals. He recommended the building of schools and hospitals. “Everything was destroyed,” he said.

The Malaysian energy company Petronas and Lundin Petroleum did not respond to repeated attempts for a response. In an open letter to shareholders, Lundin’s chairman “categorically” refuted all of the allegations in the ECOS report and stated that the company’s activities “contributed to peace and development in Sudan.” The Austrian energy group OMV spokesperson asserted that the company had fulfilled its “social responsibilities” in Sudan.