Burma: Norwegian Parliament Must Overrule the Advisory Council on Ethics
Pia A. Gaarder
At least 20 companies in the portfolio of the Government Pension Fund – Global can, according to the Advisory Council on Ethics, be involved in the Burmese energy sector, mining operations, oil and gas, hydroelectric power, telecommunications, banking, pharmacy, and hotel management.
Even though these companies provide the economic basis for the military junta and enter into direct partnership with the regime, the ethical guidelines do not permit exclusion of the companies from the Government Pension Fund – Global. According to the Advisory Council, it is not enough to generate revenues for an oppressive regime:
“Even though it can be inferred that the presence of a company generates revenues for the repressive regime and thereby contributes to uphold it, such a connection between a company and the state’s unethical actions would not, in itself, be sufficient to exclude a company from the Fund. This applies regardless of where companies operate, including in Burma”, the Ethical Council wrote in its reply to the Ministry of Finance, which was made public recently.
No to Exclusion
It was the Minister of Finance, Kristin Halvorsen, who, because of the extreme situation in Burma, asked the Advisory Council on Ethics to examine all companies in the Pension Fund’s portfolio, which have invested in Burma. In a letter to the Advisory Council at the end of September the Ministry of Finance pointed out that government bonds from Burma are excluded from the investment universe and requested an evaluation of the international companies that operate in Burma.
The reply was made public recently. And the answer was no to a general exclusion.
In an almost four-page-long letter the Advisory Council determined that there are no grounds for excluding companies only because they operate in Burma. The Advisory Council emphasises, however, that it will constantly keep an eye on the situation and that it will recommend exclusion of companies that enter into agreements for the construction of overland pipelines in Burma.
The situation in Burma is such that the Advisory Council considers that the construction of a pipeline will with great probability entail new abuses such as forced labour and forced relocations.
The Parliament Can Decide
“This is disappointing. If it is not possible to exclude companies that contribute to the maintenance of the military junta in Burma, then the ethical guidelines are not satisfactory. But the situation in Burma is such that we cannot wait for a revision of the guidelines. Pressure must be put on the junta now. The Parliament can therefore overrule the Advisory Council’s decision by means of a political resolution that quite simply forbids trade with and investments in Burma”, Inger Lise Husøy, general manager of the Norwegian Burma Committee, told Norwatch.
She points out that several politicians have commented very negatively on the Norwegian interests in Burma and that the right moment to act is now. “The military junta in Burma is under great pressure. If the Norwegian Pension Fund excludes companies that operate in Burma, the pressure will increase further. That will constitute a strong signal to the junta and a threat that the rest of world may do the same.”
The Pension Fund does not have direct investments in Burma but is heavily involved in the oil companies Total, PetroChina and Daewoo, which have been designated as infamous companies that support the regime. The French oil company Total has been strongly criticised for having utilised forced labour and for not having stopped the terrorising of the local population during the construction of pipelines.
The Pension Fund has invested about NOK 6.8 billion (1,26 billion $ - 886,6 million €) in Total, NOK 100 million (13 million €) in Daewoo, and NOK 140 million (18,3 million €) in PetroChina.
The Norwegian newspaper Stavanger Aftenblad has calculated that the Pension Fund in addition has investments for close to NOK 14 billion (1,83 billion €) in several other companies that, according to the organisation Global Union, operate in Burma, such as Nestlé, Siemens and Deutsche Bank.
The Advisory Council on Ethics has previously concluded that there is no basis for excluding the French oil company Total from the Fund, even though the Council believes it has been documented that during the construction of the pipeline the company utilised forced labour and contributed to the commission of a series of human rights breaches.
But the ethical guidelines have purposely been constructed so that it will be difficult to exclude a company from the Fund.
In its letter the Ethical Council points out that two basic criteria must be present for exclusion: “First, there must be a connection between the company’s operations and the relevant violations. Second, there must be an unacceptable risk for the company, and thus also, for the Fund, of contributing to future violations.”
In other words, it is not enough to document that the companies have contributed to severe human rights violations in the past. There must exist an imminent danger that the abuses will be repeated.
The guidelines therefore do not make it possible to punish a company for abuses in the past so long as the company promises to turn over a new leaf and is not in a similar situation that can trigger new abuses.
And financing a regime like that in Burma through direct profits and through taxes does not at all constitute grounds for exclusion.
The ethical guidelines will undergo an evaluation process starting at the turn of the year. The Ministry of Finance is inviting as many as possible to participate.