By Pia A. Gaarder
The government embraces the recommendations for ethical guidelines for the Petroleum Fund in the revised national budget that was presented to the parliament today. The Oil Fund's NOK 845.3 billion will therefore no longer be invested with just returns in mind. If this section of the revised national budget is passed in the parliament, Norway will become the first nation to invest in line with minimal ethical standards.
The government gives full backing to the three mechanisms suggested by the Graver Commission in order to introduce ethics in the Oil Fund: negative screening of certain types of weapons, withdrawal from companies that commit serious ethical breaches and exercising active ownership in order to influence companies positively.
But despite the seemingly impressive ethical guidelines, the consequences of the of the proposals are more limited than appearances suggest.
Two years later
The most concrete consequences for the Oil Fund's portfolio lay in the negative screening: The government suggests that the Oil Fund should withdraw from companies that produce weapon types that contradict basic humanitarian principles, such as cluster bombs and nuclear weapons.
In practice this means that the Fund will continue to invest in conventional weapons producers, but that cluster bombs manufacturers such as General Dynamics and nuclear weapons producers such as Lockheed Martin would be excluded by the fund. NorWatch reported as early as Spring 2002 that the fund had invested in the producers of both these weapons.
Applicable human rights standards already exclude investments in chemical and biological weapons, anti personell mines, incendiary weapons (e.g. napalm), weapons with non-detectable fragments (plastic projectiles that cannot be detected with X-rays) and laser weapons causing blindness. Landmine producer Singapore Technologies is the only company that to date has been removed from the portfolio because the investments contravened Norway's human rights obligations.
The government also commits itself to the consideration that technological advancements advances at such a rate that that the possibilities of adding weapons and ammunitions to a blacklist would have to be kept open.
High withdrawal demands
Beyond negative screening of cluster bombs and nuclear weapons the Graver Commission contains a withdrawal mechanism that can impact on the traditional 'sinful' companies. But the triggers for the activation of this withdrawal are so high as to make withdrawal a rare final resort.
It will not be enough for companies to commit grave human rights abuses, involvement in child or forced labour, environmental pollution or corruption. It must also be likely that the company will commit similar breaches in the future, and that the actions would entail "an unacceptable risk to be involved" in such activities.
Companies caught in the act are seldom or never as arrogant as not to appeal strongly and take steps to avoid it happening again. Withdrawal mechanisms for the worst companies would therefore only be used for companies that are deaf or blind and do not operate modern PR activities to preserve reputations, AKA "reputation management".
But there remains an interesting opportunity in the government's proposal to withdraw the Oil Fund from individual companies in the tobacco industry.
In accordance with the Graver Commission, the government does not recommend withdrawing from the tobacco industry, but it is emphasised that individual companies can nevertheless be excluded by the exclusion mechanism if they pose an unacceptable risk of serious ethical breaches. The government adds that such a consideration can be associated with unethical marketing of tobacco.
It is precisely in this area that parts of the tobacco industry has behaved like unredeemable sinners, and can in other words be impacted by the stringent withdrawal mechanisms.