(First published in Norwegian 06 Jan 2006)
By Pia Gaarder
On 5th January 2006 Minister of Finance Kristin Halvorsen announced that the Norwegian Government Pension Fund - Global, better known as the Oil Fund (a national fund for long-term investment of Norway’s oil revenues) has sold off its shares in seven companies that produce components for nuclear weapons. It was also made clear that the French oil company Total is being retained in the portfolio despite its controversial activities in Burma.
The military dictatorship in Burma is considered one of the worst regimes in the world. The documentation on the abuse of the local population is plentiful and especially grave. The French oil company Total, previously TotalFinaElf, is the largest foreign operator in the country and has built the enormous Yadada gas pipeline, which the company owns together with a Burmese state-owned oil company, partly by means of forced labour.
Many Norwegian non-governmental organisations had expected the Norwegian Government Pension Fund would sell off its shares in Total, and the disappointment and dissatisfaction were great when it became known that Total is being retained in the Oil Fund. Many people started to wonder whether there were political reasons behind the lack of withdrawal from Total. The French oil Company is one of the largest operators on the Norwegian continental shelf and one of Norway’s largest private employers.
“Such an accusation is self-contradictory. We have already advised withdrawal from such companies as Lockheed Martin and Boeing. I deny categorically that such factors have been taken into consideration in the decision”, Gro Nystuen, the leader of the Oil Fund’s ethical council, told Norwatch.
The limitations of the rules
The ethical council’s recommendation does not invalidate either the breaches of human rights the regime is guilty of or the fact that the pipeline was built partly by means of forced labour. Nevertheless, the council believes that the ethical guidelines do not provide grounds for withdrawal. There must in fact exist “an unacceptable risk of contributing” to unethical activities in the future, which in reality creates much room for interpretation.
Already at the time the ethical guidelines were introduced Norwatch pointed out that the requirements for activating the withdrawal mechanism for individual controversial companies are so high that withdrawal can seldom be considered. It is not enough that a company has committed grave breaches of human rights or carried out child or forced labour, environmental damage, or corruption. It must also be probable that the company will commit such breaches again and that “an unacceptable risk of contributing” to such activities will develop for the Oil Fund in the future.
It is precisely this last formulation that recurs in the Ethical Council’s 22-page assessment of Total’s operations in Burma and which is the reason that the Ethical Council does not recommend withdrawal from Total. The weakness therefore seems to a large extent to lie in the guidelines themselves.
“In your recommendation you wrote that Total denies having committed breaches of human rights and that the company claims having demanded of the security forces that forced labour would not be used to the benefit of the gas pipeline. Since the council confirms that the abuses have occurred and the company itself denies the abuses, how can you believe that Total will behave better in the future?”, Norwatch asked.
“This is based on the information we have obtained about what is happening in Burma and is described in detail in the recommendation. Total no longer operates in the same manner as previously in Burma. Even though Total itself does not say so directly, the company has changed its politics. Our conclusion is that today Total does not contribute to breaches of human rights in the pipe trench where the company has influence,” Nystuen answered.
Profits from Abuses
“But Total continues to profit from past abuses. The company uses the same production system that was built up by means of forced labour and which today generates profits. Could this not be a present and future element that also according to today’s rules could qualify for withdrawal?”
“We discussed this too in the recommendation. The question is where to draw the line. I am receptive to that in certain cases one can make such considerations. But the problem is also very specific: what about things developed 50 years ago?”, asked Nystuen.
“Total has, with its eyes wide open, gone into a country with one of the world’s worst military regimes. The company has entered into a joint venture with a Burmese state-owned company, and they have known that the military regime thereby would be supplied with money that is not used to build up the country but to keep a military state alive. Total has known about transfer of large population groups, about the use of forced labour, and about abuses by the military during the building of the pipeline. Is this in itself not an unethical action that qualifies for withdrawal also with today’s ethical guidelines?”
“One can of course ask whether Total’s involvement in Burma in itself is unethical. I do understand that discretionary considerations are involved here. It is not my job to comment on the ethical guidelines, but they are clearly the result of a political compromise. Some people believe they do not go far enough, others that they go too far. The criticism that the ethical guidelines do not go far enough is a fair point of view in my opinion. But we have regarded today’s guidelines loyally, from a purely legal approach,” Nystuen explained.
She added: “This is not mathematics. There is no reason to pretend that evaluations have not been made. We could perhaps have reached other conclusions. But we have read the preparatory work for the ethical guidelines and the provisions made there and feel that we can vouch for the interpretation of the guidelines on which we have based our conclusion.”
The Ethical Council received the case from the Department of Finance on 13 April 2005 and only delivered its recommendation 7 months later. In other words, the case has taken an extremely long time.
“We have had many rounds about this case internally in the council. We have also had many rounds to obtain documentation. But if any new information should turn up, we can consider the case again,” Nystuen said.
The Norwegain Petroleum Fund is now called The Norwegian Government Pension Fund - Global