|Commuters in London on International Human Rights Day may have found themselves reading a brand new newspaper called Ignite. Thousands were given away outside offices and train stations across London. Visualy similar to 'Tonight', a London newspaper that ceased publication last year, this wasn't some free-ads paper or promotional gimmick for a commercial venture. Ignite was the first issue of a powerful spoof paper, taking a stand against one of the worlds most ruthless and unethical industrys - the oil industry. A full on-line version of Ignite is expected soon.. in the meantime, here are just two of the articles from the paper..|
To Londoners, BP is a major employer and provides us with petrol through nice green outlets. To Colombian farmers, whose land and livelihoods are lost to BP oil drilling, protesting against the oil giant can mean death. James Taylor reports.
In the night of October 24th, in the remote region of Casanare in Colombia, two masked men broke into the home of Virginia Oballe. Virginia and her young son were dragged from their beds and shot.
In a country propped up by drug money and home to two of the most powerful cocaine cartels, this kind of thing happens all the time. What is unusual about Oballe's assassination is that she was a peasant in an area where the coca leaf is not a significant crop. Casanare's big export is oil.
Striking oil has become a symbol of 20th century wealth; its discovery supposedly guarantees the people of the region employment, security and comfort, as happens in Shetland, for example. But when the oil is found in a remote region of Colombia, it means profits for foreign oil companies whilst peasant farmers see their environment destroyed and their land taken away.
In return they are offered casual employement by the oil companies at subsistance wages. The long periods of unemployement between month-long contracts has led to increased alcoholism, prostitution and crime, but when the workers strike, the army attacks villages, women are raped and 'ringleaders' are killed, or disappear.
Casanare, in the Andean foothills, is now one of the largest on-shore oilfields in the world. British Petroleum, which has major interests in the Colombian oil bonanza, estimates the find is worth US$23 billion. For five years BP has worked with the Colombian national oil company, Ecopetrol, to extract the oil and gas.
But a recent report commissioned by the Colombian government implicates BP in human rights abuses reminiscent of those of Shell in Nigeria. In the scramble for oil riches, particularly in the developing world, human life becomes devalued. Carlos Arregui and Gabriel Asencio were both farmers in Casanare. They were both involved in campaigns against the oil exploration, complaining that the area was being destroyed and that local people were getting nothing.
Last year both were shot dead whilst sitting outside Asencio's home.
Arregui was Casanare president of ANUC, a national peasant organisation. He had been one of the organisers of a strike in 1994 over demands that BP compensate local people for the damage to the local infrastructure and-environment. His name had appeared as one of 49 an a death list written by a former guerrilla who had changed sides and is now working for Colombian military intelligence.
BP denies any involvement in Arregui's death, or any other human rights abuse, but, in the brutal world of Colombian politics, keeping your hands clean when dollars are involved is almost impossible.
According to Labour MEP for Essex South, Richard Howitt, the Colombian government report suggests BP's record is blemished
BP pays army with world's worst human rights record
"The relationship between BP and a Colombian Military involved in acknowledged human rights violations is one that is too close," he said.
On a recent visit to Colombia, Howitt was told of persecution, false accusations, murders, threats and disappearances. According to one local resident, "to speak out for the community for human rights or the environment is suicide."
In early September this year, a strike and a series of demonstrations led to police attacking the protesters on the 16th. Cameras and film were destroyed, one civilian was killed, many injured.
Dozens have died in Casanare as a direct result of protests against oil exploration, including Hostilio Salamanca, a peasant elder killed in 1991 by paramilitaries; Luis Jimenez also killed that year; Pablo Barrera who died in '92 and Pantaleon Gomez, killed by military in 1994. They were all members of the peasant organisation
known as the XVI Brigade was formed to
protect oil installations from attacks.
ANUC and found themselves on the front Irne of the struggle with the oil companies. BP's links with the military include a dollar a barrel 'war tax' which has netted the Colombian authorities $22 million (since Dec 1995). Beyond the war tax, BP have entered into a "voluntary agreement of collaboration" with the military worth $11.6 million over three years. This money is demanded to ensure that oil industry is protected from the country's civil war.
In 1991 a 5,000 strong army, known as the XVI Brigade was formed to protect oil installations from attacks. The XVI Brigade declared Casanare a 'red-zone' and implemented US style counter-insurgency tactics. These included considering any organised protest against BP as subversive and requiring similar pacification to that handed out to guerrilla groups. BP has financed the building of the XVI Brigade's barracks and other military installations.
human rights or the environment is suicide"
- local resident in Casanare
But the oil company's links go beyond the financial. BP photograph and film community meetings as part of their operations. The subsequent use of these photos has recently been very much under scrutiny.
A local resident told Richard Howitt, "they say there's a mechanism to consult people. Sometimes there are even signatures on documents. There are meetings. But there are people taking pictures, filming the whole thing. This then appears in the hands of the military."
BP deny these accusations furiously. But the government report provides strong evidence that this is in fact happening, and an interview with the Commander of the XVI Brigade confirmed that the pictures were "very useful" for intelligence work.
With the North Sea running dry, the company has had to look beyond Britain's shores. The stakes in Colombia could hardly be higher; one day's lost production costs BP $1 million.
In the pursuit of profit, one of our finest companies appears to have lost any sense of human decency.
This is the story The Times won't print. The paper had the facts on the first anniversary of the death of Nigerian environmentalist, Ken Saro Wiwa. However, within minutes of contacting Shell about this story, the Times journalist received a call from Shell's PR company. They did their job; The Times dropped the story.
Two of the 19 Ogoni in prison in the Niger Delta allege they were arrested and tortured by Shell police before being handed over to the Nigerian authorities. Shell admits it has its own armed police to defend their oil operations, but say that this is true for all oil companies operating in Nigeria.
The Ogoni 19 all face the same charges of conspiracy to murder for which Ken Saro Wiwa was hanged, and their case is expected to be heard before the same unconstitutional military-appointed tribunal. Saro Wiwa was hanged just over a year ago for protesting against Shell's operations in Ogoni, a tiny part of the oil rich Niger Delta.
In a handwritten letter smuggled out of prison, they tell the following story: On 20 June, 1994, Kagbara Bassee, 34, and Blessing Israel, 28, both of Bomu, Ogoni were on their way to their fishing boats in Cameroon.
Shell police arrived, the group were questioned and it was established that they were from Ogoniland. They were then arrested, "letting us know that...it was because of the activities-of these two towns Bomu and Dere) that stopped [Shell's] exploitation in Ogoniland."
"We were all tortured to an unconscious state, Mr Blessing Israel fainted because of a hard baton knock on his forehead."
The group were held under Shell police supervision for five days, with neither food nor water. When the son of the local chief pleaded for their release, the "Shell police replied that nothing can make us free from their hand, and that even if they forgive others, they cannot forgive the indegenes [sic] of Bumu and Dere communities because they are the causes of the hindrances done to their operation in Ogoniland."
After five days in Shell custody, the two were picked up by an armed escort and taken to Kpor, where they suffered more torture. "lt was even hard for us to actually know we have arrived at Kpor because...all our eyes, nose, heads were floating in blood; we were all beaten half dead and they told us that we the youths are the ones who destabilise the effort of the government and stopped Shell of [sic] their operation." The letter was smuggled out of prison a few weeks ago. It was confirmed by Israel and Bassee's lawyer, also acting for the rest of the 19 in prison.
The lawyer, Mr A E Robert of Port Harcourt, says the 19 "have been subjected to specially dehumanising prison conditions: secluded, frustrated and kept under strict surveillance."
Mr Robert has argued that the 19 will not face a fair trial. "No form of trial under the present circumstances will guarantee them fair hearing. It will be prejudiced by the Ken Saro Wiwa precedent."
The Nigerian High Court is supposed to review the constitutionality of the military-appointed tribunal. However, the High Court has not yet sat to consider the point—nor is it likely to. Meanwhile the 19 Ogoni remain in prison.
"The accused have been subjected to inhuman and degrading treatments,tortured by hanging, sharp objects thrust into their penises and manacled, in some instances, for 177 days," says Roberts.
Shell has confirmed that it will incorporate the Universal Declaration on Human Rights into its business principles. Despite this, Shell have said visually nothing about the plight of the Ogoni 19.