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A Corporation’s War in Sudan
by Steven Staples

Corporations today have gained so much economic and political power, they are now entering the world of international diplomacy. For more than 200 years, diplomacy has been the exclusive domain of nation-states who back political positions with the threat of force. But the shift in power and influence from the nation-state toward corporations is now so pronounced that it will not be long before CEOs will share the table with ambassadors at peace negotiations.

In the developing world, a corporation can operate within a region as an equal to national governments. If political diplomacy fails to fulfil the corporation’s interests, it can use its tremendous economic resources to fuel and even determine the outcome of civil wars. And in some cases, a corporation can become a combatant itself through economic warfare or by using highly-trained and well-armed private armies.

Such is the case in the tragedy of Sudan’s civil war. Since 1956, Sudan has been engulfed in civil wars which have claimed the lives of nearly 2 million people and have displaced 4.5 million more. But in the midst of the bloodshed, corporations are working with the Sudanese government to develop oil resources, providing money to buy arms and pay soldiers.

Human rights groups and churches are desperately urging governments to help end the war. Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy has resorted to meeting with a Canadian-based oil corporation with investments in Sudan to try to bring peace to the country.

On March 18th, The Globe and Mail reported that Axworthy met with executives of Talisman Energy Inc., a Calgary-based oil company which has substantial oil holdings in Sudan. Talisman is also part of a consortium of companies that is constructing a $1 billion 1,500 kilometer oil pipe-line from its southern oil fields to Port Sudan in the northeast.

The newspaper reported that Axworthy’s effort to bring a private-sector player into the diplomatic process was "unorthodox." But one federal official described the meeting as worth trying because so little else had worked to bring peace to Sudan. However, the official’s description belies the fact that Talisman is more than just a sideline observer in Sudan’s civil war – it is a major funder and ally of Sudan’s military regime and its armed forces.

Cooperation between Canadian oil corporations and the Sudanese government date back to 1997 when Calgary-based Arakis Energy Corporation began drilling for oil in southern Sudan. The government provided 1,000 troops to defend the drilling operation against attacks by rebels.

Since then, the number of oil wells has increased and so has the number of troops required to defend them. Arakis supported the troops by building a hospital, repairing military trucks, and providing electricity and water to the army camps. The result has been that rebel forces have targetted foreign oil operations in their war against the government.

Arakis was bought by Talisman Energy Inc. in October 1998, giving Talisman control of Arakis’ holdings in Sudan. In February, eleven churches and religious orders submitted a shareholder-proposal asking Talisman’s Board of Directors to make assurances that it will not materially aid the capacity of the Sudanese government to engage in the civil war nor to violate internationally accepted standards of human rights. Talisman refused to consider the proposal.

The Inter-Church Coalition of Africa (ICCAF) says that Sudan has some of the worst forms of human rights abuses in the world – and it reserves its harshest criticism for the Sudanese government. In a report released in February called "Cries from the Heart: Who will stop the genocide in Sudan," the ICCAF accuses the Khartoum government of waging genocide against non-Muslim ethnic groups, promoting chattel slavery, forced recruitment of child soldiers, and aerial bombardment of civilians in its war against numerous rebel groups in the south and north-eastern parts of the country.

There is little doubt that Talisman Energy Inc.’s investment in Sudan is aiding human rights violations. A spokesperson for the Sudanese government said that Sudan’s oil fields, and the Canadian companies helping to exploit them, are the key to "perpetuating the revival of Islam."

Lloyd Axworthy’s meeting with Talisman Energy Inc. was an effort to beat the clock before the completion of the oil pipeline at the end of the year. When it starts transporting oil, the pipeline will provide additional revenue for the government’s current $1.4 million-a-day war effort, escalating the civil war and Sudan’s arms race with neighboring countries.

The Sudan crisis may be a harbinger of what is to come in other countries. What will the future hold if the interests of corporations come in conflict with human rights? Will peace and security depend upon the goodwill of corporations – corporations whose only interest is maximizing profit for shareholders?

Efforts to promote peace, disarmament and human rights are inextricably linked to governments and international institutions such as the United Nations being able to control transnational corporations. Canada’s commitment to promote peace and human rights must override Canadian corporations’ commitment to make profits at seemingly any human cost.

March 1999

Steven Staples is an organizer for the Council of Canadians, and an executive member of End the Arms Race based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.