21 When oil companies volunteer

This article first was written for 234NEXT in November 2010[1]

Since oil companies gained dominance of the world economic system, literally driving the engines of industrialisation and modern fossil civilisation, they have taken several steps that have endangered humanity.

The massive burning of fossil fuels, such as oil and gas, has contributed immensely to the stoking of the atmosphere with greenhouse gases responsible for global warming.

The sector is also known to have been responsible for environmental and human rights abuses in the world. The presentation of their commodity as the cheapest form of available energy has been sustained over a century by cost externalisation to the voiceless, whose environments have been heavily assaulted. The energy wars that are sometimes masked as war on terror are also well known. The contribution of oil companies to human misery is well documented.

Although the leopard may not change its spots, the companies have not been blind to the woes they generate. One of the steps they have taken to cushion the impact of their harm has unfortunately been nothing more than hogwash. One subtle way this has been done has been to plant into public minds that they are not oil, but energy companies. The difference may be subtle, but it seeks to erode the stink that the former name carries. We insist on calling them by the name that best describes them and to avoid grouping them in the same slot as clean energy producing companies.

Apart from change of nomenclature, the fossil fuel sector has etched some oxymorons into public minds, making people accept clearly contradictory terms as being logical. Take the example of clean coal. What is that? There are others, but this is not the focus of our discussion today.

Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights

Some oil companies, including Shell and Chevron, have signed up to what is known as Voluntary Principles[2], by which they solemnly declare how they would change their corporate practices in the area of security and human rights.

The question this raises is whether the endorsement of these voluntary and non-binding principles has brought about any positive change. The Voluntary Principles are not even known to be in existence by many. We will touch briefly on some key areas of the principles. You are urged to ask how those principles are applied in Nigerian oil fields.

The companies say they will report payments made to security forces or, in our case, to the Nigerian government for supply of security cover for company operations. If such records were properly kept, it would be possible for such companies to be held accountable where funds are tied to incidents that resulted in human rights abuses. If a company pays money to the military, for example, and the funds support an assault on a community, the link should be transparently traceable for this clause to make sense.

A look at the Voluntary Principles appears to start from the premise that oil company security depends on the actions of the country’s security forces. This thinking has maintained the relationship with the Nigerian military and police and continues to encourage abuse. It also often precipitates clear acts of mayhem. Oil companies sometimes review their security arrangements to determine if the relationship they have built with the security forces has been a credit or a liability.

A review conducted by Chevron in 1999 found that Nigerian security forces were actually more of a liability than a benefit[3], and that they were prone to cause great harm both to Delta residents and company employees. Shell, on its part admitted in a 2003 security review that it had contributed to the rise of conflict and corruption in the Delta region through its relationship with security forces. The question is, what changes have they made?

We submit here that if the official security forces provide a safe atmosphere for ordinary citizens, corporate citizens would also enjoy the same. Moreover, if oil companies maintain their equipment, operate with the same standards they apply in their home countries, and respect community rights, there would be no need for special security arrangements that must be eating into their resources.

The Voluntary Principles also require that oil companies communicate effectively on Human Rights Principles to security forces and ensure proper training, and screening of known human rights abusers.

Security officers of corporations and public security forces are often tied together in mutually dependent arrangements, whereby governments take primary responsibility for security and the private entity provides resources and logistical support. To what extent have the guidelines provided in the Principles been used to ensure that the conduct of the forces abides by human rights law?

Holding Individuals Accountable

It is known that oil companies do keep security logs showing records of security incidents as they occur at their facilities. They should also be required to keep full records of incidents in which local residents are injured or killed in confrontations with government security forces, acting to secure the interest of the companies. Such incidents should also be reported promptly and publicly. Individuals indicted should be held accountable.

The Voluntary Principles provide an opportunity for the Nigerian legislative houses at the state and federal levels to take their provisions, review, and enact them into law. The oil companies may have endorsed the principles as a way of beefing up their public image and presenting the face of companies that care about human rights.

Enacting same into law will encourage the companies to implement them by making them mandatory principles. It will also help the companies to bridge a part of the huge deficits they have accumulated in terms of transparency in their activities.


  1. It can be accessed at http://nigeriang.com/money/oil-politics-when-oil-companies-volunteer/5350/ (accessed 7 june 2016)
  2. See the principles at http://www.voluntaryprinciples.org/ (accessed 7 June 2016)
  3. This was stated in theDeclaration of Scott Davis in Bowoto v. Chevron Corp., para. 41 (filed in the USA, Nov. 22, 2006). See also at https://ccrjustice.org/home/get-involved/tools-resources/fact-sheets-and-faqs/factsheet-case-against-shell where we are told that in the Bowoto case, 'The victims of the [armed forces] were targeted because they were oil protesters, or because they were associated with oil protesters . . . . Though the evidence indicates that the [armed forces] were not particularly selective in choosing their targets, the victims . . . were not targeted . . . simply because they were civilians.' P.22 Weblink (accessed 7 June 2016)

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