Talisman Energy, a Canadian oil company, has a lot of powerful enemies. The American administration, as well as church and human rights groups, continuously hound the company. Now in the wake of a long-awaited report on the company's Sudan operations, these enemies are angrier than ever.
John Harker, a former official with the left leaning Canadian Labour Congress, was sent to Sudan to probe allegations that Talisman is contributing to human rights abuses in the country. Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy appointed Harker in October of last year; three days after U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright alleged that Canada and other Western nations who invested in countries ruled by dictators disappointed her. She specifically mentioned Talisman and promised to take up the issue with Canadian authorities.
At the time Axworthy had also threatened sanctions against the company for doing business there. Talisman is the largest independent oil and gas producer in Canada and has invested approximately $760 million in its Sudan operations. It owns a 25 percent stake in a Chinese-Malaysian-Sudanese consortium drilling in southern Sudan.
Harker's report alleges that Talisman's investment helps fuel the civil war and cause misery, but does not recommend a ban on investments in Sudan or sanctions against the company. The company will be allowed to operate and Canada will open an office in Khartoum to monitor it and the human rights situation. The Sudanese Embassy in Ottawa welcomed the Canadian move. In a statement issued on February 14, Sudanese Charge Affaires Abd Elghani E. Awad El Karim said that the "diplomatic presence of Canada will also enhance the Canadian support for peace, and strengthen the ties between the two nations." He added "We re-affirm our full commitment to work seriously to find a peaceful settlement to the conflict."
Church groups and human rights organizations have expressed their disappointment and have intensified their campaign to blacklist Sudan. Earlier this week, the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom condemned Canada's decision as well.
The U.S. administration has tried to get Canada to enact sanctions since Washington criminalized any dealings with the Sudan about two years ago.
The Religious Freedom Commission is holding hearings in Washington to look into alleged human-rights abuses and religious persecution in Sudan's civil war. It is also looking into ways to prevent Talisman from accessing U.S. capital markets. The company's stock, which only recently started bouncing back, is listed on the Toronto, Montreal and New York stock exchanges. The company is already the target of a divestment campaign and has been dumped by several large institutional investors in both Canada and the United States. In fact, you can't pick up any newspaper in Canada, including university newspapers, without finding an article critical of Sudan and Talisman. Unfortunately, these stories often regurgitate press releases put out by so called "humanitarian groups such as the discredited, Boston-based American Anti-Slavery Group and the Southern opposition. And not a day goes by without at least one media outlet doing a story on the persecution of Christians in the Sudan and Talisman's connection to the government.
The lack of objectivity in the media coverage and Washington's hypocritical policy on Sudan is unbelievable. Interestingly, Washington's concern for its own interests above anything else is evident from the fact that Albright has granted U.S. drink and candy manufacturers special exemptions to purchase gum arabic from Sudan. Sudan is supposedly the worst human rights offender and a sponsor of terrorism according to the State Department, but campaign finance coffers need soft drink and candy producers. What else can be expected from a nation that has propped up more dictators than any other nation to ensure unhindered access for Coca-Cola and other American-made "necessities"?
Axworthy's response to the State Department must be lauded: "We make our own foreign policy," he told reporters. He added, "The issue isn't Talisman's role, but how you get peace in a conflict that has gone on for two decades."
What has been characterized as a war by Northern Muslims against Southern Animists and Christians is in reality a far more complex struggle involving a multitude of conflicts along tribal, racial and religious lines. The "bad" north against the "good" south is a false picture painted by certain so-called "humanitarian" groups with ulterior motives and the U.S. administration. The most deplorable aspect of this civil war, aside from the innocent victims on both sides, is the exploitation of the term slavery. Though Harker's report has not been made public yet, the media coverage surrounding it has been silent on the slavery issue. This appears to give weight to suggestions by some human rights watchers, that the alleged slavery may be nothing more than the traditional practice of inter-tribal hostage-taking which has been revived and exacerbated by the civil war and the diversion of aid money to "free" these "slaves." Clearly this is an issue of increasing supply to meet the growing demand generated by organizations such as the discredited Christian Solidarity International and the misleadingly named American Anti-Slavery Group.
One can only hope Axworthy will follow through and not cave to American pressure and propaganda from either side. A policy of constructive engagement is in the best of interest of the people of Sudan. And such a policy can only be effective if it is based on accurate and unbiased information.
Faisal Kutty is a Toronto lawyer and writer and is also a columnist for the Washington Report On Middle East Affairs