For 1.2 billion dollars, Talisman Energy is unloading the twenty-five per cent share it bought four years ago in a massive oil project in southern Sudan.
When Talisman moved into the East-African country, it became implicated in a long and bloody civil war between the Islamic dictatorship in the North and non-Muslims in the South — a conflict that has dragged on for nearly twenty years, killed more than two million people and displaced millions more. And those are conservative numbers.
Talisman’s business partner in this endeavour was the country’s government. (Sudan has been described by Washington as a “rogue” and terrorist state.) Dozens of religious and human rights groups accused the Canadian company of fuelling the civil conflict and helping to tip the scales in favour of the country’s military.
That’s because oil royalties earned by the government help to pay for things like gunships, bombers and “death squads” — the paramilitary goons who nailed spikes in the temples of people suspected of helping rebel troops.
It’s also alleged by many human rights groups, including Amnesty International, that the Sudanese military has used a Talisman airstrip to launch aircraft for attacks on innocent civilians.
The company has insisted it was an instrument for positive change in Sudan, pointing to infrastructure improvements for which it is responsible, such as a health clinic and water wells.
But critics have blasted the Canadian company for providing “moral cover” for a corrupt and ruthless regime in Khartoum, saying that the Sudanese government was murdering and displacing innocent people so that more oil exploration could be done, more profits could be made and shareholders could get a healthy return.
The allegations cast a large shadow. Many people — and, indeed, many municipalities, the City of Edmonton being one of them — profited from investments in Talisman Energy.
One of Talisman’s harshest critics is Eric Reeves, an English professor at Smith College in Massachusetts. The prof pulls no punches: “The sale by Talisman Energy of its twenty-five per cent stake in Sudan’s Greater Nile oil project marks the end of a deeply disgraceful chapter in Canadian history. Canada’s reputation as a stalwart defender of human rights and human security has been permanently stained by the complicity of a Canadian corporation in the ongoing oil-driven destruction of Sudan.”
Reeves goes on to point fingers at both Canadian politicians and the Canadian media, saying they share some of the responsibility for allowing the company to “exacerbate massive human suffering and destruction.” But, he says, final responsibility for this “moral catastrophe” must be borne by the CEO of Talisman Energy and the company’s Board of Directors, as it was they who “failed to respond to the devastating indictment of Talisman’s operations in Sudan, rendered by every single credible human rights report on oil development in this torn country.”
But, of course, Talisman was forced to respond. The company’s operations in Sudan had become a huge public relations nightmare, not only for the company but for those who invested in it. When all was said and done, it was the need to preserve profits and returns for shareholders that seems to have forced Talisman’s hand.
Talisman CEO Jim Buckee put it this way, “Although I believe our presence in Sudan has been a force for good, we are ultimately in the business of creating value for our shareholders.”
So Talisman is leaving Sudan, but its Sudanese headache will follow them. Skirmishes will continue in at least one courtroom.
Talisman and the Government of Sudan are defendants in a civil-suit launched in New York City this year by the Presbyterian Church of Sudan and a coalition of Sudanese refugee groups. The suit, filed in February, alleges Talisman and its business partner collaborated “in a joint strategy to use military forces in a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign against a civilian population.”
The company vigorously denies the charges and is fighting to have the case thrown out.
Two Alberta-based groups, Freedom Quest International and the Federation of Sudanese Canadian Associations, are thinking about launching their own lawsuit in Canada.
Mel Middleton of Freedom Quest says they’re waiting to see what comes out of the suit in New York. He thinks it might be possible to hold the Calgary company accountable under Ottawa’s new “anti-terror” legislation. Middleton says he will continue to press for accountability and for reparations to be paid to the victims of Sudan’s “oil-fuelled genocide.”
Natalina and Morris Yoll of the Federation of Sudanese Canadian Associations say, “Talisman’s past complicity is neither forgotten nor forgiven.”
The Federation is calling for compensation for damages and lost oil earnings, as well as criminal accountability for Talisman’s executive officers and its Board of Directors.
There’s a lot on the line with the Talisman lawsuit in New York City: a vindication or condemnation, corporate image, profits and shareholder returns. U.S. District Judge Allen Schwartz is expected to rule on whether the case goes ahead before the year is out.
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