Tuesday, 11 March 2014

British unionists and the company they keep

Last week the Chief Executive of oil corporation Shell said a ‘YES’ vote in September’s Independence Referendum would introduce greater uncertainty into the industry.

Ben van Beurden’s comments were reported on every newspaper front-page and in every news bulletin.  The stories carried the same message, that the input of the Shell boss was a damaging blow to the case for Scottish independence.  Apparently, none of the journalists or reporters thought to ask Shell or Mr van Beurden why an independent Scotland would introduce greater uncertainty into the oil industry, particularly when Shell’s own website states the company “operates in over 90 countries and has around 101,000 employees”.

Shell manages to operate in almost 100 independent countries, but if the people of Scotland decide to govern their own country, then that would cause problems.  Clearly, Ben van Beurden’s intervention was politically motivated: he was doing a favour for the Tory-led British Government. 

Not only did the pro-British Union media ignore the reality of Shell’s worldwide operations to portray Mr van Beurden’s comments as a blow to the independence campaign, the Tory-funded ‘Better Together’ campaign also got involved, immediately posting an item on its website, declaring the Shell boss had said “there are huge risks involved in Scotland leaving the UK”.  Ben van Beurden didn’t actually say that, but ‘Better Together’ never let the truth get in the way of a scare-story.

Perhaps, though, the British Unionist coalition of Tory, Labour and Liberal Democrats should be wary of the company they appear happy to keep.

One of the independent countries Shell formerly operated in was South Africa under the racist apartheid regime, which treated the black majority population as very much second-class citizens.  Of course, the then British Tory Government, led by Margaret Thatcher, also supported the apartheid regime, opposing international sanctions and branding Nelson Mandela a ‘terrorist’.

In 1987, the New York-based National Council of Churches (Africa office) published a pamphlet in which the respected South African churchman, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, called for a boycott of Shell and its products.  The pamphlet explained:

“The Boycott of Royal Dutch/Shell is part of a world wide effort to bring about peaceful change in South Africa by ending international economic support for apartheid.  Shell is one of the most important suppliers to the South African government of materials essential to the maintenance of apartheid.  Shell fuels the police and military with crucial oil and petroleum products (South Africa has no oil of its own), Shell owns South Africa’s largest oil refinery and Shell exports key South African goods, particularly coal.  Instead of joining peaceful efforts to end apartheid, Shell is helping to prolong the struggle against injustice in South Africa.”

Shell also operates in Nigeria, where it has racked-up massive profits while wrecking the ecology of the area populated by the Ogoni people in the Niger Delta.  Local people have seen no benefit from the oil extracted by Shell.  On the contrary, some report illnesses caused by massive leaks of oil into the environment.

In 2009 Shell reached an out-of-court settlement, in which the company agreed to pay $15.5m to prevent a trial where it was charged with crimes against humanity, torture, inhumane treatment, arbitrary arrest and detention, and involvement in the execution in 1995 of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other leaders of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP).

Court papers had been lodged in New York by the son of Ken Saro-Wiwa: Shell was within days of having to defend itself.  The company denied the charges and said the out-of-court settlement was simply part of a reconciliation process with the Ogoni people.  The money was paid to the relatives of those killed in 1995, with part of the funds being used to set up a development trust for the Ogoni.

Between 1993 and 1995 Ken Saro-Wiwa was Vice Chair of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation (UNPO), which is an international, non-violent body representing indigenous peoples, minorities and unrecognised or occupied territories.  UNPO seeks to protect and promote human and cultural rights, to preserve the environment and to find non-violent solutions to conflicts.

In January 1993, when MOSOP organised peaceful marches of around 300,000 Ogoni people, protesting against the activities of Shell in their communities, the Nigerian Government backed Shell and imposed a military occupation of the area to allow the oil corporation to continue its operations.

In May 1994 four Ogoni chiefs were murdered.  At the time, the Nigerian Government had banned Ken Saro-Wiwa from entering Ogoni land, but he was subsequently arrested and accused of having incited others to carry out the murders.  Following a year of imprisonment, Saro-Wiwa and eight other MOSOP leaders – Saturday Dobee, Daniel Gbooko, Baribor Bera, Nordu Eawo, Felix Naute, Paul Levera, John Kpuine, Barinem Kiobel - were found guilty by a specially-convened tribunal and sentenced to death.

Some of the defendants' lawyers resigned in protest during the trial, alleging the outcome had been rigged by the Nigerian Government.  Many of the prosecution ‘witnesses’ later admitted they had been bribed by the government and had been told what to say in their evidence.  Two of the ‘witnesses’ stated that, in addition to financial bribes, they had been promised jobs with Shell, and that this offer was made in the presence of Shell’s lawyers.

Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other Ogoni leaders who had led mass protests against the activities of Shell were hanged on November 10, 1995.

More recently, in January of this year, Shell announced the sale of its Australian petrol stations and refinery to the Vitol Group for 2.9billion Australian dollars (£1.5billion).  Vitol's president and chief executive is a man called Ian Taylor: the same Ian Taylor who has donated £500,000 to the pro-British Union ‘Better Together’ campaign.

Back in 1995 Vitol paid $1m to the Serbian war criminal Arkan to ‘settle a score’ over a secret oil deal to supply Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia with fuel.

So, there you have it – Tory, Labour, Liberal Democrats, ‘Better Together’ and their pro-British Union friends.  What is it they say about being able to judge people by the company they keep?

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