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Sudan: American Interests and Christian Ethics

By Roy Nielsen

From passionate speeches to swaggering tough talk, the Bush administration has made it clear to the world that the United States has zero tolerance for genocidal dictators.

In the Pulitzer Prize winning book Problem From Hell: America in The Age of Genocide, author Samantha Powers recounts the decisions made by our leaders to deal with genocide. It is not something that can make us proud. Throughout the past hundred years, we have seen genocide in Armenia, Germany, Cambodia, Iraq, Bosnia, and Africa. In each case, it had taken years, sometimes more than a decade, for American leaders to decide if it was in the best interest of the United States to take action against the killers while millions waited and died horrific deaths.

American interests, of which American corporate interests is a major component, has been and still is one of the greatest roadblocks to saving millions from slaughter around the world. Understandably, national interests have always been a universally accepted tenet of international diplomacy. However, it has often been the definition of our interests, which has resulted in the hideous suffering of entire populations.

Should we not insist that American businesses uphold the same ethical standards in countries ruled by tyrants as they do in the "free world"? Could this not be seen as a viable American interest?

Recently it has been made clear that there are many incidents where American corporations operating in countries controlled by oppressors have been directly complicit in the mayhem. We have seen glaring examples of this in the partnership between Sudan's regime and global energy companies. Should we not insist that American businesses uphold the same ethical standards in countries ruled by tyrants as they do in the "free world"? Could this not be seen as a viable American interest? Insisting that American companies employ the highest ethical standards while doing business around the world is an important way of affirming our President's zero tolerance for ethnic cleansing.

One of our only tools to force businesses to stay neutral while operating in countries with ruthless governments is the Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789 (ATCA). This law enables non-U.S. resident victims legal recourse in federal district courts for compensation from American businesses that are complicit in human rights and environmental abuses "committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States."  

The United States Council for International Business (USCIB), American corporate leaders, and a number of organizations connected to corporate interests abroad are currently lobbying Congress to abolish this law. These opponents of the ATCA argue that it is an archaic law designed to fight eighteenth century pirates. Also, it enables frivolous suits against innocent corporations, and according to the USCIB, it is an "unacceptable extraterritorial extension of U.S. jurisdiction." They argue that while doing business in countries ruled by despots, international corporations could create economic stability and foster international diplomacy.

Surely, global businesses do have the potential to bring free world standards to underdeveloped nations. But we have learned from Enron and others that ethics will often take a back seat to whatever it takes to insure personal and stockholder profits regardless of its toll on others. When money is involved, the inevitable lust for wealth warrants strict laws to insure ethical behavior.  

Although ridiculous lawsuits make great news, in truth, courts rarely allow frivolous cases to go forward. However, all laws have the potential for such suits. Proponents of the ATCA point out that the courts have never permitted such frivolous suits to proceed under this law. Of the few cases currently before the courts, all clearly deserve due process. The Presbyterian Church of Sudan v. Talisman Energy Inc. , 01 Civ. 9882, brought before the 2 nd District federal court in New York in March 2003, is an example of a case which could hardly be called frivolous, and it demonstrates why the ATCA must remain on the books.  

The suite alleges that Talisman Oil of Canada, which is connected to the United States through its American subsidiaries, is guilty of complicity to genocide. Talisman's lawyers argued to have the case dropped because a corporation is "legally incapable of violating the law of nations." But the decision of Judge Allen G. Schwartz was that the court "rejected the notion that the reach of international law was limited to states and those acting under color of state law."

The dire need for high ethical standards in global business is exemplified by the tragic story of Sudan. In his report to the United Nations, Gerhart Baum, Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Sudan, said, " I share the view expressed by the International Crisis Group in its report...highlighting the 'ongoing danger that the dynamic of oil development represents for the peace process, at least so long as the government and a number of foreign oil companies with which it is in partnership are prepared to pursue that development by whatever means necessary.'"

For the past decade, scores of reports by governments, human rights commissions, and international observers have implicated oil companies in the Sudan government's vicious attacks on innocent civilians. Many of the world's most respected observers accused Talisman Oil of helping to fuel the civil war during its four years of operation in Sudan. Talisman has also been accused of being complicit in the government's crimes against humanity. This is why the Episcopal Church and numerous other large investors have divested their holdings in Talisman. (On October 17, 2001, the Episcopal Church disinvested from Talisman and other energy companies doing business in Sudan , such as BP Amoco, until a just peace is reached.)

The oil companies argue that their policies foster peace in the region. It's a weak argument considering they have been in Sudan for more than a decade and all the while international observers have been calling Sudan the most wretched place on earth.

Imagine the power the energy industry has in Sudan. The survival of both the Sudanese people and government are inextricably connected to the oil beneath their feet. The oil companies argue that their policies foster peace in the region. It's a weak argument considering they have been in Sudan for more than a decade and all the while international observers have been calling Sudan the most wretched place on earth. What would happen if oil companies refused to do business until a just peace with shared wealth was reached? The United States government nearly demanded this with capitol markets sanctions in an earlier version of the Sudan Peace Act but it was too controversial to survive the final version passed on October 22,2002 . Corporate interests would be jeopardized merely to save lives.

The power of global industry throughout the world is enormous, and can often be instrumental in promoting peace in many of the world's hotspots. High ethical standards on the part of corporations, one would think, help to foster a desire for democracy and civil liberties. They can raise labor standards in regions where abused workers suffer most. It is difficult to understand the thinking of many corporate leaders who turn a blind eye to the most hideous evils such as torture and slavery while operating right in the thick of it. Perhaps the new interest in corporate social responsibility will raise the moral bar high enough that companies, which make deals with the devil, will fade away. It's not likely.

The victims of the Khartoum regime's jihad, most living in the oil regions, have coped with disease, enforced famine, and unimaginable violence for over twenty years. Under the ATCA, at least some of these innocent victims will be able to have their day in court. And because of the numerous accusations that Talisman Oil was complicit in the odious crime of genocide, this corporation deserves its day in court too.

When companies operate in regions where governments punish criminals (and non-criminals) by amputation and stoning, merely doing business within the context of local laws and standards is clearly not enough.

Depending on your point of view, employing the same ethical stands internationally as we do within our borders is or is not in American interests. When companies operate in regions where governments punish criminals (and non-criminals) by amputation and stoning, merely doing business within the context of local laws and standards is clearly not enough. In reality, multinational companies will continue to partner with governments that are involved in terrorism, torture, slavery, and even genocide. In doing so, they can be major players in the diplomatic arena. But a non-binding code of ethics will not work. It's about the money. As businesses are bound by law to engage in honest accounting standards, a binding code of ethics is necessary for global corporations. The governments with whom corporations partner cannot dictate low standards.

Too often protecting our interests contradicts our Christian ethics. We believe that love and care of our brothers and sisters throughout the world supercedes other worldly interests. Indeed, in Mark (12: 29-31) our Lord tells us that this is one of our two greatest commandments. To say that no global business has aided and abetted crimes against humanity in Sudan, Myanmar and other terrible places is hardly credible.

There must be a way to bring these culprits to justice for the sake of our victimized brothers and sisters. At the present time, the Alien Tort Claims Act is all we have at the federal level. I urge that U.S. residents contact their Congressional representatives to say that the ATCA protects innocent victims and must remain on the books. Our values must include high ethical standards for corporations as well as individuals.

In terms of socially responsible investing, the divestment movement against the oil industry in Sudan is an effective and important tool for individual and institutional investors. As a result of the international pressure against Talisman Oil, the company sold its Sudan operation last year to a company in India. Since it was a profitable operation, the sale was surely because Talisman could no longer endure the moral indignation of religious denominations, NGO's, governments, etc. Such is the power of divestment campaigns. Luden Oil of Sweden is still there and they are now the focus of a similar divestment campaign. There is no better example of the dark side of globalization than the behavior of the energy industry in Sudan. Fidelity Investments hold a large amount of stock in these oil companies, so individual investors may wish to review their Fidelity retirement accounts and other investment packages.

We must keep the pressure on all those institutions whose relationships with Sudan are obstacles to peace.

 

Roy Nielsen is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and holds an M.Ed. in non-profit management from Cambridge College (Massachusetts). He is a member of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts' Committee on Peace and Justice. Roy's work on Sudan includes public education and the creation of a fund to support the Sudanese community, which seeks to support the Lanjini Girls Academy in Lui and other important development projects. He may be reached by email at wr.nielsen@att.net

 

Related Links :

We Are Keeping the Faith Alive Here... Where Are You? by Roy Nielsen, from the March/April 2003 issue of The Witness

Churches Pressure Canadian Oil Company from the Anglican Journal of the Anglican Church of Canada