French Oil Giant Accused of Myanmar Abuses
French Oil Giant Accused of Myanmar Abuses
By Julio Godoy Asia Times
Noviembre 2, 2002
The French oil company TotalFinaElf and its predecessors are once again under fire for allegedly unethical behavior in other lands, including human-rights abuses in Myanmar.
TotalFinaElf is undergoing its third judicial inquiry in less than two years. Prosecutors have presented a sad litany of charges of bribery and abuse ranging from Southeast Asia to Africa, not to mention France itself.
TotalFina, the enterprise that took over state-owned Elf Aquitaine in 1999 to become TotalFinaElf, faces charges over operations in Myanmar. It stands accused of ordering the kidnapping of local workers to force them to build a gas pipeline.
Prosecutors say that TotalFina made payments to the Myanmese army in 1995 to secure labor for construction of the pipeline. Their case is based on allegations of two former workers at the pipeline who fled Myanmar and now live in an unspecified Southeast Asian country. The prosecution’s case also includes testimonies of deserting soldiers who confirm the workers’ allegations.
The prosecution has pointed out that the International Labor Organization and the United Nations Human Rights Commission have repeatedly condemned working conditions in Myanmar, and the abuses committed by the military government.
The pipeline, which is now in operation, is considered the most important investment made by foreign enterprises in Myanmar. TotalFinaElf operates the pipeline with the US oil company Unocal and two other Southeast Asian enterprises.
The pipeline, some 700 kilometers long, links gas fields in the Andaman Sea with a Thai power station. TotalFina had charge of construction of 400km of the pipeline in Myanmese territory.
William Bordon, legal counselor for the two former workers, says the French company paid off the army to guarantee a supply of labor for the construction. Bordon is backing his case with recent litigation in a US court in which Unocal managers admitted that kidnappings and forced labor were used systematically in gas fields and construction camps in Myanmar. Last week a US federal court of appeals ruled that the workers from Myanmar had "amply proved Unocal’s complicity in the violations of human rights" and that the company could now be sued.
TotalFinaElf rejects the accusations. Director of communication Michel Hourcard says the company "respects a code of behavior and has always acted transparently". But Hourcard also condemned economic boycotts of dictatorial regimes. He said such measures "leave the local populations alone [in face of the dictatorships] and block all opening derived from economic development".
TotalFina had been accused in 1998 of working with the Myanmese junta in construction of the pipeline. The chief executive officer then, Thierry Desmarest, admitted before a parliamentary commission in Paris that TotalFina had engaged the Myanmese army to "protect the construction" of the pipeline. But Desmarest denied that the company was involved in forcing people to work on the project.
The new allegations against the company recall that the military units working on the construction were called "battalions Total". The prosecution says local villagers were rounded up in night raids and forced to work on the pipeline.
The judicial inquiry in Paris has also heard that Elf Aquitaine channeled some US$190 million in 1995 to General Sani Abacha, who was then dictator of Nigeria. The money was paid to secure drilling rights, according to evidence produced by French prosecutors. Philippe Jaffre, who was then chief executive officer of Elf Aquitaine, confirmed the payments during questioning by prosecutor Renaud Van Ruymbeke this week.
Jaffre also admitted during questioning that Elf Aquitaine paid illegal commissions to the president of Gabon, Omar Bongo, and the president of Togo, Gnassingbe Eyadema, that year for pleading Elf’s case before Abacha. The Nigerian dictator died in 1999.
Jaffre accepted responsibility for the payments. "The Nigerian oilfields were extraordinarily profitable," he said. "The payment of illegal commissions seemed obvious, because there was no other way to reach a friendly agreement." Jaffre argued that "there are countries where people make no difference between private and public money". He went on to name great French personalities of the past who had "amassed fortunes for themselves and for their families and friends, and at the same time served France".
Jaffre said, however, that "some intermediaries apparently received more money than foreseen". These have been named by prosecutors as Gilbert Chagoury and Ely Calil, two Nigerian businessmen close to Abacha, and a Lebanese intermediary, Samir Traboulsi. The middlemen are said to have taken $70 million between them.
All three have been charged with abuse of public property and influence-peddling. No charges have been brought against Bongo and Eyadema. Bongo has visited Paris often this year.
Jaffre and Elf Aquitaine also stand accused of paying for weapons used in the civil war in Congo-Brazzaville (also known as the Congo Republic) in 1997 in which more than 10,000 people were killed and more than a million forced to leave the country.
Officials from the Congo Republic have testified that Elf Aquitaine paid for weapons for the troops of former president Pascal Lissouba. The new leader, General Denis Sassou Nguesso, and arms dealer Jacques Monsieur revealed the deals after Lissouba lost the war and was forced to seek exile in London. Elf Aquitaine has denied any involvement in the war.
"Whatever the French foreign policy towards Africa was, Elf Aquitaine was only concerned with oil," said Jacques de Naurois, director for institutional relations for TotalFinaElf. "For the rest, we leave historians to explain and resolve the mysteries of ancient history." When asked whether Elf had been involved in arms deals, he said "No".
The judicial inquiry into payments made by Elf Aquitaine began in 1994, and is scheduled to be completed next spring. Forty-two former officials of the enterprise have faced investigation. Some have already been convicted and given prison sentences. Elf Aquitaine stands accused of paying illegal commissions to middlemen and to foreign and French officials in several other countries from Venezuela to Germany.
TotalFinaElf is also being held responsible by prosecutors for an explosion at an industrial site near the southern French city of Toulouse a year ago. The explosion on September 21 last year killed 31 people and wounded more than 3,000. The explosion destroyed neighborhoods around the site, and left tens of thousands homeless. TotalFinaElf is accused of negligence in storing dangerous chemicals at the site.
The company was also sued over the sinking of the tanker Erika near the French Atlantic coast in December 1999. The ship, carrying 120,000 tonnes of dangerous chemicals belonging to TotalFinaElf, broke in two. The chemicals that leaked from the ship polluted more than 500km of the French coast.
A report on the accident presented by the inquiry commission this week accuses TotalFinaElf of negligence in the so-called "vetting", a system of internal control in ships transporting chemical substances.
Lucien Bekourian, an expert with the commission said the quality of TotalFinaElf’s vetting was "clearly behind similar control processes in other companies". Bekourian said TotalFinaElf used the Erika despite warnings about the quality of the ship. TotalFinaElf argued that there are no international standards on vetting.
© Asia Times