Ireland’s Tullow Oil and the threat to human rights in Uganda

The first in a series of reports by ActionAid International Uganda and the International Peace Information Service has highlighted the potential for human rights violations in Uganda in connection with the growing oil industry there. The role of a number of international companies are mentioned in the report, including that of Tullow Oil, one of Ireland’s largest oil companies (the report describes Tullow Oil as a British company, given that it is listed on both the Irish and London Stock Exchanges).

The report notes that there are real risks to human rights from the emerging oil industry across a range of areas, including “governance and democracy, water, health, livelihoods, community structure and dynamics, indigenous populations, land use, labour, health and safety, wages, freedom of association and expression, [and] freedom from arbitrary detention”. There is also the risk of conflict associated with resource extraction. The report also notes that several Ugandan ministers were accused, and subsequently exonerated, of receiving bribes from Tullow, and of the general lack of transparency in the agreements made between companies and the Ugandan government. It is fair to say that Tullow has been mired in controversy in relation to its dealings in Uganda.

In the context of human rights, the report’s warning of significant risks is not to be taken lightly. The authors note the criticism of Tullow for how it has handled land compensation claims, citing a considerable backlog in the processing of payments. Disputes have arisen concerning the ownership of land where Tullow has been operating. The company has also been criticised for the actions of a sub-contractor, which saw human waste dumped in the vicinity of a number of local villages.

The company has a human rights policy on its website, alongside voluminous glossy materials regarding its corporate social responsibility. The human rights policy is a fairly cursory effort, which seems little more than a public relations exercise. The company claims that it “supports and respects the protection of internationally recognised Human Rights” – a garbled version of the UN framework on business and human rights. The policy even notes that the company may effectively deny rights to its employees that it would have to respect in Ireland or the UK:

All employees have the right to join trade unions, where such rights are recognised by law.

There is no mention of how Tullow Oil’s human rights policy is to be enforced, including whether any independent assessment of the company’s performance is to be undertaken.

The situation in Uganda provides something of a test case for Ireland to ensure that Irish companies respect human rights when operating overseas. There has been a big push lately from the government to help companies trade and invest in Africa. The private sector is also seen to have an important role to play in Ireland’s policy on international development. This is set out most clearly in One World, One Future, the new policy document issued by Irish Aid earlier in the year. It has been pointed out that the CEO of Tullow Oil, Aidan Heavey, had pushed for the recognition of the role of the private sector in development over the past decade.

The Irish Aid policy document marks, to the best of my knowledge, the first explicit commitment by the Irish Government to the UN Framework and Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: 

We will strive to ensure that economic development, including engagement by Irish companies, is compatible with our commitment to human rights, such as in relation to gender equality, decent work, and the rights of marginalised groups. We will be guided by the UN policy framework for better managing business and human rights challenges. This is based on the duty of states to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, and the improved ability of victims to access an appropriate remedy when violations take place.

No explanation is provided as to what this will mean in practice for Irish companies operating overseas, and the commitment itself is less than full blooded. This is an obvious shortcoming of the UN Framework and Guiding Principles, in that it is largely left to States and companies to pick and choose which of the guidance they will abide by, or which they will simply ignore.

There are various measures which can be undertaken to ensure respect for human rights by companies, if the political commitment is there. The Irish Centre for Human Rights examined a number of these in our 2012 Business and Human Rights in Ireland report. These include human rights compliance as a condition for securing Government contracts or State funding, reporting obligations for companies trading on the stock exchange, and stronger remedies for victims, including when violations occur outside of Ireland. There needs to be more substance to the pronouncements of both Irish Aid and Tullow Oil if the claimed commitment to ensuring that Irish businesses respect human rights is to prove meaningful.

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