Complaint against Irish oil company operating in Western Sahara

The Irish Independent has an article by Graham Clifford on the human rights implications, and potential legal challenges arising from oil exploration in Western Sahara by San Leon Energy, an Irish company. An Irish NGO, Global Legal Action Network, is said to be taking a complaint to the OECD national contact point established under the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. The activities of Irish companies in Western Sahara has been raised in the Dail on several occasions over recent years and was mentioned on the blog previously.

The Irish Government has made strong statements regarding the need to ensure that economic activities in Western Sahara are for the benefit of its inhabitants, as the reprinted Irish Independent article below shows, but it is not clear what concrete measures Ireland takes to ensure business respect for human rights when acting overseas. Perhaps the forthcoming national action plan on business and human rights might give a better indication. It also bears noting that the Irish OECD national contact point to which this complaint is to be submitted has been heavily criticised as weak and ineffective, so aside from the publicity that it may bring to the issue, it is unlikely to cause San Leon Energy to abandon its drilling activities. Nevertheless, it is important that the impact of Irish companies when operating outside of Ireland is highlighted in this way.

NGO slams Irish oil co’s Africa plans

Human rights groups are threatening moves to block Irish oil exploration company San Leon Energy’s plan to drill in the disputed Western Sahara region, which has been under Moroccan control since 1979.

Dublin headquartered San Leon Energy is facing a potential legal challenge over its proposed drilling activity in the disputed North African territory, which Morocco describes as its Southern Provinces.


Human rights group opposed to the drilling say oil exploration should be suspended while the future of Western Sahara is in dispute.

The Irish Government has previously called for a referendum to decide the future of Western Sahara.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan said: “Under international law, the economic resources of a non-self governing territory may only be exploited for the benefit of the people of the territory, on their behalf or in consultation with their representatives.

“Any exploration and exploitation activities that proceed in disregard of the interests of the people of Western Sahara would be in violation of the principles of international law.”

However, in a statement to the Irish Independent, San Leon’s executive chairman Oisin Fanning said its activities are legally sound.

“San Leon’s operations are in keeping with our obligations under international law and work for the betterment of all persons in the Southern Provinces of Morocco.

“Our operations in the Southern Provinces are in line with fundamental ethical norms, and actions to inhibit them are not merely incorrect but work counter to the interests of the local population and against the final resolution of conflict,” he said.

“The well we are now seeking to drill will ultimately determine if there are commercial quantities of hydrocarbon resources in the area.

“To object to our operations here, as some do, on the basis that they may further the interests of the government of Morocco is tantamount to objecting to the building of roads because tanks may drive on them – so may school buses, and goods vehicles, and ambulances,” he said.


This month San Leon signed a rig contract with French company Entrepose Drilling for drilling at the ‘El Aaiun-4 well’ in Western Sahara. Work is due to begin in August.

Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), a human rights non-governmental organisation run by Irish lawyers say they will take a legal action against the London AIM-listed company over the plan.

Ruairí McDermott of GLAN told the Irish Independent: “We intend to bring a complaint against San Leon Energy before the Irish National Contact Point of the OECD as soon as possible.

“The right of a people to choose how or even whether to use their natural resources is one of the cornerstones of international human rights law.”

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