Norway Is Missing an Opportunity to Deter Abuses in Burma

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This week, we released a report focused on 15 international oil and gas companies that the government of Norway has invested more than $4.5 billion through its public pension fund. The report found that these companies are operating in Burma and are complicit in human rights abuses committed by the Burma army providing security for their oil and gas projects. As shocking as it may seem to those who view Norway as the bastion of ethical investment and responsible management of their oil revenues (through their oil Fund), the truth is that, by its own rules, Norway itself is complicit in (and profiting from) these abuses.

We released this report both because we have important information from inside Burma that documents the direct connection between these companies, their projects, and serious and on-going and likely human rights abuses, and because Norway strives to avoid complicity (and profit) in serious human rights and environmental harms through their investments. In fact, Norway should be commended for creating the Ethical Guidelines; a leading standard for responsible investment that other governments, and socially responsible investors look to for guidance on their own investment decisions.

We were excited that the report received such great attention in international media, in Norway, and within Burma’s independent media (DVB, Irrawaddy, Mizzima). We hope increased attention will lead to more pressure on the Norwegian government to follow its own Guidelines and ultimately, we believe this attention will lead investors to pressure the companies to take specific and timely actions to mitigate their harmful impacts in Burma.

However, in the last few days, Norway has responded in a confused, political, and very disappointing manner. The Ministry of Finance who ultimately makes investment decisions for Norway issued a statement, and Gro Nysteun, Chair of the Council on Ethics also gave an interview to Burma news group, Democratic Voice of Burma – both of these statements show that either these key decision-makers in Norway did not read our report, or are intentionally misleading the people of Norway about their own complicity in abuses in Burma. Let’s take a look first at the Ministry’s statement. A few key quotes:

“The Norwegian government . . .is therefore supporting the EU’s common position towards the country, which includes some restrictive measures.”

“[W]e have forbid the Government Pension Fund Global (GPFG) from investing in Burmese government debt.”

“It is important to note that the GPFG does not have any investments in Burmese companies.”

Let’s summarizet: Norway follows the EU’s common position (on investment in Burma), they don’t buy Burmese government debt (who exactly is buying this debt?), and Norway does not invest in Burmese companies. Well, that’s all wonderful, but our report was about investments by Norway in foreign companies (neither Burmese nor Norwegian companies) operating in Burma who are complicit in abuses associated with their projects. A whole statement and not one word about these companies, their link to abuses, or how this violates your own Guidelines?

Then Gro Nysteun, Chair of the Council, issued this statement:

“We don’t disagree on the situation in Burma but we can only exclude companies form the pension fund when the companies themselves are actively participating in the violations of norms,” she said. “If we were to divest from all of the companies that have activities in Burma it would be the same as an economic boycott, and the signal would be that all of those companies cannot operate in Burma at all.”

Again, either she did not read our report (which we know not to be the case), or she is intentionally misleading the people of Norway. The report very clearly only considers companies in Burma who are involved in projects actively associated with human rights abuses, or projects where there is an unreasonably high likelihood of abuses. There are many more companies held by the Fund who are simply in Burma, and EarthRights International does not single these companies out for violating the Guidelines because we have not established a clear link between the company, the project, and the abuse, as we have for the 15 named companies. We are not calling for divestment from companies doing business in Burma per se, but rather only those complicit in abuses.

So, if the Council on Ethics and the Ministry of Finance would actually just do their jobs by ensuring that Norway is not invested in companies who are complicit in human rights or environmental abuses, the people of Burma and Norway would be much better for it. Would this lead to exclusion of these companies from the Fund? Maybe, but at least the people of Norway would not be profiting from human rights abuses in Burma.

This post was written by Paul Donowitz.

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