A Crude Awakening to the human rights impact of the Oil industry

Our reliance on fossil fuels and in particular oil defies any sort of foreign policy rationale. Oil is sourced from one of the most volatile regions, the Middle East, natural Gas from Iran and Russia. None of these are exactly paragons of stability or 'friends' of the West.

So it makes real politick sense that the USA, the biggest of the gas guzzling Western nations,  should be sabre rattling over Iran; interfering in the internal politics of Venezuela in the form of supporting an anti-Chavez coup.; fighting a proxy cold-war with China and Russia in the  Sudan with its massive oil reserves.

However crude anti-Americanism is unhelpful, Russia has a long history of protecting its oil interests, many argue that the refusal to let Chechnya break away as a republic was motivated by oil. Russian attempted  to maintain continue control its oil fields and the major pipeline which links Siberia with the Caspian sea and he Black Sea, with the resulting bombing Groznyy into the stone-age. Only last year technocrats in Moscow flexed their muscles by shutting off the Georgian pipeline, restricting fuel during one of the coldest winters on record and ensuring that Georgia stepped swiftly back into line.

China imports 30% of its crude oil and China is giving billions of dollars in interest free loans to Sudan to improve its infrastructure. This will ensure that they maintain complete access to African oil raw material wealth. China has a very poor human rights record itself. but compound this by the fact that it was China and Russia, who both hold permanent seats on the UN security counci with the  power of veto, who dragged their feet about condemning the atrocities in Darfur by Sudanese Government sponsored militias.

So to focus on human rights since that is my field , lets look at some of the great guys that we are literally letting get away with murder and  torture and all in the interests of keeping the oil flowing.

One of the areas where the west is now focussing in an attempt to circumvent the Middle East are the ex-soviet republics around the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan, Kyrgistan and  Turkmenistan. However this new oil wealth or what has been known as the "devils tears"  has led to corruption, political instability and repression, environmental degradation,. Most “petro-states” have appalling human rights records.

Azerbaijan is known locally as "BP country", stability is obviously important for the continuity of oil production and  has allegedly led to highly fraudulent elections, which resulted in the previous presidents son, Ilham Aliyev,  being elected as the new president. His first act?To brutally crush the opposition arresting hundreds of members an killing others. The US respons…to congratulate him in his strong showings in the elections.

Russia, China, Iran and the West are all jockeying for dominance in the Caspian region for its resources and its pipeline routes. The war on terror has strengthened the US hand in extending hegemony into the Caspian area, setting up military bases in Uzbekistan, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan this has strengthened its geo-strategic leverage.

What are the rewards in that region, possibly 200 billion barrels of crude oil worth aprox 6 trillion. If US companies  were to ensure they could dominate control of the production it would mean that by 2015 The US would be no longer dependent on OPEC, who at present are Arab dominated and control the supply and price of oil.

To ensure that the US’s interests have triumphed in the region the US has courted some of the regions nastiest autocrats. The most brutal surely being Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov. Under his rule thousands of political and religious prisoners are in prison and many have been tortured and executed.  In the past the US have criticised Karimovs human rights record. But after 2001, when Uzbekistan allowed the US to establish a military base there they have turned blind eye to his human rights record and continue to fund his regime to the tune of 500 million a year. Karimov has been personally thanked for his help in the War on Terror.

The Niger Delta.

Sebastian Junger speculated about whether the current unrest kidnapping and sabotage in the Niger Delta , which is the US’s fifth biggest oil supplier. could bring about a US recession, he reports in Vanity Fair, January 2007, on a meeting in Washington in 2005 called Oil Shock Wave which  contained two previous heads of the CIA, the president of the council on Foreign Relations and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They speculated about  a scenario where there is such serious unrest in the Niger Delta that international oil companies are forced to pull out just as a cold wave sweeps the west and the result is the cost of oil would go through the roof.

For the person on the street it may affect their behaviour they would drive less or fly less, but the impact that it would have on the US economy, which is heavily reliant on cheap oil. Even more strategically important for the US is that the military literally runs on oil. Potentially threatening its national security. Compound this with any other disruption e.g. a terrorist strike on Saudi Arabia Disaster.

Transport costs rocket so goods rise in price  too, there is less money to spend on them, therefore there is an economic slow down, meaning industries layoff workers triggering a recession.

In 2002 President George Bush’s state dept claimed that that Nigerian Oil was so vital to the US economy that they might be willing to take military action to protect their interests there. So a worst  case scenario could  there be an Iraq 2?

But what is life like for the people who live and work in the Niger Delta?

There are poor schools, little health care, social services  or clean drinking water, few paying jobs; people scrape a living while oil companies pump billions of dollars of oil out of the land. This is not even addressing the environmental devastation caused. Ten years ago Shell oil was accused of financing government troops who arrested environmental campaigners from the

The oil companies actually arm some militias to protect their oil interests, playing the tribal card and playing the tribes off against each other.

And in terms of the big business of pipelines, Amnesty undertook research into the development of two pipelines; Chad/Cameroon and the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline project. In both cases the pipelines were vital to the economies of extremely poor countries and the oil companies tried to write into the small print that any disruption of supply, this is called "ring fenced liabity" which means thatwere to countries to introduce new environmental or human rights legislation in the future the coutries would be liable for millions  of dollars worth of  compensation, this would encourage countries to attempt to circumvent international human rights legislation.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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