Swedish public prosecutor Magnus Elving launched a formal investigation Monday sparked by allegations that an oil consortium led by Swedish firm Lundin Petroleum may have been complicit in "war crimes and crimes against humanity" in Sudan. The case, which has links to Sweden's foreign minister, has raised questions about international obligations of companies to safeguard human rights in conflict zones.
The investigation into the alleged activity, which occurred between 1997 and 2003, resulted from a recent report by the European Coalition on Oil in Sudan, or ECOS, a group of 50 European NGOs.
The ECOS report argues that “the home governments of Lundin [Sweden], Petronas [Malaysia] and OMV [Austria] have failed in their international obligations to prevent human rights violations and international crimes.” It further charges that the consortium “may have been complicit in the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
ECOS hopes the criminal investigation in Sweden will have a far-reaching impact.
Percy Bratt, who is representing ECOS, says that one of the group's goals in producing the report is the establishment of effective “limits for companies working in these types of conflict areas with regimes that are committing human rights violations.” ECOS has also stated that it wants to push each country to speak with one voice on human rights.
"You have this strange incoherence in the policies of many countries where one part of the Foreign Ministry is promoting respect for human rights, and another part of the Foreign Ministry is promoting international trade and investment, and they don’t seem to know each other,” says ECOS Coordinator Egbert Wesselink.
In some parts of the world, he says, many companies are effectively working in a legal void because there is no functioning legal system. He points to the enforcement of national laws by these firms' home countries – particularly in regards to humanitarian and human rights law – as a remedy. Mr. Wesselink notes that such mechanisms are already in place, citing the Rome Statute and the International Criminal Court, but says “this idea has to be transferred to corporations and the people leading them.”
As for Sudan's victims, Wesselink points to international law on civil remedies and the precedent set in Bosnia, where an international commission was set up to compensate victims. He further noted the Sudanese Constitution states that the signatories to the oil agreements – the oil companies and the Sudanese government – are responsible for providing compensation.
The problems cited in the report began, ECOS charges, when the Lundin Consortium signed a 1997 agreement with Sudan’s government for the exploitation of oil in an area where the government lacked “full control.” ECOS says the civilian population was forcibly displaced and severely victimized during the government’s efforts to secure the oil fields.
Their report cites documentation of indiscriminate attacks, targeting of civilians, burning of shelters, pillage, killing, rape, abduction, and torture. It alleges the Sudanese government used “artillery, ground troops, helicopter gunships, and high-altitude bombers against the civilian population.” ECOS estimates that 12,000 people died and 160,000 were forcibly displaced through such efforts.
According to Said Mahmoudi, professor of International Law at Stockholm University, “if [prosecutor Elving] had not reacted to this report … probably he would have been, himself, under scrutiny." He later added that "you have evidence that Lundin knew about what was happening, and they just closed their eyes simply because it was a question of millions and millions of dollars.”
In 2003, Human Rights Watch also published a report on Sudan, a section of it titled “Lundin: Willfully Blind To Devastation in Block 5A." That's the same area cited in the ECOS report.
Foreign minister's involvement roils Sweden
In Sweden, much of the attention has focused on the potential for criminal prosecution of Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who was a member of Lundin's board from 2000-06. According to Mr. Bratt, under “Swedish law, if there’s a suspicion that there has been a crime within the company, the starting point is always at the top … the board and the managing director."
Opposition parties have united in questioning Mr. Bildt’s ability to continue. A former Social Democratic justice minister urged Bildt to take a “time-out,” while the Left Party demanded his resignation. Swedish Greens questioned if the country could have a foreign minister involved with a question of “genocide.”
For now, Bildt appears to be unmoved by the furor.
“He’s not going to take ‘time-out’ ... and he’s not going to leave,” Irena Busic, Bildt’s press secretary, said in an interview. Referring to the prosecutor’s written statement upon the investigation, Ms. Busic observed that it “doesn’t mention either Lundin Petroleum or Minister Bildt anywhere. So we actually don’t know what he [the prosecutor] is going to investigate.”
Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt’s media secretary, Roberta Alenius, says that the ongoing legal process “has to take its time and there’s no point for us to comment.” It is necessary, she says, for the appropriate authorities “to investigate if there’s anything to this.”
Lundin Petroleum had no comment, but Jeffrey Fountain, its vice president for legal affairs, pointed to an open letter on their website refuting “all the allegations and inferences of wrongdoing attributed to Lundin Petroleum.”