Canadian Consulting Engineer

Profits and human rights

Early in November, Talisman Energy of Calgary announced it would be pulling out of the oilfields of the Sudan. Human rights groups had fought a long campaign to get the company to withdraw from the wa...

December 1, 2002   By Bronwen Parsons

Early in November, Talisman Energy of Calgary announced it would be pulling out of the oilfields of the Sudan. Human rights groups had fought a long campaign to get the company to withdraw from the war-torn African country, charging that the Islamic Sudanese government was using oil revenues generated by Talisman’s operations to finance its war on Christians and animists in the south. A Canadian government commission under Harker found evidence the Sudanese military were using the oil company’s airstrips to launch attacks on local civilians, and there were newspaper reports of children being taken to northern Sudan as slaves. Under constant media pressure — and with falling share prices as a result — Talisman decided it was time to pick up and leave.

Talisman’s experience in Sudan is an extreme example of the dilemma faced by any Canadian firm doing business in countries where human rights don’t carry much weight.

On page 20, Peter Ventin of Cansult describes its work engineering buildings in the Middle East, in particular the United Arab Emirates, a country of 2.3 million people, sweltering in temperatures of 40 degrees beside the Persian Gulf.

The Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs’ web site describes the UAE as “a modern, highly developed, dynamic and open society.” Yet the section listing its political and institutional status reads: “Last elections: none. Next elections: None. Suffrage: none. Unemployment rate: n/a.” Whoever wrote the first description evidently hoped to attract business and investment to the country. However, you can’t portray a country as open where no-one has the right to vote for its government. Women in the UAE are treated relatively well. However, next door in Saudi Arabia, where Canadian firms are also happy to work, women’s rights are so curtailed they are not allowed to drive a car, they are forbidden from some restaurants, few (7%) can work, and they must cover up or be harassed by the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

I have heard consulting engineers justify carrying on business with unsavoury regimes by saying the West has no right to impose its culture and political standards on other countries. For me, I’m sticking to the idea that every person alive has the right to equal treatment before the law, whatever their sex, race or religion.

Any company that profits from doing business in countries with repressive regimes has to ask themselves whether they are indirectly helping to shore up an unjust system. The question is whether it is better to engage in business and thus influence social and political change (the argument which Talisman used to justify its presence in Sudan), or whether instead it’s better to withdraw in icy condemnation.

I think it’s a matter of degree. We must take a stand with any country or client that is sanctioning crimes against humanity such as slavery and religious oppression. Other countries that are continuing on in their age-old traditions but are tolerant of other ways of life might be persuaded more gently along the democratic road. But for that shift to happen, those who are daily doing business in those countries have to be prepared to speak out loudly and clearly about the principles we believe in and why.


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