International attention has once again turned to the murky record of BP’s oil operations in Colombia. The High Court in London is to hear a case against BP, filed on behalf of Gilberto Torres, a former trade unionist who was kidnapped and tortured by state-linked paramilitaries in 2002. In a trial in Colombia, the kidnappers said that they took direct orders from pipeline operator Ocensa, in which BP had a 15% stake. They stated that Ocensa paid them an extra $40,000 for the job.
Legal cases such as this are vital: they aim to hold corporations to account and to contest systematic impunity. Torres’s London-based lawyers hope the lawsuit will open the way to hundreds of other cases on behalf of community leaders, activists and trade unionists killed or ‘disappeared’. BP, which withdrew from the Casanare region of Colombia four years ago, denies any connection with paramilitary groups. It has said it will ‘vigorously’ defend the action and that Ocensa was not under its control when Torres was abducted.
The case is particularly significant because Casanare can be considered the birthplace of big oil’s concern with human rights. In the mid-1990s, BP faced extensive criticism for its links with the Colombian army and – by extension – with paramilitaries accused of assassinating environmentalists, community activists and trade unionists. The company was quick to ‘learn from mistakes’ and was one of the first corporations to establish a dialogue with international development organisations. In 1997, BP representatives sat down to discuss human rights with an ‘Inter-Agency Group’ comprising Oxfam, Save the Children, Cafod, Christian Aid and the Catholic Institute for International Relations.
BP went on to become a frontrunner in the recognition of human rights as a matter of concern for corporations. It has set the agenda by promoting corporate responsibility as an integral part of companies’ performance. In 2000, BP became one of the original group of signatories of the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights for the extractive sector. The UN Special Representative on Business and Human Rights, John Ruggie, visited BP’s human rights training facility for the Colombian army in January 007. He subsequently stated that the Voluntary Principles had been ‘implemented most extensively at the country level in Colombia’, with a positive impact on the ‘once notorious 16th Brigade’.
Meanwhile, in Casanare, the 16th Brigade was continuing to ensure it’s ongoing notoriety. According to a report by Colombian human rights organizations, soldiers killed Angel Camacho, just by BP’s Cupiagua oilfield, the very month of Ruggie’s visit. The report recorded over 30 extrajudicial executions at the hands of the 16th Brigade over the course of 2007 alone.