Business and Human Rights: the UK’s (bad) model

Over the past few decades, there has been a new scramble for African resources as foreign governments and companies have sought to control the continent’s reserves of minerals, oil and gas. As documented in ‘The New Colonialism: Britain’s scramble for Africa’s energy and mineral resources, a new War on Want report, 101 companies listed on the London Stock Exchange (LSE) now have mining operations in Africa – and combined, they control resources worth in excess of $1 trillion.

As in the colonial period, the UK government has used its power and influence to ensure these British mining companies have access to Africa’s raw materials, though it is not alone. Much of the Global North takes advantage of a global economic system – made up of regional, bilateral and international trade agreements – that opens up countries in the Global South for exploitation.

[How to steal from Africa, all perfectly legally]

Under the guise of helping Africa in its economic development – a mere continuation of the colonial paternal narrative – $134 billion reportedly flows into the continent each year in the form of loans, foreign investment and aid. But at the same time, an estimated $192 billion is extracted from Africa mainly in the form of profits by foreign companies, tax dodging, and the costs of adapting to climate change.

In short, the continent is a net creditor to the rest of the world to the tune of as much as$58 billion a year.

The case of the Western Sahara

While the scale and scope of the UK’s involvement in the exploitation of Africa’s resources is staggering, so too is the complete disregard for the rights of the people involved. A key example of this can be found in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara.

[“Only independence will restore us”: A Sahrawi refugee recalls Western Sahara’s invasion]

Morocco has occupied much of Western Sahara since 1975. Most of the population has been expelled by force, many to camps in the Algerian desert where 165,000 refugees still live.

Morocco’s occupation is a blatant disregard for international law, which accords the Saharawi people the right to self-determination, which includes the way in which their resources are used.  The International Court of Justice has stated that there are no ties of sovereignty between Morocco and Western Sahara, and no state in the world recognises Morocco’s self-proclaimed sovereignty over the territory. Furthermore, over 100 UN resolutions call for this right to self-determination, though UN efforts to settle the conflict by means of a referendum have been continuously thwarted by Morocco.

[40 years of hurt: The never-ending scandal of the Western Sahara]

Despite the Saharwi people’s right to self-determination, however, six British and/or LSE-listed companies have been handed permits by the Moroccan government to actively explore for oil and gas resources, making them complicit in the Western Sahara’s illegal and violent occupation.

Cairn Energy, based in Edinburgh and listed on the LSE, is one such company. It is part of a consortium, led by US company Kosmos Energy, that in December 2014 became the first to drill for and later discover oil off the coast of Western Sahara.

Saharawis have consistently protested against the exploration activities of oil companies, but by doing deals with the Moroccan government, oil companies such as Cairn have gained access to these reserves and are now directly undermining the Saharawis’ rights.

Foreign oil investment boosts Morocco’s frail veneer of international legitimacy, finances the expensive occupation, and undermines the UN peace process. As oil is developed, the economic implications for Morocco are huge, further cementing its resolve to hold on to its lucrative colony.

Continue reading on African Arguments 

By Tom Lebert