Was a Swedish Firm Complicit in Sudan's War?

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Malcolm Linton / Liaison / Getty Images

Sudan's 1983-2003 civil war was fanned in part by rival factions' efforts to control the country's rich oil fields.

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The risk of that kind of abuse prompted several governments and petroleum companies in 2000 to agree to a set of non-binding principles referred to as The Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights. "One of its key tenets," says Mauricio Lazala of the London-based Business and Human Rights Organization, "is that extractive companies should perform human-rights checks on its private security forces."

Unlike BP, Lundin is not a signatory of the Voluntary Principles. In a statement released to its shareholders on June 8, the company denied the accusations and upheld its commitment to peace in the area (The company referred questions from TIME to the statement). "We again categorically refute all the allegations and inferences of wrongdoing attributed to Lundin Petroleum in the report," wrote chairman of the board Ian Lundin. "We strongly feel that our activities contributed to peace and development in Sudan."

The investigation is particularly sensitive because Sweden's Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt, served on the board of Lundin during the years in question, which has led opposition politicians to call for him to stand down, at least until the investigation is complete. "I think Bildt should take time out as long as this investigation is underway," says Thomas Brodström, a Swedish member of parliament for the opposition Social Democrat party and former justice minister. "We've never had someone so high up in government accused of this kind of criminal activity. It's an embarrassment for Sweden, which is always talking about defending human rights."

Still, should the case go to trial, it may prove hard to prosecute successfully. An attempt to try the Canadian energy company Talisman in U.S. civil court in 2006 for human rights violations in Sudan was dismissed for lack of evidence. And as Kevin J. Heller, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Melbourne's Law School, who has written on Sudan, emphasizes, negligence — the contention that Lundin should have known better — is not a basis for prosecution in international criminal law. "The prosecution has to show that the company was aware of a substantive likelihood that their actions would result in a crime, or that they aided and abetted the commission of those crimes," he says.

For journalist Lundell, however, no amount of denials from Lundin, or legal loopholes, will convince her that the company behaved responsibly in Sudan. In the course of her research, she interviewed a woman in Block 5A who told of fleeing her home after her village was bombed by government forces and her husband killed. "The day after the bombing," Lundell recounts, "the woman saw oil workers coming down the road. As soon as the village was empty and peace returned, the oil workers were there." To Lundell, that suggests that Lundin was communicating with the military and may even have received the all clear from the people responsible for the bombing. Whether or not Swedish prosecutors will be able to prove such accusations, Lundin's operations in war-ravaged Sudan — like BP's off-shore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico — highlight how far oil companies are willing to go in fragile environments to feed the world's reliance on fossil fuels.

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