Security for oil & gas projects can’t ignore human rights

Security measures focused solely on ‘lock and key’ principles won’t prevent further crises.

In Amenas gas field
A community-based approach to security of oil and gas projects may not work everywhere, but a bunker mentality is an approach destined for further failure, writes author [AFP]

As oil and gas companies review their security plans in the wake of the Algeria attack, there will inevitably be a move towards higher, stronger fences and beefed-up security patrols.

But as the saying goes, show me a ten-foot fence and I’ll show you an eleven-foot ladder. Twelve years ago, extractive companies, human rights groups, and governments worked together to develop a more holistic response to security challenges — which should be applied even more vigorously today.

In the 1990s, oil companies attracted criticism for complicity in abuses committed by host governments. Shell was accused of supporting the Nigerian government’s execution of environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who had been protesting the company’s operations in the Niger Delta; BP was accused of using a rogue paramilitary group to protect its pipeline in Colombia.

Realising that there was no authoritative guidance for how companies should conduct their security operations in a manner that respected human rights, the US and UK governments convened a small group of energy and mining companies and nongovernmental organisations. The result was the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, announced in December 2000 by then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and UK Foreign Secretary Robin Cook.

The Voluntary Principles spell out how companies should conduct risk assessments and interact with both public and private security personnel. While recognising that business can’t (and shouldn’t) control the actions of government, the Voluntary Principles specify that companies should work with law enforcement to ensure appropriate use of force and equipment in line with international standards.

Since the Voluntary Principles were established, the list of signatories has grown to twenty-one companies, who report annually on their implementation efforts, twelve NGOs, and seven governments.

Critics lament that the Voluntary Principles are, indeed, voluntary; and that there are no meaningful penalties for signatories who don’t live up to their commitments. But some companies are incorporating the principles into their security contracts, giving them the force of hard law.

More importantly, the Voluntary Principles have made a difference on the ground. In the early 2000s I worked for BP in Indonesia, on a liquefied natural gas plant the company was building in the remote region of West Papua. The province was home to a separatist movement that had periodic clashes with armed forces, as well as the Grasberg copper and gold mine that has seen decades of conflict.

But a prominent police and military presence around the BP project would have led to tension with the local community, giving rise to the very violence we wanted to prevent. (ExxonMobil’s LNG facility at the other end of Indonesia, in Aceh, had to shut down for months in 2001 due to the turmoil in the surrounding area — which some accuse the company of exacerbating.)

So on the advice of human rights experts, we implemented the Voluntary Principles and instituted a community-based security program, not unlike the community policing strategies that many US cities have found effective. We hired local residents of nearby villages as guards, trained them in human rights principles with the International Committee of the Red Cross, and worked with the military to establish their base close enough so that they could respond in case of emergency, but far enough so as not to be on top of local residents.

That project isn’t perfect, but has seen little of the social strife that has plagued extractive installations around the world.  An assessment of the project last year concluded that the community-based security program “has been operating effectively.”

A community-based approach wouldn’t work everywhere — including Algeria, where oil and gas assets are relatively isolated. And the Voluntary Principles are not a panacea; they can’t stop militants and terrorists from planning and executing attacks.

But they do establish ground rules for how companies and security forces should conduct themselves; any steps taken to increase staff security should be taken with the Voluntary Principles in mind. As we have seen in the war on terror, sacrificing civil liberties in the name of security provokes a backlash that undermines the peace we seek.

Having visited remote worksites during my nine years with BP, I fully support companies taking extraordinary measures to protect their employees (which my former employer tragically failed to do on numerous counts).

But I also came to realise that the best security doesn’t start with a bunker mentality. I was less safe behind a concrete barricade than behind a citizenry and government that wanted peace as well.

There must be solid defense mechanisms to protect employees against incidents like the tragedy in Algeria. But relying solely on a ‘lock and key’ approach will only bring about more violence.

Christine Bader is a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. She worked for BP from 1999-2008.

You can follow Christine on Twitter @christinebader