Norway accused of funding abuse in Burma

State pension fund invested billions in energy projects, report says

The Norwegian government has been accused of complicity in illegal land seizures, forced labour and killings, by investing national funds in international companies that operate inside Burma on projects where widespread abuses are alleged to have taken place.

A state-controlled pension fund that is a repository for some of Norway's own oil wealth has invested up to $4.7bn in 15 oil and gas companies operating inside the South-east Asian country.

The companies are accused of participating in projects where various human rights violations have taken place. Activists claim the pension fund is in breach of its own guidelines for responsible investment. The allegations come just days after Norway hosted the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.

Land confiscation, forced labour and other abuses are happening in connection with several gas and oil pipeline projects in Burma, according to Naing Htoo of EarthRights International, which is today publishing a report detailing the alleged abuses being committed by the Burmese government. "There's every indication abuses connected to these projects will continue, and, in some cases, worsen," he said.

A number of those companies in which the Norwegian fund has investments have previously been accused in relation to controversial projects in Burma which has been controlled by a military junta since 1962. Among them are Total Oil of France, in which the Norwegian fund has an investment of $2.6bn, and the US-based Chevron Corp, in which the fund has $900m invested.

EarthRights International insists that widespread violations continue to be committed by the Burmese army in support of many oil and gas projects that earn the regime millions of dollars. The group says that troops providing security for the Yadana and Yetagun pipelines have carried out extra-judicial killings.

"The Burmese regime has long demonstrated itself as an unsuitable business partner," said Steve Gumaer, of the Norway-based aid group Partners Relief and Development. "Business ventures conducted through official channels in Burma directly support the regime's abuse of the ethnic populations and pro-democracy citizens in Burma today."

He added: "It is said that villages in north-eastern Burma have benefited by this sort of 'economic engagement'. I have seen the devastating results; instead of schools, health and hygiene programmes, are the ashes of villages that have been burnt down. I have talked to women who were raped, men who were forced to serve as porters."

The Norwegian fund has a total of $3.6bn invested in companies involved in these projects that transport offshore gas from the Andaman Sea. Total, Chevron and other companies have denied claims that their operations inside Burma encourage abuses such as forced labour and land seizure.

The report also claims the Norwegian fund has investments in companies that are involved in projects in the Shwe gas fields, which have also been linked to abuses such as forced labour.

The Norwegian fund, established in 1990, is the second largest sovereign wealth fund in the world, with assets estimated at $512bn and investments in 8,000 companies. It is forecast to double in size by 2020. Because of previous allegations over unethical investments, the fund, controlled by the Norwegian central bank on behalf of the ministry of finance, is overseen by an ethical advisory council.

In 2007, the Norwegian authorities said they were withdrawing the fund's investments from Vedanta Resources, the British company that was seeking to mine bauxite on a mountain in eastern India many considered sacred .

In 2005, the council was asked to consider the fund's investment in Total and whether it breached guidelines. The council said it believed it likely that Total was aware of human rights violations on projects in Burma between 1995 and 1998, but this "did not provide a basis for exclusion from the fund, as it is only the risk for present or future violations of the guidelines which can prompt exclusion".

When allegations of forced labour were earlier levelled at Total in summer 2009, the company issued a statement saying, "local inhabitants around the Yadana pipeline say they are happy to have us there; they are, above all, grateful that there is no forced labour around our pipeline".

Last night, Norway's foreign ministry said it had not been made aware of EarthRights International's report. "The Norwegian government is worried about the situation for human rights in Burma," a spokesman said. The fund,he added, was "a financial investor with investments in more than 8,000 companies. It is therefore difficult for the Ministry to make comments related to a specific company in the fund's portfolio."

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