Outlook It was good sport watching MPs gnawing on our mining executives and their regulators early this year. As ever, not much light, but enough toxic hot air to do in a flock of mineshaft canaries.
We see the results of the Business Select Committee’s labours in today’s report rightly calling on the industry to create an index of evil, documenting, in rank order, just how badly, or well-behaved, London-based mining outfits really are. This is likely to concentrate most on how they behave in the poorest countries in the world – Africa, Latin America, India and the like.
So, if you ride roughshod over World Wildlife Fund and Unesco rulings to explore for oil in nature reserves, you’ll get a bad score. Use offshore shell companies to pay “commissions” to local officials, you get an even worse one. Most such tricks, it should be said, are done by the smaller firms. However, I do recall how, in one memorable session of the MPs, the big boys were called in.
Shell and Rio Tinto sent top brass who were, I thought, shown a bit too much respect. But then came the turn of Glencore. Far from dispatching a director, the mining and trading conglomerate sent over from its eyrie in Switzerland a relatively lowly PR man.
How we squirmed as he tried to deal with the MPs’ grilling, only to be repeatedly interrupted in a constant whisper by the Glencore lawyer sitting behind him. Finally, one of the MPs barked that the lawyer should jolly well keep his trap shut and let the man speak for himself.
The gist of what the PR and the lawyer was saying was, of course, that Glencore abides by international laws and enhances the lives of all it touches. So I wondered how they would have got on spinning the latest critical report from the Swiss corporate governance NGO, the Berne Declaration. It attacks how Glencore accepted two oil concessions from the Moroccan government to explore off the coast of the disputed Western Sahara.
Quick history recap: Morocco has been occupying large parts of Western Sahara since Spain left in 1976. A fair swathe of the population want independence, and regular fighting means about 100,000 now live in Algerian refugee camps. The UN wants Morocco to engage in a peace process and, like Glencore’s home state of Switzerland, does not recognise its sovereignty over the territory. In other words, the NGO says, this concession was neither Morocco’s to give, nor Glencore’s to receive.
When asked why it accepted concessions in a conflict zone, Glencore responded that the licence was consistent with a 2002 UN legal opinion which “concludes that entering into contracts for the exploration of mineral resources in Western Sahara would not, in and of itself be illegal as long they are not conducted in disregard of the needs and interests of the people of that territory”.
An answer, I’m sure, of which the Glencore lawyer would have been proud.
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