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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Foreign Policy in International Business: BP Trading a Libyan Terrorist for Libyan Oil

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, claimed in July of 2010 that the UK government should investigate what role BP played in Britain’s decision to free Abdel Baset al-Megrahi in August 2009. Al-Megrahi is the only person convicted of carrying out the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am airliner in which 270 people were killed over Lockerbie, Scotland. This is not to say that he acted alone. In February, 2011, Gadhafi's justice minster, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, who resigned in protest against Gadhafi's massacre of unarmed protesters, told a Swedish newspaper that Gadhafi had ordered the attack. Abdel-Jalil also claimed that Megrahi threatened to "spill the beans" unless his return to Libya were secured. It would appear that BP, a publically-traded stock corporation, played a vital role between Gadhafi and the British government. If so, then aside from Gadhafi's sordid role, this case presents us with an issue of business ethics. Specifically, does a corporation, which is essentially private wealth but with responsibility befitting the power that comes with such wealth, cross a line when its employees engage in foreign policy? The ethical problem inherent in interfering in a juridical sentence is troubling enough; if an unelected corporation becomes so powerful that it can affect international relations between (and foreign policies of) countries, then the issue involves not only business ethics, but also democratic governance. As the line between private and public blurs, the respective bases of legitimacy can become conflated or transposed.

In May 2007, BP signed a $900 million exploration agreement with Libya. Also that month, Britain and Libya signed an agreement that paved the way for al-Megrahi’s release from a Scottish prison. A spokesman for BP has admitted that people at the company lobbied the British government over the prisoner transfer deal with Libya in late 2007, but the company’s spokesman denied that the lobbying played any role in the government’s decision to release al-Megrahi nearly two years later. Senator Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., argued that ”the whole thing has deep circumstantial evidence that points to the fact that there was a trade-off — release the terrorist in exchange for an oil contract.” Schumer and three other US senators — Kirsten Gillibrand, Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg — wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking that the State Department investigate whether BP had a hand in the release. “Evidence in the Deepwater Horizon disaster seems to suggest that BP would put profit ahead of people — its attention to safety was negligible and it routinely underestimated the amount of oil gushing into the Gulf,” they wrote. “The question we now have to answer is, was this corporation willing to trade justice in the murder of 270 innocent people for oil profits?” The answer appears to be “yes.”

In an interview with the Daily Telegraph (September 4, 2009), Jack Straw admits that when he was considering in 2007 whether the bomber should be included in a prisoner transfer agreement (PTA) with Libya, Britain’s trade interests were a crucial factor. When asked in the interview if trade and BP were factors, Mr Straw admits: “Yes, [it was] a very big part of that. I’m unapologetic about that … Libya was a rogue state… . We wanted to bring it back into the fold. And yes, that included trade because trade is an essential part of it and subsequently there was the BP deal.” In short, BP employees have admitted to the lobbying and Jack Straw has admitted that BP’s contract was a factor—the two sides meet and the knot is tied.


Even BP’s lobbying effort was not decisive in the exchange agreement, the involvement of BP managers even as they and BP stood to gain from an oil exploration contract evinces a conflict of interest that should have been barred by ethics guidelines at the company. Moreover, the company had no standing in the prisoner exchange matter such that it had any business in lobbying. At most, the legal person legal doctrine and the associated “money as free speech” doctrine pertain to a company’s main business. The doctrines ought not give a company all rights of citizens because corporate charters are delimited to particular domains or functions. Furthermore, to expect a company to put ethics ahead of profits is to conflate a firm with a human being.  To be sure, a company is made of people (and capital). However, the association is focused rather pointedly on one thing: maximizing shareholder value through profits. Accordingly, managers know legal requirements, whereas ought and should are more difficult to translate into cost-benefit analyses. In other words, a company is like a shark in that both are single-minded feeding machines. To expect a machine to obviate its next feeding because of an ought is to treat it as something other than what it is.  I suspect that as onlookers we tend to project our own values onto company managements—even companies themselves—instead of coming to terms with what a company is.  It is a feeding machine with one directionality and an expansive appetite, which includes venturing into other domains such as (hypothetically)  lobbying for an exchange of prisoners in exchange for a lucrative oil contract. In other words, companies are designed to transgress even their own charters. They are like Hal in the film 2001—the computer that took on a life of its own. Ideally, a company would convert anything in a given society into a commodity, with price being the universal measure. The US senators are objecting, in effect, to the commodization of the prisoner exchange, and to the “boundary issues” of BP.

The “so what” of this analysis is the following: it is particularly dangerous for a company or industry to be so powerful that it can unduly influence a government both in terms of a judicial sentence and in relation to other countries. Given the expansive nature of a company, society must have a means of keeping corporations within their proper domain of providing goods and services.  In a plutocracy (rule by wealth),  private wealth is the basis of government. This is not the case in republics, which are characterized by representative democracy.


Related (on BP): http://euandus3.wordpress.com/2010/05/17/business-society-bp-clips-societal-norms/
 http://euandus3.wordpress.com/2010/06/17/tony-hayward-sticking-to-script-safety-is-bps-priority/ http://euandus3.wordpress.com/2010/06/10/bp-dividends-to-stockholders/  http://mole45.wordpress.com/2009/09/05/jack-straw-admits-lockerbie-bombers-release-was-linked-to-oil-well-thats-a-shock-if-we-can-go-to-war-for-it/