There is an alarming record of human rights abuses by governments and corporations associated with fossil fuel operations, resulting in appropriation of land, forced relocation, and even the brutal and sometimes deadly suppression of critics. In addition to strong evidence for a ‘repression effect’ from oil production, in which resource wealth thwarts democratization by enabling governments to better fund internal security, dependence on oil is associated with a higher likelihood of civil war. Additionally, oil production has been found to negatively impact gender equality by reducing the number of women in the labor force, which reduces their political influence.
Connections between oil production and human rights abuses have been documented in many developing countries, including Nigeria and other parts of Africa, Myanmar, Ecuador, and parts of the Middle East. Two of the most egregious examples of human rights violations around oil extraction have been catalysts for broader calls for human rights and to end dependence on oil:
- In 1990, in response to the environmental devastation, poverty, and instability that plagued the oil-rich Niger Delta, Ken Saro-Wiwa launched a non-violent movement for social and ecological justice in his Ogoni homeland. The Ogoni accused the Nigerian government and Shell and Chevron of waging an ecological war and a genocidal series of attacks against the peoples of the Delta. The movement was so effective that by 1993 Shell had to pull out of Ogoni. The response by Shell and the military government of Nigeria was to frame Saro-Wiwa for murder and execute him. On November 10, 1995, the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni leaders dramatically and tragically illustrated the price of oil. But this struggle has grown to be a catalyst for global movements for Nigerian democracy, minority rights, corporate accountability, and ending dependence on oil.
- The Yadana and Yetagun pipelines built by Unocal and others in the mid-1990s in Burma provide a well-documented instance of corporate collusion in human rights abuses. The Burmese army perpetrated human rights abuses against Burmese peasants while clearing routes for the pipelines, including forced relocation, forced labor, rape, torture, and murder. In April 2005 Unocal agreed to compensate Burmese villagers in a landmark case initiated in 2000 by local villagers, with the support of EarthRights International and the Center for Constitutional Rights.
This is not just a problem in developing countries – with a growing amount of oil being produced in North America by extreme techniques, like fracking and tar sands, communities near extraction sites are now raising human rights concerns in Canada and the United States. Both developing and developed countries that are extracting oil have experienced spills and environmental pollution that has forever impacted the health and wellbeing of communities, local fisheries, and waterways.