“We’ve Seen Exxon Leading the Charge to Go After Groups That Criticized Them”

(Photo: Kai Schreiber)(Photo: Kai Schreiber)

Janine Jackson interviewed Zorka Milin about Rex Tillerson for the December 16, 2016, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: A widely circulated news article on the appointment of Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson to be secretary of State opens with the note that “the brash Texas oilman…helped forge or supervise exploration, production, and refinery projects in 50 countries on six continents.” But corporate media really only appear interested in one country, and that’s Russia.

Tillerson’s Russian ties are worth talking about, sure, but they’re far from the whole story. The group Global Witness exposes the links between natural resource extraction, corruption, armed conflict and environmental destruction. Zorka Milin is a senior legal advisor with Global Witness. She joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Zorka Milin.

Zorka Milin: Thank you very much; it’s a pleasure.

Resource extraction, corruption, conflict, environmental destruction — making the head of Exxon secretary of State would seem to put a pin right through all of those, or to touch on those. People may have some general sense, but what in particular worries or concerns you about Rex Tillerson in this job?

Well, Janine, as you pointed out, our organization is dedicated to carrying out investigations into environmental, human rights abuses and corruption, and specifically highlighting how they’re driven by the exploitation of natural resources. And so in the course of our investigative work over the years, we have bumped into Exxon a few times. So there’s a lot of other groups that have already highlighted some concerns specifically around climate change, and we share those concerns, and, as you mentioned, the Russia connection has political implications.

But I think there’s a broader point here, that we hope the public and the media really are not taken in by this notion that Tillerson’s deal-making with other countries is something that qualifies him for this position, to be the secretary of State. Because if you take a closer look at the kinds of deals that his company has made, there are some serious questions.

There are deals in places like Equatorial Guinea, which is a desperately poor country in Africa that happens to be oil-rich, and whose oil wealth is skimmed by the dictator that has been running it for many years now. So there are questions about, how productive is Exxon’s role in places like that, and we hope that there’s more attention paid to those kinds of questions.

Well, yes, media talk about deals with oil-rich countries as potentially presenting a financial conflict of interest, or as perhaps indicating that Tillerson has been too friendly with designated bad guys. But I think from media’s perspective, we rarely hear about the impact of the deals on the people in those countries, on poverty, on human rights. That’s kind of an underexplored angle of all this deal-making talk.

Yes, I would absolutely agree with that. I think that there are very serious questions about the human rights, environmental consequences of how Exxon has gone into some of these places, like Equatorial Guinea, as I mentioned, or Angola, which has seen a devastating civil war that went on for many years, and we hope that there’s more attention paid to those kinds of places. And I would just add, also, just because Exxon has a relatively clean legal record when it comes to anti-corruption laws, like the US federal corruption laws, that’s not to say that their actions are ethical, just because there haven’t been criminal prosecutions.

I think that there are still very valid questions that we should be posing about what exactly senior executives like Mr. Tillerson and others knew about some of these places where they were making deals: What did they know about where the money was going? Who was receiving the money? Did they think about whether the people of those countries were benefiting in any way, or whether they were just propping up these very repressive regimes, and fueling conflict in many cases?

Your work in particular is around issues of transparency and accountability. And on that front, Tillerson, and Exxon under Tillerson’s watch, don’t seem to value transparency especially highly.

I think there’s a lot of lip service that is paid to transparency from corporations like Exxon, and that’s what we see. But in terms of actions, we expect to see much more transparency about the terms of the deals that they make with some of these countries. That’s one thing that is yet to be made public. We don’t really know what exactly is Exxon paying to some of these governments and where their money is going.

Obviously, our organization is very invested in uncovering that kind of information, but it is very difficult work. So for that reason, we have been advocating for transparency laws, in the US and in other countries, to require companies to disclose this information, so that the citizens of those countries can really see what kinds of deals are being made in their name. Because it’s not enough to trust the corporate interests and the dictators that are making the deal; that’s not reliable. There really should be more information about the content of the deal, so that the citizens can see that for themselves.

What you’re talking about is the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. Is that one of those efforts that you’re talking about?

Absolutely. So there is an international mechanism that requires countries whose governments agree to participate in this mechanism, to disclose their natural resource revenues. And some of the countries that most desperately need this kind of transparency — such as Equatorial Guinea and Angola, where Exxon has had operations — are not members, because their governments are not willing to turn this information over.

So this just underscores how much we need corporations themselves to voluntarily disclose this information, and to abide by the relevant laws in their home jurisdictions, whether it’s the US, where we have some laws that have been passed as part of the Dodd/Frank reform, or in Europe, where there are laws in place that require companies to disclose the payments they make to governments.

Exxon, however, has not been a fan of these laws, and have actually opposed them, both politically and legally, and so that’s another question that we would like to pose to Mr. Tillerson. In terms of his commitment to transparency, his track record is not very encouraging, and so we question what the role of the State Department would be in this area.

And then finally, and I would think of particular interest to journalists, Exxon has some record as well of what you might call speech suppression. I mean, they really don’t take to being criticized, and their reaction, as with many big corporations, is to go after the messenger. That seems to me also of concern, and of particular concern for journalists.

Absolutely. Unfortunately, we’ve seen Exxon in particular leading the charge on very aggressively using various legal tools and political tools to go after groups that have criticized them, in particular on climate change. And so we are in full solidarity with those groups, and we condemn these tactics. We think that the suppression of speech is really contrary to our fundamental constitutional values, and it’s a risk to be taken seriously, the extent to which this will chill any future dissenting speech. It’s something that we hope Mr. Tillerson will answer for.

We’ve been speaking with Zorka Milin, senior legal advisor with Global Witness. You can find their work online at GlobalWitness.org. Zorka Milin, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

Thank you.