Press release / 1 Jul 2015

Church of England divests from UK oil company Soco International after Virunga scandal

Global Witness welcomes the Church of England’s decision to divest its £1.6 million holding in London-listed oil company Soco International. The move comes after the company failed to satisfy the Church with its response to evidence of human rights abuses, bribery and corruption linked to its operations in Democratic Republic of Congo’s Virunga National Park. 

The evidence of wrongdoing by Soco and its contractors came to light in the documentary film ‘Virunga’ and the Global Witness report Drillers in the Mist. On 10 June Global Witness published damning evidence of payments from Soco to a scandal-ridden Congolese army officer accused of human rights abuses and bribery.

Soco has faced repeated demands from shareholders and campaigners to give credible responses to evidence that its personnel, contractors and allies intimidated opponents of oil exploration and offered bribes in a bid to access Virunga. The Church of England has led shareholder pressure on Soco’s board, beginning with a public statement in February in which it called for a broad and transparent review of the allegations against Soco and for the company to unambiguously commit to stay out of Virunga, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its demands were never satisfactorily answered.

“Soco’s repeated corporate governance failures speak to wider problems among UK companies, including those listed on our stock exchanges,” said Peter Jones, a campaigner at Global Witness. “Despite the passing of the Bribery Act in 2010, the supposed barriers to corruption do not seem to be functioning and too much reliance has been placed on companies policing themselves. We are calling on the Serious Fraud Office to reverse this trend by launching an official investigation into Soco’s actions in Virunga.”

In response to pressure from the Church and others, Soco finally announced an ‘independent’ review into the allegations in a March statement. However this review was carried out by Clifford Chance – Soco’s own lawyers – and the report was not released. In a 2014 letter to Global Witness, Soco denied breaching UK bribery laws and condemned the use of violence and intimidation.

The only published material on the findings is a text version of a verbal statement read out at Soco’s June annual general meeting, which stopped short of fully clearing the company. Instead it said the allegations were “substantially inaccurate” despite confessing evidence of “non-material instances where those with whom the Company worked made payments in breach of Group policy.”

Soco has also so far failed to commit in writing to UNESCO that it will not, under any circumstances, explore or drill for oil inside Virunga’s current boundaries. On 30 June, at the UNESCO World Heritage in Bonn, Germany, delegates voted to adopt a draft resolution on Virunga reiterating that oil exploration is incompatible with World Heritage status and urging the Congolese government to cancel oil permits inside the park.

In the statement announcing its divestment, the Church complained of a lack of “appropriate corporate governance” and called for Soco’s chairman, Rui de Sousa, to be replaced by an independent figure. De Sousa sits on Soco’s board of directors and is the owner of a secretive offshore company that is awarded stakes in Soco’s oil blocks and which is paid a monthly ‘consultancy fee’ of $50,000.

Soco is yet to respond to the Church’s announcement of its divestment.

Contact: Peter Jones, [email protected], +44 (0)7712 323324

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