BP’s ‘Close Association’ with Countries Accused of Human Rights Abuses Puts Gallery Sponsorship at Risk


BP’s relationship with the National Portrait Gallery is under scrutiny as the museum prepares to today announce the winner of an annual award sponsored by the oil giant.

Many fossil fuel companies operate in notoriously volatile states that hold an abundance of oil and gas. Campaigners Culture Unstained have lodged a 19-page complaint with the gallery, alleging that BP is an unfit sponsor due to the company’s “close association” with regimes “known or suspected to be in violation of human rights”.

The group said BP’s sponsorship of exhibitions and its annual portrait award violates the gallery’s “ethical fundraising policy”, obtained by Culture Unstained through a Freedom of Information request.

Culture Unstained promised to escalate its complaint to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, which can issue notices forcing organisations to review such deals, if the National Portrait Gallery failed to sufficiently respond to its concerns.

Human Rights

Culture Unstained’s complaint is accompanied by a new report outlining BP’s association with a number of regimes suspected of human rights abuses.

In particular, the report focuses on the company’s operations in Azerbaijan, Egypt, Indonesia and Mexico.

The National Portrait Gallery’s fundraising policy explicitly states that it “considers each gift and sponsorship carefully, and recognises that there may be occasions when it would not be in the Gallery’s best interests to accept funding”.

This includes “where the supporting source is known or suspected to be closely associated with a regime known or suspected to be in violation of human rights”.

BP has a controlling stake in the Shah Deniz gas fields in the Caspian Sea, off the coast of Azerbaijan. In its annual report, Amnesty International noted that in Azerbaijan, “torture and other ill-treatment was widely reported”.

In March 2017, Azerbaijan asked to be removed from a list of countries participating in an industry accountability project, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, after its board earlier expressed concern over the country’s restrictions on civil society.

On its website, BP said that the company aspires “to be a valued, trusted and long-term partner in the development of Azerbaijan’s hydrocarbon resources” as it celebrates 25 years of working in the country.

BP is also a major player in Egypt, currently producing around 15 percent of the the country’s oil and 30 percent of its gas. BP works directly with the Egyptian government on joint ventures through the Gulf of Suez Petroleum Company (GUPCO).

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both criticised Egypt’s clamp-down on civil protest since its regime change in 2011.

Amnesty International said that last year, Egypt’s authorities “used mass arbitrary arrests to suppress demonstrations and dissent, detaining journalists, human rights defenders and protesters, and restricted the activities of human rights organizations”.

Despite this, at the company’s 2017 annual general meeting, BP’s CEO Bob Dudley said he was “comfortable with the level of risk in Egypt”, NGO ShareAction reports.

BP also has operations in Mexico.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2015 said that “reports of disappearances, extrajudicial executions and torture, as well as the situation of insecurity for women, children, migrants, human rights defenders, and journalists, who are victims of murder, disappearance, kidnapping, torture, harassment, and threats” in Mexico were of “particular concern”.

Amnesty International noted that in Mexico last year, “human rights defenders and independent observers were subjected to intense smear campaigns; journalists continued to be killed and threatened for their work”.

CEO Bob Dudley recently told an industry audience that he hopes to continue “‘strengthening long-term relationships with [state-owned company] Pemex and with the Mexican Government”.

BP also operates a large liquefied natural gas plant in West Papua, over which Indonesia claims sovereignty.

Last year, at least 2,200 Papuan activists were arrested after participating in peaceful demonstrations across a number of provinces, Amnesty International reports, highlighting “the ongoing repressive environment for political activists in the Papua region”.

In a press release accompanying the Culture Unstained report, Benny Wenda, West Papuan Independence Leader, said:

BP have never recognised that they operate in the middle of a genocide. They only call it a ‘complex situation’. Is it complex that every day my people are shot by Indonesian security forces, that every day they are tortured? BP never talks about human rights, never recognises how it helps support an illegal occupation of Papuans’ land.

This British company has a responsibility to tell the truth about what is happening in West Papua — but they just want to make quick money.”

Culture Unstained’s report also looks at BP’s activities in Algeria, Angola, and Colombia, all of which are accused of restricting or violating human rights.

Lead author of the report, Chris Garrard, told DeSmog UK that it isn’t hard to find evidence of BP’s involvement with such regimes, and that if the National Portrait Gallery has overlooked such activities it is “a significant ethical issue.”

It’s all well and good having it in the policy but unless you can reinforce it, it doesn’t amount to much”, he said.

A spokesperson for BP told DeSmog UK that the company makes efforts to ensure its activities respect human rights. They said:

BP strives to conduct its business in a manner that respects the rights and dignity of all people and we take seriously our responsibility to respect human rights. Indeed, we have a long history of doing so: we are a founding member of the UN Global Compact and the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, and we have established a number of independent Advisory Panels globally to assess and advise on our management of project impacts, including human rights.

We respect internationally recognized human rights, including the rights of our workforce and those living in communities affected by our activities.”

A spokesperson for the National Portrait Gallery told DeSmog UK that when it formally receives Culture Unstained’s complaint it “will review and respond in accordance with the Gallery’s Complaints Policy.”

They added that “the National Portrait Gallery, while significantly supported by grant-in-aid from government, is pleased to work with a wide range of companies in support of its exhibitions and displays. The sponsorship of the annual Portrait Award by BP is now in its 28th year and this support directly encourages the work of talented artists and helps gain wider recognition for them”.

Social License

Fossil fuel companies have long used sponsorship opportunities to try and launder their reputation — pushing a positive image of a brand to pre-empt opposition to their activities.

DeSmog UK previously revealed Shell’s cosy relationship with the National Gallery. And BP has come under fire before for sponsoring exhibitions at the British Museum and Tate gallery.

But Garrard said that activities like those highlighted in Culture Unstained’s report mean “BP should be seen as beyond an ethical red line for cultural sponsorship along with arms companies and tobacco companies.”

Because the evidence for climate change is so overwhelming, they should be beyond that red line.”

What BP is engaged in isn’t a form of philanthropy”, he said.

They are using it in order to impress key audiences, policymakers. So it amounts to a form of cheap advertising. And when it comes to the human rights dimension, it’s putting a sheen on it”.

Main image credit: Art Not Oil

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Mat was DeSmog's Special Projects and Investigations Editor, and Operations Director of DeSmog UK Ltd. He was DeSmog UK’s Editor from October 2017 to March 2021, having previously been an editor at Nature Climate Change and analyst at Carbon Brief.

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