While it can be argued that China’s overseas energy policy is morally suspect, it is not illegal. Beijing may have spent billions on energy investments in countries in which the governments have been implicated in human rights abuses, but no solid evidence has emerged to suggest China is a co-conspirator.
"China has blocked the sorting out of serious rights abuses but this does not mean it perpetrates human rights abuses," said Sophie Richardson, deputy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch. "People think that China is using its power to shield regimes that are abusing people. But it’s far more complicated."
For legal action to be taken against Chinese oil companies, proof of involvement in wrongful activity would be required.
"The test is not just, ‘Is the company doing business in a bad place?’ but ‘Is the company contributing to the human rights violations?’" said Jennie Green, a lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Indeed, China has grounds to claim that it is doing the people in these countries a favor.
In exchange for access to these countries’ natural resources, Beijing not only offers to extract the materials in the first place but also spends big on domestic infrastructure. For example, Angola agreed to exchange future oil supplies for a US$2 billion package of roads, railways, bridges, hospitals and schools.
But it is hard to tell where the "non-interference in domestic affairs" pledge that comes with China’s energy deals begins and ends.
Sudan is one of a number of African countries to which China is believed to have sold arms. Given that the Arab-dominated Sudanese government secured peace with black African minorities in the south only to then plunge into the ongoing conflict with rebels in Darfur, it is quite likely that those arms have been used in abuses at some point.
Whether this can in turn be traced back to an oil company or its assets is another matter.
But as Katie Redford, director of the US Office of EarthRights International, noted: "If companies are operating in countries where abuses are happening, the risk is there."
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