CNOOC Ltd. is under fire for its human rights record, with critics urging Ottawa to impose tough obligations on the Chinese state-owned oil company as a condition of its acquisition of Calgary-based Nexen Inc.
In a letter to Industry Minister Christian Paradis, Amnesty International Canada said CNOOC and China have a poor history of respecting basic rights and said the federal government should take the opportunity of the Nexen deal to reassert Canada's view that the rising Asian superpower needs to improve that record.
Faced with polls that show the deal is unpopular with Canadians, the federal government is pledging to take a broad approach to its review of whether it would be a net benefit to Canada. Shareholders approved the transaction on Thursday, and the oil industry and Alberta government have offered virtually no opposition to a deal that appears consistent with the government's oft-expressed desire for greater Chinese investment in the resource sector.
But some China watchers say human rights concerns should be given central consideration in the foreign investment review process now under way.
"In our view, the strong interest being shown by China in Canada's natural resources presents an opportune occasion for Canada to more forcefully raise human rights concerns in all aspects of the country's dealing with China," Alex Neve, secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada, said in the letter, which was released to The Globe and Mail.
Amnesty International sent the letter last month on behalf of a coalition that includes the Canada Tibet Committee and other groups advocating for more democracy in China. In an interview, Mr. Neve said he received no response to the letter from Mr. Paradis' office, and the groups are concerned that human rights issues will be subordinate to commercial interests.
The coalition groups note that there are unverified reports that CNOOC was involved in oil exploration in Myanmar that resulted in villagers losing their land and being arrested for protesting. As well, the company is alleged to be forcibly resettling nomads in Tibet.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Paradis would not comment on whether Investment Canada would consider human rights in its review of the Nexen deal, but pointed to the Investment Canada Act, which defines "net benefit" to include "compatibility of the investment with national industrial, economic and cultural policies."
The Amnesty-led coalition praised Nexen's commitment to human rights and urged the government to ensure that CNOOC has a similar policy, and backs it up with internal monitoring and public reporting.
CNOOC offered no comment when asked about the allegations and its human rights record. In announcing the Nexen deal in late July, the company boasted about its "strong track record of outstanding corporate citizenship and social responsibility in Canada and the other jurisdictions around the world in which it operates."
The New Democratic Party has ratcheted up its criticism of the deal, with leader Thomas Mulcair saying the opposition party has "grave concerns" about selling a company in a strategic industry to a firm controlled by a government that doesn't "play by the same market rules."
China's ambassador to Canada, Zhang Junsai, said the two countries shouldn't let differences over human rights impede commercial relations, and noted that Ottawa doesn't screen investments from the the Middle East or elsewhere on the basis of the home country's human rights record.
"We can talk about these things, or establish mechanisms to discuss them, but don't let it get in the way," he said.