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Bringing oil justice into the British Museum

United Kingdom

Gilberto Torres tells the story of his horrific ordeal at the hands of paramilitaries acting for oil companies, including BP. Location: British Museum. by Kristian Buus

Sunday, a Colombian survivor of kidnap and torture confronted one of the companies behind it, and its cultural champion, with the help of a troupe of 'actor-vists'. Jess Worth was there.

We are standing in the Mexico room of the British Museum, surrounded by mysterious stone statues and exquisite Aztec turquoise mosaics. And we are hearing about death – in modern-day Latin America.

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Gilberto was abducted after organizing a strike in response to the murder of his friend and fellow trade unionist. Location: British Museum. by Kristian Buus
Gilberto Torres, a Colombian trade unionist and former oil engineer, who has been through an unimaginable ordeal while standing against environmental and human rights abuses committed by petroleum giant BP, is telling the crowd about his friend – another prominent oil union organizer – who was murdered by paramilitaries. He shows his friend’s photo. Young museum-goers stare, struggling to understand.

We’re not just here in solidarity with Gilberto. We are here because there’s compelling evidence that BP had a role in his kidnap and torture. And BP sponsors the British Museum.

The museum is the jewel in BP’s crown of sponsored British cultural institutions and regularly bestows the legitimacy, trustworthiness and high profile it commands on BP, the world’s biggest corporate criminal. The museum willingly launders the oil giant’s image for a surprisingly small amount of money, amounting to just 0.8 per cent of its annual income.

Which is why we are here with Gilberto. We started in the museum’s vast Great Court. We gathered a crowd from the thousands of Sunday afternoon museum-goers with a performance by the activist theatre troupe I am part of, BP or not BP? I played the role of one of two vaudevillian street performers, the ‘Truth Translators’, in possession of a mighty ear trumpet that could magically find the truth behind any lie. We tried it out on a ‘representative’ of BP, whose lies and spin gradually imploded when confronted with the truth, leaving her gasping for air, dribbling ‘oil’ from her mouth, and sinking to the ground, defeated.

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BP's lies are exposed in the British Museum. by Kristian Buus

All this was an attention-grabbing way of creating space and an audience so that Gilberto could speak. Standing below BP’s name, carved permanently onto the gleaming white marble of the Reading Room, Gilberto told his harrowing story. He was abducted and tortured by paramilitaries in the pay of a joint-venture oil company, Ocensa, in which BP was a partner.

‘When I was kidnapped I knew what was going to happen to me. I knew I was going to be murdered and left by the side of some road. But thanks to people’s solidarity, both national and international, to an oil workers’ 24-day strike, and to demonstrations by communities in Colombia and human rights organizations, I was not executed. Instead, I was held for 42 days, then finally released.'

Gilberto is one of only two trade unionists to ever survive being ‘disappeared’ by Colombian death squads. He is now taking legal action against BP in the UK courts, for the company’s role in his ordeal.

It is notoriously difficult to hold transnational corporations to account for human rights abuses, as they invariably work through a network of subsidiaries and front companies that do their dirty work for them. But Gilberto and his determined British lawyer, Sue Willman from Deighton Pierce Glynn, believe that they have enough evidence to prove BP’s ultimate culpability:

‘I believe that British justice will rule in my favour,’ Gilberto concludes. ‘Not only in favour of myself, but also in favour of justice, in favour of this not happening again. And, as a person who has been kidnapped, who has suffered and has been on the edge of death, I am here to tell the public in London, and those who make the laws: please legislate. Pass a law that prosecutes the human rights violations committed by corporations from this country, in this case BP.’

People applaud. They take museum feedback forms and fill them in, calling for an end to the 5-year deal with BP, which is up for renegotiation in the coming months. We hand out letters to staff explaining who Gilberto is and why we are there. We parade, singing ‘BP must go!’, around the museum, playing cat-and-mouse with the security guards – who hurriedly close doors as we approach them, only to send us on a more circuitous route past even more visitors. We make it to the Mexico room and do the whole thing again – partly to draw attention to the fact that BP is pushing for drilling rights in Mexico, in partnership with the human-rights-abusing Mexican government.

Our theatrical protest group has now performed many times inside the museum, bringing to life the reality of BP’s destructive operations: oil-choked pelicans in the Gulf of Mexico; deepwater wells in a whale nursery in the Great Australian Bight; tar sands, fracking, Arctic drilling and climate change.

But this time was different. Meeting Gilberto, and hearing his story inside the museum, made the true cost of oil so much more real. I tried to imagine this man, chained up in an insect-infested pit, convinced he was going to die, but not until he had been tortured again. This man who was so warm and funny, who insisted on hugging every member of our group in turn after our debrief in the pub. Who strongly encouraged us to use humour in our performance, despite the deadly seriousness of what he and so many others have been through.

I tried to connect the sordid reality of BP’s brutality with the clean green power of its brand, as marketed through places like the British Museum. How did this come about? Museums are supposed to deepen our knowledge of our – and other cultures' – history, to help us better understand the present. Why don’t the museum’s staff and trustees care that they are supporting such a ruthless, destructive company, one that is using them to help rewrite recent history, and help shape a corporate-dominated future? There is a direct relationship between BP’s impunity and its cultural champions. Its sponsorship deals feed its social licence to operate, and let it get away, repeatedly, with murder.

But I hope we have started to hammer some cracks into the deceptive façade. We will continue to try to find creative ways to undermine BP’s sponsorship of arts institutions like the British Museum, in solidarity and partnership with those on the oil and climate-change frontlines. And Gilberto will continue in his quest to hold BP to account, and blow apart its cosy culture of impunity, with far-reaching consequences for other British companies operating abroad.

Gilberto needs help with legal fees, as well as support on this long and lonely journey against one of the world’s most powerful companies. He is here in the UK for the ‘Oil Justice Now’ tour, organized with War on Want, to raise money and awareness about his case against BP, and other oil companies. He will be in London, Brighton, Bristol, Oxford, Cardiff, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Cambridge. Please go and see him if you can.

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