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Groundhog Day in Burundi…

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I spoke to a Burundian friend earlier this evening who is deeply concerned about rising tensions in his home country ahead of elections scheduled for June. A video on the “Burundi Transparence” website purports to show the ruling CNDD-FDD party’s youth militia acting out a show of strength in scenes worryingly reminiscent of pre-genocide Rwanda in 1994.

Human Rights Watch put out a detailed report on the militias mid-way through last year:

Beginning in December 2008, residents of Busoni commune, Kirundo province and Kayogoro commune, Makamba province reported “militia-like” activities by former FDD combatants and members of the CNDD-FDD youth league, known as “Imbonerakure.” The youth, with the acquiescence of local administrative, police, and party officials, carried out harassment and arrests of political opponents…

In Busoni commune, Kirundo province, the CNDD-FDD youth league engaged in “night-time sports,” which involved parading with large sticks in military fashion.[229] According to media reports, these youth also chanted threatening slogans about “crushing their opponents.” Jean Minani, a prominent parliamentarian from Busoni and founder of “Frodebu-Nyakuri,” a splinter group of FRODEBU that generally aligns with CNDD-FDD, told Human Rights Watch he had observed the activities. He confirmed that the youth were armed with sticks and clubs, and chanted slogans in Kirundi which roughly translated as “Those who are not with us will be sent into exile or die.”

The International Crisis Group warned today that:

The CNDD-FDD youth wing’s physical training, war songs and quasi-military organisation raise the spectre of militia violence and a large-scale intimidation campaign. The other former rebels, the Forces nationales de libération (FNL) and the Front pour la démocratie au Burundi (FRODEBU) are mobilising their own youth wings to oppose intimidation tactics. The police have remained passive or become accomplices to the ruling party’s abuses.

The ICG recommends that the international donor community:

Warn Burundian political leaders that those responsible for atrocity or other grave political crimes will be prosecuted – by the International Criminal Court or a special tribunal if necessary – and that targeted sanctions will be imposed on those resorting to massive fraud or violence to win the elections.

On the face of it this might sound reasonable enough, but to someone who’s been following the situation in Burundi for nearly a decade now, there’s an eerie sense of déja vu.

Here’s a report from 2005 on the violence that preceded the elections last time around:

[Nureldine] Satti demanded an investigation into mortar attacks that wounded five in the suburbs of the capital Bujumbura on Tuesday night, and recent reports of summary executions in Bujumbura Rural province… “We want to know the truth. The UN and the international community will not tolerate war crimes anymore. Any individual, any group responsible for war crimes will be held accountable for its acts,” he told a press conference.

And here’s a report from 2004, after Hutu-extremists massacred 160 Tutsi refugees at the Gatumba refugee camp in Burundi:

“The people who committed this terrible crime must be out of their heads. They are really terrorists,” Mrs [Agnes] Van Ardenne told reporters after visiting the refugee camp at the weekend. She said the suspects should be tried by the International Criminal Court. The FNL has indicated it will face its responsibility and appear before the court in The Hague. There will be no mercy for the perpetrators of the massacre, Mrs Van Ardenne said.

And here’s a UN security council statement from 1996:

The Council shares the Secretary-General’s deep concern at the situation in Burundi, which has been characterized by daily killings, massacres, torture and arbitrary detention. It condemns in the strongest terms those responsible for such actions, which must cease immediately… It reiterates that all who commit or authorize the commission of serious violations of international humanitarian law are individually responsible for such violations and should be held accountable.

Not one of these declarations has been honoured. Efforts to refer the Gatumba massacre to the International Criminal Court quickly stalled amid a lack of political will – and silence from the International Crisis Group. The UN’s longstanding promise of a “special chamber” for Burundi remains little more than a twinkle in Ban Ki Moon’s eye, having got lost in endless negotiations with the same Burundian government officials who would likely become defendants were it ever to get off the ground.

Threatening to prosecute people – as distinct from actually putting war criminals on trial – certainly has the advantage of being free and not particularly timeconsuming. But if the International Crisis Group is really in the business of trying to stop Burundi’s political elite from organising yet more mass-killings, it’s difficult to see how, on past form, getting donors to issue yet more empty threats is likely to make any difference at all to the situation. 

Written by Richard Wilson

February 12, 2010 at 11:59 pm

“He never has to know the actual facts of any issue; instead he’s equipped himself with a persuasive ploy which enables him to make non-experts believe he knows more than experts.”

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Here’s Plato’s take on experts, evidence, and evidence of expertise. These words were first written more than 2,000 years ago – it seems both intriguing and perhaps also a bit depressing that they still have so much currency today.

The text below is from a dialogue between Socrates and Gorgias, a well-known ‘sophist’ who made his living from teaching the art of persuasion – aka “rhetoric”. The word ‘sophistry’ is today synonymous with arguments that are superficially plausible, yet nonetheless bogus…

From Plato’s Gorgias

Socrates: …You claim to be able to train up as a rhetorician anyone who’s prepared to listen to your teaching on the subject. Yes?

Gorgias: Yes.

Socrates: And you’ll teach him all he needs to know to persuade a crowd of people – not to make them understand, but to win them over. Is that right?

Gorgias: Yes.

Socrates: Now you claimed a little while back that a rhetorician would be more persuasive than a doctor even when the issue was health.

Gorgias: Yes I did, as long as he’s speaking in front of a crowd.

Socrates: By ‘in front of a crowd’ you mean ‘in front of non-experts’, don’t you? I mean, a rhetorician wouldn’t be more persuasive than a doctor in front of an audience of experts, of course.

Gorgias: True.

Socrates: Now, if he’s more persuasive than a doctor than he’s more persuasive than an expert, isn’t he?

Gorgias: Yes.

Socrates: When he isn’t actually a doctor himself. Yes?

Gorgias: Yes.

Socrates: And a person who isn’t a doctor is ignorant, of course, about the things which a doctor knows.

Gorgias: Obviously.

Socrates: So any case of a rhetorician being more persuasive than a doctor is a case of a non-expert being more persuasive than an expert in front of an audience of non-experts. Isn’t that what we have to conclude?

Gorgias: Yes, in this instance, anyway.

Socrates: But isn’t a practitioner of rhetoric in the same situation whatever the area of expertise? He never has to know the actual facts of any issue; instead he’s equipped himself with a persuasive ploy which enables him to make non-experts believe he knows more than experts.

Gorgias: Doesn’t that simplify things, Socrates? Rhetoric is the only area of expertise you need to learn. You can ignore all the rest and still get the better of the professionals!

Written by Richard Wilson

February 7, 2010 at 2:19 pm

Amazing work by the 10:23 campaign

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Many long-established campaign groups would struggle to achieve anything like this level of coverage – yet in just a few months the 10:23 campaign has gone from nowhere to getting national exposure several days in a row.

Here’s just one example from the BBC:

Homeopathy sceptics have staged a mass “overdose” of homeopathic remedies, in a bid to prove they have no effect.

Protesters ate whole bottles of tablets at branches of Boots in places such as Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, London, Leicester, Edinburgh and Birmingham.

They have asked the pharmacy chain to stop selling the remedies, which they call “scientifically absurd”.

The Society of Homeopaths called it a “stunt”. Boots said it followed industry guidelines on homeopathy.

From 2005 to 2008 the NHS spent almost £12m on homeopathic treatments, according to a 2009 Freedom Of Information request by Channel 4 News…

The demonstrations were organised by the Merseyside Skeptics Society (MSS).

Michael Marshall, from the MSS, said: “We believe that they shouldn’t be selling sugar pills to people who are sick. Homeopathy never works any better than a placebo. The remedies are diluted so much that there is nothing in them.”

Mr Marshall said demonstrations were also planned in Canada, Spain, the US and Australia.

The Society of Homeopaths said it did not expect the protesters to suffer any adverse reactions from taking large quantities of the remedies.

Written by Richard Wilson

January 31, 2010 at 9:40 am

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Nigerian sceptic Leo Igwe held on trumped up charges

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*UPDATE* – Leo has reportedly now been released on bail, but at the time of writing still has a trumped-up murder charge hanging over him. Full details here.

Nigerian sceptic and humanist leader Leo Igwe was detained this morning, apparently on trumped up charges, and at the behest of a man who stands accused of raping a ten-year-old girl – Leo had been campaigning for justice on the girl’s behalf.

In response to this appeal I phoned the Police who were holding Leo, to ask what the basis was for his detention, and emphasise the international interest and concern around the case. If you would like to support Leo Igwe at this difficult time, this is the appeal from his family:

Leo and his father risk being tortured or murdered in police custody for his role seeking for justice for Ms Daberechi whose parents are very poor and cannot afford two meals in a day not to talk about paying legal charges.

We need to call the Police authorities in Nigeria about the risk of additional international outrage now that this fertile ground of religious bigotry and suppression of justice and human rights has already misled a citizen of ours to suicide in the name of God!

The numbers to call are : AIG Ringin: +2348033225349
PPRO Umuahia: +2347030988278
Com Aloy Okoro: +2348037217361

I am monitoring the situation closely and will report back. But anyone who is able to call will be helpful to scale up the pressure.

When I called the first number on the list and spoke to the police, they denied that Leo was formally under arrest and said that they were simply speaking to him in order to investigate the complaint that had made. They also allowed me to talk to Leo directly. Yet it did seem that Leo had been forcibly detained – he had been visited at his home by a number of men, including several soldiers, who had taken him away to the police station. Leo himself told me that he had, in fact, been arrested.

When I asked Leo what people internationally could do to support him, he emphasised the need to raise awareness both of this case, and the wider campaign of harassment that he and his family have faced over his efforts to secure justice for a young victim of rape.

Leo has reportedly been denied access to a lawyer.

In addition to calling the authorities directly on the numbers above, you can spread the word on Twitter using the hashtag #LeoIgwe, and watch for updates on the case from Alan Henness at Think Humanism.

Written by Richard Wilson

January 5, 2010 at 1:24 pm

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New statement from Amnesty: “There were 15 reported deaths”

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The day after the BBC backed down in the face of legal threats from Trafigura over their claim that the company’s waste caused deaths…

From Amnesty International

In August 2006, toxic waste was brought to Abidjan on board the ship Probo Koala, which had been chartered by oil-trading company, Trafigura.

This waste was then dumped in various locations around the city, causing a human rights tragedy. More than 100,000 people sought medical attention for a range of health problems and there were 15 reported deaths.

On 23 September 2009, the High Court of England and Wales approved a $45 million settlement between nearly 30,000 victims of the toxic waste dumping and Trafigura.

Written by Richard Wilson

December 19, 2009 at 9:21 am

Index and PEN condemn BBC climbdown

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From Index on Censorship

Index on Censorship and English PEN today have expressed dismay that the BBC has conceded the libel action brought by toxic waste shippers Trafigura in the High Court. We believe this is a case of such high public interest that it was incumbent upon a public sector broadcaster like the BBC to have held their ground in order to test in a Court of law the truth of the BBC’s report or determine whether a vindication of Trafigura was deserved.

The case was brought by Trafigura after the BBC claimed in its Newsnight programme of 13 May 2009 that Trafigura had caused deaths by being involved in the dumping of toxic waste in Abidjan in the Ivory Coast.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur Prof Okechukwu Ibeanu concluded in a report on 3 September 2009 that:

“On the basis of the above considerations and taking into account the immediate impact on public health and the proximity of some of the dumping sites to areas where affected populations reside, the Special Rapporteur considers that there seems to be strong prima facie evidence that the reported deaths and adverse health consequences are related to the dumping of the waste from the Probo Koala.”

Read here

Trafigura has paid out $200 million to the government of the Ivory Coast, and in London settled for £30 million a joint action made by 31,000 Ivorians.

But the BBC has now apparently conceded that the toxic waste dumped by the Probo Koala did not cause deaths, serious or long-term injuries and retracted their Newsnight piece in full and removed all reports from their web site.

English PEN and Index on Censorship believe that costs were a major factor behind the BBC’s decision. According to a leading media lawyer, Mark Stephens of FSI, the cost of such a case would have been in excess of £3 million. In its statement the BBC said:

“The BBC withdraws the allegation that deaths, miscarriages or serious or long-term injuries were caused by the waste and apologises to Trafigura for having claimed otherwise.”

John Kampfner, CEO of Index on Censorship said:

“Sadly, the BBC has once again buckled in the face of authority or wealthy corporate interests. It has cut a secret deal. This is a black day for British journalism and once more strengthens our resolve to reform our unjust libel laws.”

Jonathan Heawood, Director of English PEN, said:

“Forced to choose between a responsible broadcaster and an oil company which shipped hundreds of tons of toxic waste to a developing country, English libel law has once again allowed the wrong side to claim victory. The law is an ass and needs urgent reform.”

Written by Richard Wilson

December 17, 2009 at 3:24 pm

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Democracy under attack – Carter-Ruck persuades Commons Speaker that courts *can* ban the reporting of Parliament

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Can anyone Stop the Ruck?

When, following the recent fiasco around Trafigura, I saw Carter-Ruck partner Andrew Stephenson at a Parliamentary committee meeting, he seemed utterly unrepentant.

Carter Ruck’s attempt, on behalf of Trafigura, to ban the media from reporting a question in the British Parliament, had triggered calls for the company’s Directors to be dragged to the bar of the House of Commons and formally reprimanded. Justice Minister Bridget Prentice had reiterated that the 1688/9 Bill of Rights gave the media an absolute privelege to cover the proceedings of Parliament, and that this was essential for the effective functioning of our democracy.

In seeking to explain his firm’s behaviour to the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights, Stephenson certainly appeared defensive, but he didn’t seem in the least bit sorry. He did, though, seem keen to reassure us that the injunction secured by his company on Trafigura’s behalf had been intended merely as an interim holding measure, and that the original purpose had never been to gag the reporting of Parliament.

So it seems very surprising to read in today’s Sunday Times that Stephenson appears to have gone out of his way to persuade the Commons authorities that the law does, after all, allow for the gagging of Parliamentary procedure:

In a submission to a Commons select committee, Carter-Ruck, a law firm that specialises in libel, argues that newspapers and publishers would be in contempt of court if they published parliamentary questions, answers or debates that fell under super-injunctions.

Advisers to John Bercow, the Speaker, are understood to have informed the culture, media and sport committee that Carter-Ruck’s position is correct. MPs regard the position as a serious threat to free speech and the proper functioning of democracy.

Super-injunctions — under which even reporting the existence of the injunction is banned — are increasingly being used to stop the media publishing information. MPs are now concerned that they threaten the media’s right to report what MPs can freely say in parliament, a privilege affirmed in the Parliamentary Papers Act of 1840…

At the time of the disagreement, Bridget Prentice, the justice minister, said Carter-Ruck was wrong to claim super-injunctions applied to the reporting of parliamentary proceedings.

However, in a submission to the culture committee published last week, Andrew Stephenson, a senior partner at the firm, said the minister was under a “misapprehension”.

He said that while MPs were guaranteed the right to free speech under the 1688 Bill of Rights within the House of Commons, the reporting of parliament remained subject to court orders.

The Speaker’s counsel declined to comment, but is understood to agree with Stephenson’s assessment.

Thus it appears, after all, that Parliamentary democracy is still under attack, and that Carter-Ruck may be making headway in their attempt to overturn a centuries-old democratic freedom.

What I think this demonstrates, again, is that Carter-Ruck is not just an ordinary law firm, doing what ordinary law firms do. They are actively engaged in lobbying the government to curtail our liberties in the interests of their clients. They are behaving, in other words, like a right-wing activist group.

Presumably if the goverment takes this issue seriously enough, they will table emergency legislation which makes the absolute right to report Parliament fully explicit. In the meantime, judges could ensure that any secret injuction they do grant includes a statement spelling out that the measure does not apply to the reporting of Parliament.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, there’s also a pretty clear-cut ethical case for (peaceful, legal) direct political action against Carter-Ruck. The idea that a lawyer – or indeed any other worker – should be exempted from the moral consequences of their professional choices is, in my view, a self-serving myth.

Lawyers who seek to apply an unjust law – be that the law that jailed Oscar Wilde or the laws being used today to suppress freedom of speech – don’t evade moral accountability simply by hiding behind the fact that what they’re doing is ‘legal’. I can’t help but wonder if we might have avoided some of the trouble we’re now in if more had been done to challenge unethical companies like Carter-Ruck at an earlier stage.

But lastly, there has to be a question here about practicality. However much Carter Ruck and their corporate clients might like to suppress free speech through the use of one secret injunction after another, the recent Twitter-storm around Trafigura has shown that this can sometimes be impossible in practice.

If Carter-Ruck are right and Bridget Prentice is wrong, then it seems that I may, after all, have been in contempt of court when I posted the ‘banned’ Parliamentary Question on Twitter back in October. Would I be willing to do so again? I wouldn’t rule it out. And it strikes me that now would be a good time to get a head-count of bloggers and Tweeters prepared to consider engaging in peaceful civil disobedience should Carter-Ruck – or anyone else – attempt to gag the reporting of Parliament again. You can leave a comment here or email me via richardcameronwilson AT yahoo DOT co DOT UK.

Written by Richard Wilson

December 6, 2009 at 9:10 am

The HIV patient who died after his denialist “friend” persuaded him to stop taking his medications

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Of all the tragic individual stories I’ve come across recently about the impact of AIDS denialism, this has to be among the very saddest:

From Denying Aids

Maniotis claims that Lambros was like a brother to him. With such brothers, who needs enemies? The two men became friends, and Maniotis visited Lambros often in the last few years, his influence growing stronger and stronger, ultimately convincing him that HIV did not exist. Lambros stopped taking his medication and the result was devastating. After his death, Lambros’s family and friends found his medication in his refrigerator, untouched since 2007. Instead of his life-saving doctor prescribed medicine, Lambros was convinced to consume Maniotis-promoted vitamins…

HIV ultimately landed him at Howard University Hospital under unclear circumstances. The most likely scenario is that he was found confused and disoriented and was taken to the closest emergency room. He had developed encephalitis, a common outcome of end-stage HIV infection. He was later transferred to Georgetown Hospital, where he died of encephalitis. During his more lucid moments at the hospital, Lambros told his friends he was dying of AIDS…

Written by Richard Wilson

December 5, 2009 at 3:26 pm

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BBC Newsnight are still being sued for libel by Trafigura and Carter-Ruck

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From The Guardian

Carter Ruck’s support today for some of the changes put forward in the report came amid continuing criticism of firms that launch expensive libel claims against journalists and other publishers, often using conditional fee agreements which result in higher costs for defendants.

“If we don’t get reforms, what is there to stop a law firm like Carter Ruck bombarding journalists and suppressing information that is in the public interest for three years?” said Meirion Jones, producer at BBC’s Newsnight, which is currently being sued over its reporting of oil trading firm Trafigura.

Written by Richard Wilson

November 17, 2009 at 9:10 pm

“Skeptical Voter” launches today…

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From Skeptical Voter

NB – I should say that pretty much all the really difficult aspects of this project, including the writing of the press release below, were sorted out by the outstanding duo Craig Lucas and James O’ Malley!

Politicians to be asked for evidence of their commitment to evidence

New Skeptical Voter project hopes to hold MPs and candidates views on evidence-based policy to account

Author and campaigner Richard Wilson today launched a new campaign to hold to account the views of MPs and candidates standing at the next General Election with regard to ‘evidence-based policy’. ‘Skeptical Voter’ is an apolitical grassroots project by the ‘skeptic’ community – those who have a scientific worldview who believe that evidence should be at the centre of all public policy making. The Skeptical Voter website intends to identify which parliamentary candidates embrace the use of evidence as a means to inform their decisions and which prefer to obfuscate, ignore or suppress the evidence for political convenience.

Today sees the launch of phase one of their plan – Richard is asking for contributions to a collaborative ‘wiki’ on the website and for suggestions for questions to ask to MPs – the best of which will be put into a survey that will be sent to all 2010 General Election candidates.

Speaking about the project, Richard said, “It’s based on two principles and a hypothesis: The first principle is that everyone has a right to know where their MP stands on things like the role of scientific advisors, spending NHS cash on so-called ‘alternative’ treatments like homeopathy and the role of the libel laws in scientific discussion. The second principle is that MPs who stand on the wrong side of these issues ought to be held to account. Our hypothesis is that there are enough of us out there to make a splash if we get organised.”

Those wishing to get involved, or find out more information can go to the Skeptical Voter website at

Written by Richard Wilson

November 13, 2009 at 7:54 pm

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Secret injunctions: Ruck knows how many of them are out there

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“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we do not know we don’t know.”- Donald Rumsfeld, 12 Feb 2002

On Tuesday I joined a meeting of the UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights which focussed on “super-injunctions”. This is the name given to a legal order which not only bans a particular issue from being covered in the press, but also bans any reference to the ban.

It was one of these orders that had, notoriously, been used by controversial law-firm Carter Ruck, on behalf of oil-trader Trafigura, to suppress coverage of the now-famous “Minton report”, until the ban was circumvented by the online media. It was this that stirred the interest of the JCHR.

The meeting included journalists, editors, MPs, Lords and lawyers, including both the Guardian’s legal chief and two senior partners from Carter Ruck. The discussion was so wide-ranging that it would take more than one blog post to do it justice, but there were a couple of details that really stood out.

The first is that no-one knows how many secret super-injunctions are currently in force. While the UK state seems bent on meticulously recording every detail of its citizens’ phone, email and web-browsing habits, it is positively lackadaisical about tracking its own media gagging orders. Although each individual super-injunction is (we have to hope) being kept on file somewhere by the  judiciary, no-one, anywhere, is collating information  about the overall picture.

When asked about this issue in Parliament, the government’s response was simply that:

“The information requested is not available. The High Court collects figures on applications, however injunctions are not separately identifiable, and there are currently no plans to amend databases to do so.”

So there’s no way of knowing, on a global scale, how many of these gagging orders are being handed out, or for what sorts of purposes, or on whose behalf. It’s thus difficult to see how anyone could independently verify that the law is actually being applied fairly and proportionately.  What we effectively have is a secret state whose bans on media coverage are almost entirely beyond public scrutiny.

Individual newspapers will obviously know how many injunctions they’ve each received (the Guardian has reportedly had 12 this year alone), but as they’re forbidden from discussing the details, it will be impossible for newspaper editors to build up a global picture by talking to each other.

This lack of scrutiny seemed to be a real concern for members of the Committee, and there was much discussion about how they could determine the size of the problem and address it. One point I tried to make was that there is at least one group of people who could in theory tell us quite a lot about the number of super-injunctions being issued – the law firms like Carter Ruck who are involved in securing them.

At the moment we seem to  have a situation where the only people who have any idea of about the numbers,  are the same people who are profiting so handsomely from the UK libel/censorship system.

The second thing that stood out for me in the meeting was a discussion around “libel tourism”. It seems that our taxes may be helping to subsidise the activities of Carter Ruck, Shillings and their ilk, in this area. But more on that next time…

Written by Richard Wilson

November 6, 2009 at 12:24 am

Trafigura coverage still curtailed by libel abuse. UK media unable to report freely on deaths allegedly caused by dumping of Trafigura’s toxic waste

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*Update* See also: Doc Richard – Trafigura suppresses scientific lecture – allegedly

*Update 2* Rebellion spreads – Caroline Lucas MEP mentions the unmentionable.

There’s renewed coverage today of the ongoing legal battles following the notorious Ivory Coast toxic waste incident, in which the oil trader Trafigura has been implicated.

The Guardian (UK), Times (UK) and New York Times (US) all report that the £30 million compensation payment by Trafigura to victims of the disaster is in danger of being misappropriated after an Ivorian court ordered that the funds be frozen.

But note also the contrast in how the UK and US media have reported the background to the story. Here’s how the New York Times covers it:

The waste was shipped by Trafigura, an international commodities trading giant. About 108,000 people sought treatment for nausea, headaches, vomiting and abdominal pains, and at least 15 died. All had apparently been poisoned by the toxic brew of gasoline and caustic soda, refining byproducts dumped by Trafigura’s contractor.

Here’s the Guardian:

Hundreds of tonnes of sulphur-contaminated toxic oil waste were cheaply dumped on landfills and in ditches around Abidjan in 2006. The cargo ship had been chartered by Trafigura. In the weeks after, the fumes caused thousands of sick people to besiege local hospitals.

…and here’s the Times:

A cargo ship chartered by Trafigura dumped hundreds of tonnes of sulphur-contaminated toxic oil waste around Abidjan in 2006. In the following weeks the fumes caused thousands of people to need hospital treatment.

The deaths of “up to 17” Ivorians has been widely reported elsewhere. In previous articles, both the Times and the Guardian have referred to a UN report citing “official estimates” of 15 dead. So it seems odd that this seemingly crucial detail should now be omitted.

The New York Times is of course free to say what it likes because freedom of speech is protected under the US constitution, and New York State has a law which specifically prohibits the enforcement of UK libel judgements in NY, due to human rights concerns.

Fortunately in the UK we do still have (despite some recent confusion) an absolute right to report the proceedings of Parliament, so I can draw your attention to this recent statement from Evan Harris MP:

My understanding is that “Newsnight” is being threatened by the lawyers for Trafigura, Carter-Ruck, if it repeats an allegation… that deaths were caused by the dumping of toxic waste in Ivory Coast, even though in 2007 Hansard reported the Transfrontier Shipment of Waste Regulations laid by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs before Parliament, and a memorandum of explanation to those regulations stated:

“The recent example of the release of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast leading to the deaths of a number of people and the hospitalisation of thousands underlines the risks involved in the movement and management of waste.”

How can it be that that can be in Hansard, yet there are still threats of legal action against “Newsnight” if it reports the very same wording that is used in there? That cannot be right.

What Dr. Harris could also have mentioned is that, astoundingly, alongside these renewed threats, Trafigura’s libel action over this damning May 2009 news report, appears still to be ongoing.

Written by Richard Wilson

November 5, 2009 at 10:52 am

MPs to debate libel abuse and freedom of speech tomorrow

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CarterRuck have already contacted your MP to give their views on libel, ahead of tomorrow’s debate on freedom of speech. Now’s your chance to give yours:

Written by Richard Wilson

October 20, 2009 at 11:25 am

Carter Ruck and Trafigura have backed down…

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14th September 2006
Waterson Hicks
130 Fenchurch Street

For the attention of Mark Aspinall

RE: Caustic Tank Washings, Abidjan, Ivory Coast

Dear Sir,

In accordance with your instructions of 7th September 2006 in connection with the above matter we
advise on the following issues:

“the chemical consistency of gasoline caustic washings, especially the nature of mercaptans”,
“the toxicity of such washings”,
“the correct method of disposal”,
“the environmental and health impacts of waste”.

This report is prepared on the basis of the limited information currently available to us and accordingly
our views may change in due course.

1. Introduction

2. Three cargoes of approximately 28,000mts of coker naphtha were loaded at Brownsville,
Texas by Mt Seapurha (20th March 2006), Mt Moselle (25th April 2006) and Mt Seavinha (1st
June 2006). All three vessels subsequently transferred their cargoes to Mt Probo Koala (11th
April, 19th May and 18th June respectively).

3. In order to reduce the sulphur content of these cargoes, on-board washing took place. To
each cargo, 50m3 of caustic soda (NaOH, 33% aqueous) and 8kg ARI-100 EXL catalyst
(Cobalt phthalocyanine sulphonate) was added. The mixture was circulated for 24hrs and
allowed to settle before the caustic solution was drained to the slops tanks. In order to ensure
complete removal, the bottom of the naphtha phase was also removed.

4. This process was found to have reduced the mercaptan sulphur content by approximately
47%, and the naphtha was subsequently used as blendstock to make finished gasoline.
5. The combined slops from these washing operations were reported as the following:

o 150m3 NaOH
o 370m3 treated naphtha and free water
o 24kg ARM 00 EXL catalyst.

1.5 It appears that some or all of these slops were disposed of at waste sites in and
around Abidjan, Ivory Coast approximately in August 2006. This is alleged to have
caused, or in part contributed to, a high incidence of health problems being reported,
including nausea, breathing difficulties, vomiting and diarrhea.

2, Technical Discussion

In this section we provide explanations of the various technical aspects arising in consideration of this

2.1 Coker Naphtha is a hydrocarbon fraction that has been treated by “coking”, a thermal cracking
process that produces a straight-run petroleum (C5-C7) fraction from lower value heavy residual oils.
Si tout est comme ça,

2.2 Mercaptans are organic compounds containing Sulphur, which are also known as thiols. They are
analogous to alcohols (e.g. CH3CH2OH is ethanol, CH3CH2SH is ethanethiol). As a class of
compounds they are distinguished by their extremely unpleasant odour. Ethanethiol (ethyl mercaptan)
can be detected by humans in concentrations as low as 0.2 parts per billion in air. It is a component of
the skunk odour defence described as an intense rotten egg smell and was declared the “World’s
Smelliest Substance” by the 2000 Guinness Book of Records. It is added in very small quantities to
natural gas to allow users to detect leaks.

2.3 The process of the caustic washing of refined hydrocarbons to remove mercaptans and certain
other sulphur components, sometimes known as sweetening, is achieved in refineries by the Merox
reaction (MERcaptan OXidation).

2.4 The Merox Reaction
The first stage of this process is the reaction between Sodium hydroxide and any
mercaptans (thiols) present (Equation 1):
RSH + NaOH <-> RSNa + H20
Where R= hydrocarbon chain.

The product of this reaction is then oxidized in the presence of a catalyst (Equation 2). (In the subject
case, the catalyst used was ARI-100 EXL.)
4RSNa + 02 + 2H20 -»• 2RSSR + 4NaOH

The products are allowed to separate and the sodium hydroxide fraction is removed. In a refinery it is
then regenerated – the waste products are oxidised to relatively harmless sulphates which can be
handled by wastewater treatment facilities and the sodium hydroxide returned to the beginning of the

2.5 In our view the exercise onboard the Mt Probo Koala was an attempt to replicate
this refinery process at sea.

3. Health and Environmental Impacts

In this section, outline information is provided concerning hazard constituents likely to be present in
the residues/slops produced by the process conducted on board the vessel. The concentrations at
which these compounds are likely to have been present are currently unknown although, as will be
seen below, we have made some relevant calculations.

3.1 Sodium hydroxide (NaOH, aqueous solution) is corrosive and can cause severe burns on contact
with skin. Any inhalation of mist would lead to burns within the respiratory system.

3.2 ARI-100 EXL (Cobalt phthalocyanine sulphonate) is listed by the manufacturer as an irritant to
eyes, skin and the respiratory system.

3.3 Coker naphtha is volatile and flammable and a possible irritant.
Page 3

3.4 Alkyl mercaptans (Thiols) are flammable liquids (ethyl-, propyl-) or gas (methyl). They are present
in coker naphtha at around 2000ppm. Their toxicity increases with decreasing carbon chain length.
Exposure to methyl or ethyl mercaptan can lead to a cough, headaches, nausea and breathing
difficulties. All have a strong unpleasant odour. Occupational exposure limits are around 0.5ppm in air.
Contact with acid will lead to hydrogen sulphide production.

3.5 Sodium alkyl mercaptides (sodium alkanethiolate, RSNa) are flammable solids that are soluble in
water. They are the product of the reaction between mercaptans and sodium hydroxide. As with the
mercaptans, toxicity increases with decreasing carbon chain length. Sodium methyl mercaptide
(CH3SNa) is harmful by ingestion and inhalation, corrosive and toxic. Contact with skin can lead to
permanent ulceration.

3.6 Sodium hydrosulphide (NaHS) is the product of the reaction between hydrogen sulphide and
sodium hydroxide. It is harmful, toxic by inhalation and ingestion and can lead to production of H2S
gas. It will cause skin ulceration and possible corneal damage.

3.7 Sodium sulphide (Na2S) is a by-product of the reaction. It is soluble in water and is corrosive and
harmful. Inhalation of mist may lead to lung damage. Contact with acid will produce H2S gas.

3.8 Dialkyl disulphides (RSSR) are the product of equation 2. They are not soluble in water. Dimethyl
disulphide is flammable and is judged to be very toxic to humans and dangerous to the environment.

3.9 Hydrogen sulphide (H2S) is a corrosive gas. It is highly toxic. At low concentrations the gas has a
strong unpleasant odour. UK Occupational Health guidelines allow exposure to 5ppm for 8 hours or
10ppm for 15 minutes. Between 20 and 100ppm the ability to smell the gas is lost. Negative health
effects, such as eye irritation may be observed from as low as 20ppm. Prolonged exposure at these
low levels may result in pharyngitis and bronchitis. Between 250 and 500ppm, pulmonary oedema
may occur. Above these levels, other effects may occur such as vomiting, breathing difficulties, loss of
consciousness and death. A single breath of 1000ppm concentration in air may be sufficient to induce
a coma and death.

3.10. There are other components of the naphtha, such as phenols, which may react with the sodium
hydroxide to form further harmful chemicals.

3.11 The above comments relate to the likely effect on humans of the compounds mentioned, they
would also have a severe and negative effect on soil and aquatic flora and fauna due to their acutely
toxic properties and high COD.


In this section, the specific details relating to the discharge in Abidjan are discussed.

4.1 Although we have little detail of events as they occurred in Abidjan, we understand that the
residues and slops produced by the performance of the simulated Merox process on board were
discharged from the vessel and found their way onto waste tips in or around Abidjan. By their very
nature these residues/slops will have contained all of the potentially harmful substances listed in
section 3 above.

4.2 These substances can be subdivided into categories; those that are harmful only on close contact,
those that are volatile and may achieve concentrations in the air that are harmful at some distance
from the location of the substance or that whilst themselves are only harmful on close contact but may
degrade into other substances that are volatile that may cause harm at some distance. In the first
category we would put sodium hydroxide (caustic soda), the ARI-100 EXL catalyst and the materials
originating from the ‘other components’ of the naphtha referred to in point 3.10 above. In the second
category we would put mercaptans, mercaptides, sodium hydrosulphide, sodium sulphide and dialkyl
disulphides. All of these are liable to have noxious smells themselves and, by degradation, are likely to
release hydrogen sulphide into the atmosphere.

4.3 Of course the quantity of each contaminant present in the waste and its concentration would be
significant in determining the extent of any effects in the locale of the waste. No such information is
available. However we have considered the situation concerning the whole cargo and made various
calculations as follows.

4.4 Measurements taken before and after the washing process show that the total amount of
mercaptan sulphur in the naphtha was reduced by 47%. This is equivalent to 72.765 tonnes of
sulphur. This would have been initially converted into mercaptides, as demonstrated in equation 1.
Some of these mercaptides would then have been converted into the relevant disulphides and
remained in the naphtha, and some would have remained as mercaptides, or been converted to
sodium sulphide or sodium hydrosulphide which would subsequently have been discharged with the
water. The conversion rate for this reaction is not known in this instance, that is for this shipboard
process, although clearly it is relevant because it dictates the quantity of sulphur compounds likely to
be present in the waste.

4.5 To investigate this question we have considered the refinery process. The manufacturer of the
ARI-100 EXL catalyst have produced approximate figures for the percentage of the waste products
above that may be found in typical refinery caustic waste. These figures are shown below. Where a
range is given, the highest number is used to indicate the maximum potential presence of each

Waste product
Mass in 285 mt slops on
% of Waste by Weight
Mt Probo Koala
NaOH ( Sodium hydroxide)
Na2S (Sodium sulphide)
NaHS (Sodium Hydrosulphide)
NaSR ( Mercaptides)
(Suarez, 1996)

4.6 However, the reaction may not have occurred efficiently because of the high
concentration of sodium hydroxide used. Research into the Merox reaction by Liu et al
(2005) found that the optimum concentration for use in the sweetening of LPG was
2.75 moles/litre. Above this concentration, the reaction efficiency declined steeply and
at 8.25 moles/litre , the conversion rate from mercaptides to disulphides was just 20%.
The 33% aqueous solution used on the Mt Probo Koala was approximately 11
moles/litre. This was clearly well above the most efficient concentration and so limited
conversion might be expected.

4.7 While it is not appropriate to apply these figures directly to the operations on the
Mt Probo Koala, it is not unreasonable to surmise that there was a considerable
quantity of mercaptide, sodium sulphide and sodium hydrosulphide dissolved in the
aqueous phase of the slops, possibly far greater then found in refinery produced
caustic waste.

4.8 The organic naphtha fraction that was also drained into the slops tanks (46.5% of
the total volume according to the AVR analysis) would have contained some of the
original mercaptans, at approximately 950ppm, along with some of the alkyl
disulphides that are the product of equation 2.

4.9 The effect of the preceding is that the slop/residue waste discharged from the
vessel is likely to have contained very high concentrations of noxious sulphur
compounds dissolved in the water phase and high concentrations in the naphtha
(hydrocarbon) phase.

5. The likely effects of improper disposal of such residues.

5. In this section we discuss the potential effects of such waste on people exposed to it as a result of
improper disposal.

5.1 The most severe symptoms are likely to be experienced by those living and
working at or near the dump sites who may come into direct contact with the liquid
slops residues and high concentrations of gas. For these people, the possible
consequences are burns to the skin, eyes and lungs, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of
consciousness and death.

5.2 Of significant concern is that the sulphur compounds can break down in the
environment and release hydrogen sulphide gas.

5.3 The high number of reported casualties suggests that, unless the waste tips are
frequented by large numbers of people, the extensive presence of gaseous pollutants
as the cause. This is clearly consistent with there having been a significant release of
hydrogen sulphide gas. This would cause effects ranging from serious respiratory and
eye problems at high concentrations near to the source through to discomfort and
nausea brought about by the unpleasant smell in areas further from the source where
the gas plume is more diffuse. These are the precise effects reported in this incident
and we conclude hydrogen sulphide release to have been the likely cause.

6. Further Considerations

In this section we raise any matters that are pertinent to the issue and may require
further investigation.

6.1 The company employed by the operators of the Probo Koala to dispose of this
waste may have attempted to treat or partially treat the material before dumping.
These attempts included the addition of acids, which may have seemed logical in
order to neutralise the sodium hydroxide. Such actions would in fact have been
inappropriate unless conducted under tightly controlled conditions as it would have
exacerbated the production of hydrogen sulphide gas. Knowledge of any treatment
attempts would be invaluable in determining the final constituency of the waste.

6.2 The waste site is likely to contain a variety of other compounds, some of which
may have been toxic and reactive. This is especially likely if the sites have previously
been used by the waste disposal companies for other, perhaps improper, chemical
disposal operations. Information concerning the dump sites may help to identify the
presence of other harmful compounds and which might have been partly responsible
for this incident by reacting with the Probo Koala slops, or (and unlikely) even solely

6.3. Press reports of such incidents are notoriously unreliable and often overstate the
problem. Further it is well known that ‘mass hysteria’ can cause a general over-
statement of effect. It may well be that local enquiries may establish that the effects of
the incident were less than have been reported.

7. Questions

In this section we raise questions that may be useful to investigate.

Was the waste properly characterised before hand over to the waste disposal

Were samples taken before or during the pumping to shore?

Did the waste disposal company treat the waste in any way prior to disposal?

Was the waste pumped onto the disposal site or dumped in containers?

Have any samples (soil/water/air) been taken at the site since the dumping?

Has any analysis of air samples in the affected area taken place to establish exactly

what chemical species are present and causing the problems?

. Further Action

8.1 Samples from the dumping locations and air and water samples from the surrounding area would
aid the investigation and help to show whether the incident in question is partly or wholly responsible
for the health effects reported, as would any analysis of the slops/residue waste before or during
discharge. Sampling should be conducted carefully and to a proper program which would be entirely
dependent on local circumstances. It should be born in mind that the sampling and any subsequent
analysis should be capable of identifying other and unexpected contaminants to establish whether
dumping of toxic wastes on the sites was a regular occurrence.

7.2 Information on the waste sites, including a summary of the types of waste disposed there,
especially any toxic or reactive chemicals, would be helpful if available (which we doubt) to thoroughly
establish the type and/or source of the pollution

8. Proper disposal regulations, as defined within the EU.

8.1 These compounds are hazardous, are so identified on the relevant manufacturer’s safety data
sheets and as such their disposal is governed in Europe by Council Directive 91/689/EEC on the
Disposal of Hazardous Waste. This legislation describes the need to separate hazardous and non-
hazardous waste and to report any waste disposal occurrences with full details of the type of waste
and the method of disposal used.

8.2 The spent caustic waste produced on-board the Mt Probo Koala appears to have been dumped on
terrestrial waste sites. This means that the incident would be covered in Europe by Council Directive
1999/31/EC, commonly called the landfill directive. Inspection of this legislation reveals that
this dumping was in contravention of these regulations on several counts. The Landfill
Directive prohibits the disposal of waste that is:
» liquid;
» corrosive or
« flammable.

One may therefore conclude that the landfill disposal of this waste, which is liquid,
corrosive and flammable, would be forbidden in a European Union member state.

8.3 While it is possible to dispose of these compounds by incineration, the odour and
potential harmfulness of the resultant fumes mean that this is not practical in
populated areas. Ideally, the solution would be treated by “Wet Air Oxidation” during
which the Chemical Oxygen Demand (COD) is significantly reduced and these
compounds are oxidised to relatively harmless sulphates and carboxylic acids which
can then be handled by standard wastewater treatment facilities.

8.4 So far as we are aware there are no local regulations special to Ivory Coast.
However an ex member of our staff with whom we still work has recently toured
African countries on behalf of the UN to discuss the establishment of such regulations.
He advises that the intent of most Countries that he visited is to implement regulations
similar to those applicable in Europe.

8.5. Consideration should also be given to the effects of the Basel Convention on the
Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal.

9. Conclusions

9.1 The slops produced during the caustic washing of three cargoes of Coker
Naphtha, totalling 500m3, were identified as a mixture of “spent” NaOH, naphtha, free
water and an organo-metallic catalyst used in the Merox reaction. This mixture was
also likely to contain several reaction intermediates and by-products, including but not
limited to Na2S, NaHS, NaSR, RSSR and H2S.

9.2 Appropriate disposal methods for such a material include separation and
treatment using wet air oxidation followed by wastewater treatment.

9.3 The compounds listed above are capable of causing severe human health effects
through inhalation and ingestion. These include headaches, breathing difficulties,
nausea, eye irritation, skin ulceration, unconsciousness and death. There would also
be a strong and unpleasant odour over a large area. All of these effects were as
reported in this incident.

9.4 Some of these symptoms may only be experienced by those in direct contact with
the waste whilst others are a consequence of gas inhalation. Some symptoms such
as nausea may be a result of exposure to low levels of foul smelling fumes.

9.5 Other factors such as any treatment method adopted by the disposal contractor or
the presence of other chemical waste on the site may have exacerbated the problem.

9.5 Under Council Directive 1999/31/EC, disposal of this waste onto landfill sites
would be forbidden in a European member state.

This report was prepared prior to the arrival of documents providing details of events at the discharge
port and will be updated in due course.

We trust that the above is of assistance and will be pleased to assist further as required.

Yours faithfully,

Minton, Trehame & Davies Ltd.

John Minton.

Suarez, F. J. (1996) Proper use and spent solution management ensure the safest and most cost-
effective operations. Hydrocarbon Processing
Liu, R., Xia, D., Xiang, Y. and Tian, Y. (2005) Effects of Caustic Concentration on LPG Sweetening.
Petroleum Science and Technology, 23: 711-721

Written by Richard Wilson

October 16, 2009 at 9:42 pm

Posted in Don't Get Fooled Again

Tagged with

The banana cake of liberty…

with 13 comments

liberty cakeSometimes we all have to make sacrifices…

From The Guardian

Just 42 minutes after the Guardian story was published, the internet had revealed what the paper could not.

Bloggers and the so-called Twitterati tonight claimed a historic victory for the power of the internet over what they saw as attempts by vested interests to shut down freedom of speech.

One of the quickest to reveal the full story was a 34-year old human rights activist, Richard Wilson. He was baking a banana cake in his kitchen in London when he first found out about the gag on the Guardian from a message posted on Twitter.

A few minutes of frantic internet searching later he published the fact that the gag related to Farrelly’s questions about Trafigura. He also published the text of the questions itself and became so absorbed in cracking the puzzle, his cake burned to a crisp. He said it was a small price to pay.

“I knew Trafigura were incredibly litigious and I knew Carter Ruck were defending them,” he explained. “I had a hunch, so I went to the website of the parliamentary order papers where they publish all the questions, searched for Trafigura and a question from Farrelly popped up and I tweeted it straight away. It took several tweets and then I pasted in the link.”

At 9.13pm he signed on to his Twitter account, printed the link to the Guardian report about the gag and wrote: “Any guesses what this is about? My money is on, ahem, #TRAFIGURA!”

By 9.30pm he had published all of Farrelly’s questions. He was not alone in trying to crack the puzzle. Paul Staines, the political blogger who uses the name Guido Fawkes, posted a blog making the link between the gag and Paul Farrelly’s questions just before 10pm.

From that point a torrent of references to the questions, the gag on the Guardian and Trafigura flooded out. According to Twitter at noon today, the three most popular search terms on the site were “outrageous gagging order trafigura dumping scandal”, “ruck” and “guardian”.

As exactly the publicity Trafigura was surely trying to avoid grew and grew, the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, weighed in on Twitter at 10.01am stating: “Very interested concerned about this #trafigura / Guardian story the LibDems are planning to take action on this.”

Mainstream media, including the Spectator website also picked up the story with the thought: “It’s hard to recall, even in the long history of appalling gagging orders, a more disgraceful injunction than this.”

Satirists, such as Ian Martin, a writer on The Thick Of It, seized the opportunity to amplify the coverage that Trafigura was getting by repeating the company’s name again and again to ensure it became a “high trending” topic on Twitter.

During the morning, Private Eye was published and ran Farrelly’s questions in full as the first item on its politics page, although the bald presentation with no reference to the gagging order had long been superseded by the reports flowing across the internet.

All the while, efforts were continuing to persuade Trafigura to alter the terms of the order to allow the Guardian to report the parliamentary business, and at 12.19pm Carter Ruck emailed the Guardian agreeing to do so. In the end, the Twitterati claimed victory, led by one of its most popular users, the comedian Stephen Fry. “Can it be true?” he wrote. “Carter-Ruck caves in! Hurrah! Trafigura will deny it had anything to do with Twitter, but we know don’t we?”

NB – One crucial clarification – I’m ashamed to say that I had actually just been put in charge of minding the cake (and taking it out of the oven before it incinerated) after my wife went to bed. She has been very understanding…

UPDATE – By popular demand, here is the recipe for “Liberty Cake”: 9 bananas, 450g flour, 150g butter, 220g sugar, 2 eggs,1 lemon, tad lime juice, 4 tsp bicarb of soda. Mix. Bake to a crisp.

Written by Richard Wilson

October 14, 2009 at 6:16 am

The “Minton Report” – is this the detail that Carter-Ruck wanted suppressed?

with one comment

At first glance, it’s difficult to see why Trafigura’s lawyers Carter-Ruck would go to such trouble to get a media gag on Paul Farrelly MP’s Parliamentary Question about the press freedom implications of the Trafigura case. For the most part, the cat’s already out of the bag, and Trafigura (and Carter-Ruck) have already been roundly exposed for the [expletive of choice here]s they undoubtedly are.

But there is one detail in the banned Parliamentary question that seems mysteriously un-reported in the UK media: Paul Farrelly’s reference to “the Minton report”. No UK news article on Trafigura makes any mention of this report, but you can find some references to it in the non-UK press.

Fortunately, by the power of wikileaks (and the sleuthing of @csdenton) you can read the report here.

The existence of the Minton report, which was given to Trafigura in 2006 but only recently disclosed, suggests that, despite their denials, the company may in fact have been aware from an early stage that the cargo of waste that ended up getting dumped in Ivory Coast was highly toxic.

Trafigura now seem so keen on suppressing this information that they (and Carter-Ruck) have attempted to gag the UK media from reporting proceedings at the heart of our democracy in order to stop the truth from getting out.

Written by Richard Wilson

October 13, 2009 at 12:07 am

The Parliamentary Question Carter Ruck and Trafigura don’t want you to see

with 46 comments

Update 19/10/09 – London art gallery dumps toxic sponsorship deal with Trafigura!

From The Guardian

The Guardian has been prevented from reporting parliamentary proceedings on legal grounds which appear to call into question privileges guaranteeing free speech established under the 1688 Bill of Rights.

Today’s published Commons order papers contain a question to be answered by a minister later this week. The Guardian is prevented from identifying the MP who has asked the question, what the question is, which minister might answer it, or where the question is to be found.

The Guardian is also forbidden from telling its readers why the paper is prevented – for the first time in memory – from reporting parliament. Legal obstacles, which cannot be identified, involve proceedings, which cannot be mentioned, on behalf of a client who must remain secret.

The only fact the Guardian can report is that the case involves the London solicitors Carter-Ruck, who specialise in suing the media for clients, who include individuals or global corporations.

From, “Questions for Oral or Written Answer beginning on Tuesday 13 October 2009”

N Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice, what assessment he has made of the effectiveness of legislation to protect (a) whistleblowers and (b) press freedom following the injunctions obtained in the High Court by (i) Barclays and Freshfields solicitors on 19 March 2009 on the publication of internal Barclays reports documenting alleged tax avoidance schemes and (ii) Trafigura and Carter-Ruck solicitors on 11 September 2009 on the publication of the Minton report on the alleged dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, commissioned by Trafigura.

Click here for more background on the Trafigura/Carter-Ruck libel-abuse cover-up

UPDATE – pleased to see that the mighty Guido Fawkes had the same idea. Injunction scuppered…

UPDATE 2 – “Jack of Kent” gives a legal view

UPDATE 3 – Big thumbs up to The Spectator for, I think, being the first mainstream UK media to break ranks and fully report what’s been going on. If  only they were this good the whole time – for any Spectator staff who are reading, can I request more of the defending-democracy stuff and less of the pseudo-debating AIDS-denialism? I hope Lord Fowler knows what you’re letting him in for!

Written by Richard Wilson

October 12, 2009 at 9:00 pm

Posted in Don't Get Fooled Again

Tagged with

Yet more false and misleading claims on asbestos from the Sunday Telegraph

with 4 comments

The Sunday Telegraph’s latest comment piece from Christopher Booker, downplaying the health risks of white asbestos, is in a similar vein to the 41 other articles that Booker has had published on the subject since 2002.

Booker again repeats his false (and dangerous) claim that white asbestos poses “virtually zero” risk to human health, and his long-debunked assertion that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) once agreed with him on this point.

He claims that concerns about the health risks of white asbestos are based on a “confusion”, which has been “deliberately promoted”  by personal injury lawyers and asbestos removal contractors, and that the Health and Safety Executive has latterly been “shamefully conniving with both these rackets”.

The ‘hook’ for the latest article is a ruling from the Advertising Standards Agency, about a series of HSE radio ads highlighting the risks faced by construction and maintenance workers in older buildings where asbestos is still be present. The ads were part of a wider HSE campaign to encourage trades-people to protect themselves adequately when handling asbestos.

Following a complaint from the indefatigable John Bridle, the Advertising Standards Agency had ruled that the advertisements were misleading.

The HSE had suggested that six joiners, six electricians, three plumbers and 20 tradesmen died every week from asbestos-related diseases. After looking at the calculations used to produce these figures, the ASA concluded that the numbers used should instead have been “six joiners, five electricians, three plumbers and 18 other tradesmen” (ie. a total of 32 workman dying each week from asbestos-related illness rather than 35).

The ASA agreed that “it was reasonable for HSE to highlight the death rates for asbestos-related diseases, including those which were based on estimates, to today’s tradesmen. We considered however that the ads should have made clear that they were based on estimates and the claims should have been made in less absolute tones.”

Booker says that Bridle had complained to the ASA that the HSE’s publicity campaign was “wilfully misleading”, and that their estimates about the number of asbestos deaths was “wildly exaggerated”, and that the ASA had upheld all of Bridle’s complaints.

But so far as I can see, the ASA ruling did not conclude the HSE had deliberately set out to mislead people, or that the figures they used were “wildly exaggerated”. And there is certainly nothing in the ruling to support Booker’s conspiracy theory that the Health and Safety Executive had been “putting out advertisements designed to panic the public into falling for the wiles either of the lawyers or of rapacious removal contractors.”

Written by Richard Wilson

October 4, 2009 at 8:05 am

“Don’t Get Fooled Again” at Leicester Skeptics in the Pub

with one comment

I had an excellent time on Tuesday talking about state-sponsored conspiracy theories to Leicester “Skeptics in the Pub”. The event was masterfully-convened by Simon Perry, who also happens to be one of the chief authors of the “quacklash” against the General Chiropractic Council’s misguided and heavy-handed abuse of UK libel law to attack freedom of speech. Also in attendance was the legendary Neil Denny, of “Little Atoms” fame.

In less than two years, Leicester skeptics have come from nowhere to being able to draw a crowd of 100 people on a Tuesday night on a regular basis. There were some interesting chats afterwards, and it was also great to meet James, Andy and Al. Unfortunately the feed to the Ipadio phonecast didn’t work 100% on this occasion, but it’s nothing that couldn’t be fixed and does like a great idea for future events.

Written by Richard Wilson

September 21, 2009 at 6:10 am

Leicester Skeptics in the Pub

with one comment

All being well, my talk to Leicester Skeptics in the Pub this evening should be coming through live online from 7.30pm via this link:

This of course is in no way a substitute for the real-life, actual, 3-dimensional Leicester Skeptics experience, but if you can’t make it this could be a good second. If for any reason what comes out of your PC speakers is anything less than a virtuosi performance, this will doubtless be wholly due to interwebs interference and you should really have come along to the real thing!

Written by Richard Wilson

September 15, 2009 at 1:41 pm