THE Church Commissioners are to dump their £1.6 million holding
in the British oil-exploration company SOCO International.
The decision, announced on Wednesday, comes after a protracted
campaign by the Commissioners and other investors to persuade the
company to clarify its position over a series of allegations of
human-rights abuses, and bribery and corruption during its
operations in and around Virunga National Park in the Democratic
Republic of the Congo.
It comes less than a month after the Commissioners backed a move
at SOCO's annual general meeting to sack the chairman, Rui de
Sousa, and appoint an independent chairman to examine the company's
activities in the World Heritage site.
The Commissioners' Head of Responsible Investment, Edward Mason,
accused SOCO of failing to respond "positively or sincerely" to
"We have called time because without the changes we sought this
is not a sustainable or ethical investment for Church funds," he
said. "We take engagement with companies very seriously. The lack
of appropriate corporate governance was clear at the AGM, and left
us nowhere to go but full divestment. The company has been placed
on our restricted list with immediate effect, and all our
investment managers have been notified."
The Commissioners and the Pensions Board first raised
concerns with SOCO in November 2013, and increased the pressure
The secretary of the Ethical Investment Advisory Group, Adam
Matthews, who led the Commissioners' negotiations with SOCO, said:
"We are deeply concerned about the failure of SOCO International to
properly and fully address our four concerns - in particular, to
ensure that an open and transparent enquiry is held into the
allegations of corruption and human-rights abuses.
"The response of the company that has emerged from our
engagement, and crystallised at the AGM, has led us to recommend
The Commissioners' four main concerns were: the need for a
"wide-ranging and transparent" independent inquiry into the
allegations of bribery, corruption, and human-rights abuses; a lack
of independent and effective corporate governance; the adoption of
best practice, and internationally recognised environmental and
social standards; and unequivocal respect for park boundaries
within a World Heritage Site.
Earlier this year, Global Witness, an anti-corruption watchdog,
produced evidence suggesting that SOCO had paid at least £27,440 to
a Congolese army officer in charge of its survey team's security.
The officer had already been filmed trying to bribe a park warden,
and his soldiers were harassing opponents.
An inquiry commissioned by the company found no evidence of
intimidation, however, and said that the bribery allegations were
Among the other institutional shareholders concerned by SOCO's
activities are the insurance giant Aviva, and the asset-management
group Investec, which has already sold its SOCO shares in what it
called "the ultimate expression of discontent".
SOCO declined to comment on the decision. A spokesman said "SOCO
does not comment on individual relationships with