An oil firm in Edinburgh has been accused of complicity in human rights abuses in Africa.

Cairn Energy is named in a new report by War On Want that says UK companies are guilty of a “new colonial invasion” in the pursuit of minerals.

The report is called The New Colonialism: Britain’s scramble for Africa’s energy and mineral resources. It says that British firms control resources worth more than $1 trillion but often at the expense of the environment and human rights.

Cairn Energy is criticised because of its plans to explore for gas and oil in Western Sahara, a disputed territory in north west Africa, bordered by Morocco to the north.

Morocco has occupied much of Western Sahara since 1975 and tens of thousands of people were expelled by force, many to camps in the Algerian desert where 165,000 refugees still live.

War On Want says that by doing deals with the Moroccan government, oil companies such as Cairn are complicit in the illegal and violent occupation of Western Sahara.

The report says that in 2013 Cairn Energy secured a 20 per cent interest in the Cap Boujdour exploration block, in waters off Western Sahara. The company joined a consortium led by US firm Kosmos Energy and which included the Moroccan government.

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According to War On Want, Morocco’s occupation is a “blatant disregard” for international law, which accords the Saharawi people the right to freely determine the status of their homeland and the way in which their resources are to be used. “Foreign oil investment boosts Morocco’s frail veneer of international legitimacy and finances the expensive occupation,” says the report.

“Cairn described the exploration area in a 2013 media release as ‘offshore Morocco’ and failed to mention Western Sahara. In December 2014, after conducting exploration work, the consortium became the first companies to drill for oil off Western Sahara and in March 2015 announced that they had discovered traces of oil some 170 kilometres off the coast, and that they would come back to drill more on a later occasion.”

The report adds: “Kosmos Energy is headquartered in Dallas, Texas but is registered in the tax haven of Bermuda. The former Director of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, has been a member of the Kosmos Board of Directors since 2012.”

The UK Government is also criticised for using its power so that British companies have access to Africa’s gold, platinum, diamonds, copper, oil, gas and coal.

“This was the case during the colonial period and is still the case today,” according to War On Want. “This report exposes the long term involvement of the British government, (whether Labour or Conservative) through its trade and investment policies, to influence and control British companies’ access to raw materials and the way trade is conducted with Africa.”

It says: “It has been secured through a revolving door between Whitehall and British mining companies, with at least five British government officials taking up seats on the boards of mining companies operating in Africa.”

War on Want’s condemnation of Cairn Energy followed a decision last month by the Norway Oil Fund to sells its shares in the Edinburgh-based firm in protest at its activity in the Western Sahara area.

An ethics council which advises the Norway Oil Fund said that Cairn Energy and Kosmos Energy should be excluded from its portfolio.

The companies are excluded based on an assessment of the risk of particularly serious violations of fundamental ethical norms Norway Oil Fund

The council said that exploration could cause the situation to deteriorate in the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara, where the Polisario Front has been leading opposition to Moroccan rule since 1975.

A statement said “Norges Bank has decided to exclude the companies Cairn Energy Plc and Kosmos Energy Ltd from the investment universe of the Government Pension Fund Global. The companies are excluded based on an assessment of the risk of particularly serious violations of fundamental ethical norms.”

Cairn Energy has its HQ in Edinburgh with offices in London, Stavangar in Norway, and Dakar, Senegal. It describes itself as “one of Europe’s leading independent oil and gas exploration and development companies”

Its website says that negotiations are on-going for a continued presence in the offshore Boujdour area.

A spokesperson for Cairn said: “Cairn Energy PLC is disappointed by Norges Bank’s divestment of its shareholding in the Company following the recommendation of the Norwegian Council on Ethics, which we understand relates to the Group’s interests in Western Sahara. Cairn participated in one exploration well offshore Western Sahara two years ago (Cairn 20%, Kosmos Energy 55% Operator) which was unsuccessful, and it has no current operations in the region.”

The spokesperson added: “Cairn has always acted in accordance with international law which states that responsible exploration offshore Western Sahara, a UN designated non-self-governing territory, can occur in parallel with the UN-led discussion on the region’s future. As a company with a strong commitment to corporate social responsibility and local community consultation across our global operations, and as signatory to the UN Global Compact, Cairn’s priority is to maintain transparency around all our activities and to comply with all international laws and regulations.”

A UK Government spokesperson said: “The UK plays a leading role in supporting Africa to make the most of its oil, gas and mining resources, providing vital foreign investment to encourage economic development, as well as expert advice to help manage resources effectively and stamp out corruption. This is helping accelerate economic growth, create jobs and increase funds for essential public services – which is firmly in the interests of Africa and the UK.”

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Photo thanks to Western Sahara Resource Watch.

A version of this story was published in the Sunday Mail on 17 July 2016.