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A licence to loot

Tom Devine is a decent American. A fighter for what he calls “free speech dissent” — whistle-blowing to you and me — he conceals the steel of a lifelong professional commitment to whistle-blowers beneath a gentle, soft-spoken exterior. It seems like he could not hurt a fly. But when he talks about Executive Order 13303 a quiet rage gathers about him.

Signed by United States President George W Bush in May, the order attracted only scant media attention when it was finally reported in August. Given that the order is a blank cheque for corporate anarchy in Iraq this is very curious indeed.

A Web search reveals that apart from alternative media such as the Los Angeles Independent Media Centre, by and large the mainstream US media chose not to take the issue on, and with rare exceptions, the international media likewise.

Either the executive order is unworthy of attention and comment or it offers the most abundant proof of what Bush is up to in Iraq. I will let you decide.

The order prohibits the operation of the judicial process in respect of both the Development Fund for Iraq and “all Iraqi petroleum and petroleum products, and interests”. Section 1(b) shields these interests “of any nature whatsoever” if it “arises from” or is “related to” the “sale or marketing of … all Iraqi petroleum and petroleum products … that are or hereafter come within the possession or control of United States persons”.

Section 3 confirms that “persons” includes entities such as corporations. In other words, it takes the opera- tion of all US corporations involved in the Iraqi oil business, however indirectly, outside of the law.

That means all corporate activities with roots or any connection to Iraqi oil. It includes commerce such as plastics in the petrochemical industry or anything else for which Iraqi oil becomes relevant, thus blending Iraqi oil with domestic supplies or industry.

It is truly astounding. As a lawyer you sometimes interpret a legal document and then decide that you have given it a meaning that it can not possibly have. So you reread. This was such an occasion. But it is so.

The order covers everything from extraction through to transportation, advertising, manufacture, customer service, corporate records and payment of taxes.

As Devine’s report for his pressure group, the Government Account-ability Project, puts it, “the executive order cancels the concept of corporate accountability and abandons the rule of law. Translated from the legalese, this is a licence for corporations to loot Iraq and its citizens.”

It means that the oil industry is magically exempt from liability for a vast range of things, including health and safety violations, child labour, minimum wage and other employment rights such as equal opportunity, consumer fraud, clean environment duties, and shareholder accountability, to name but a few.

For US companies such as Bechtel and Halliburton, there is a double beauty to this beast. They have become merrily endowed with US government contracts, post-invasion, and are now immune from the entire system of administrative law that ordinarily applies to protect the public interest of the taxpayer.

The Development Fund for Iraq, which is the financing arm for post-war economic activity, is the other beneficiary of this outrageous liability waiver. As Devine notes, this means that World Bank and other capital from international financial institutions will be exempt from enforcement of any congressional or other checks and balances imposed by US law.

Against this backdrop, US rhetoric about democracy and the rule of law is as laughable as it is nauseating. Last week Joseph Wilson, the former ambassador/Bush administration spy turned whistle-blower who has emerged to haunt the Bush administration over its “evidence” of an Iraqi threat, was honoured at a ceremony in the National Press Club in Washington DC with the first Ridenhour Award for Truth-Telling.

The awards were established in honour of Ron Ridenhour, the Vietnam veteran who in 1969 wrote a letter to the Congress and the Pentagon describing the horrific events at My Lai — the infamous massacre of the Vietnam War. His action brought the outrage to the attention of the American public and the world.

My friend Lala Camerer, who now works in DC for the Centre for Public Integrity, describes the occasion to me thus: “It was humbling to watch Wilson, once very much part of the establishment, and now effectively shunned by former colleagues, be honoured by a crowd made up of largely investigative journalists and public information advocates.

Especially moving, says Camerer, was the moment when Wilson, overcome by emotion, apologised to his wife saying tearfully: “If I could give you back your anonymity, I would. I am truly sorry. It seems that the political agenda is more important than American national security or your life.”

Under Executive Order 13303 someone like Wilson would have no protection for blowing the whistle on any unlawful act committed by an American company involved in the Iraqi oil business.

When, a month ago, I wrote of the grand and dangerous delusions of modern US imperialism, and of its real purpose and intent, I was greeted with the predictable howls of zealous outrage from a range of American apologists and Zionist surrogates. A gruesome axis, with intertwined motives and interests, they simply can’t face the truth. But Executive Order 13303 cannot be denied. It is the truth.

Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, now argues that the rest of the world must unite in its opposition to the US government. The headline of a recent profile in the British media described Stiglitz as a whistle-blower because of his damaging insider critique of his former employer, the World Bank, and especially the International Monetary Fund.

It has suddenly become terribly acceptable, trendy even, to be a whistle-blower; Devine’s life’s work has not been in vain.

That is as it may be, but Stiglitz is no Ché Guevara. When moderates like him start arguing for a global opposition to the US then I think it is safe to conclude that Executive Order 13303 is just the tip of the iceberg.

Our opposition is not to the American people any more than it is with Zimbabweans in the case of President Robert Mugabe, though the American people are undoubtedly far more culpable for the rise to power of its rogue leadership.

The question is how exactly do you take on Goliath? Seeing and telling the truth represents a start. Protesting is a further vital step. Conveniently, Israel will provide a key stimulant for mobilisation. The so-called “security wall” it is constructing must become the new Berlin Wall — a symbol of contemporary oppression and injustice. Then we will all have at least one focal point for our opposition.

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Richard Calland
Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a founding partner of the Paternoster Group.

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