Archive | April 2013

As world welcomes historic Arms Trade Treaty, U.S. Senators vow to block it

Amnesty International demonstrators rally for the Arms Trade Treaty at the White House on March 22, 2013. (AFP/Jim Watson)

Amnesty International demonstrators rally for the Arms Trade Treaty at the White House on March 22, 2013. (AFP/Jim Watson)

Immediately following the historic adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty by the UN General Assembly last week – with only Iran, Syria and North Korea voting against it, and 23 abstentions – a group of U.S. senators vowed to defeat the treaty’s ratification, calling it a “non-starter” in the Senate.

The first-of-its-kind treaty seeks to prevent small arms and light weapons, tanks, missiles, helicopters and other weapons from being sold to human rights abusers or terrorist groups, requiring countries to establish internal mechanisms to ensure that their arms exports aren’t likely to be used to harm civilians or violate human rights laws.

Prohibiting arms transfers that would be used to commit genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, the treaty’s adoption on Tuesday was warmly welcomed by much of the world, with UN Secretary General calling it “a historic diplomatic achievement – the culmination of long-held dreams and many years of effort.”

The UN vote on the Arms Trade Treaty: Green indicates yes votes, red indicates no votes, and yellow indicates abstentions. Source: http://armstreaty.org/

The UN vote on the Arms Trade Treaty: Green indicates yes votes, red indicates no votes, and yellow indicates abstentions. Source: http://armstreaty.org/

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) welcomed it in particular as a crucial step toward protecting children.

“The Arms Trade Treaty asks States to explicitly consider the risk that an arms transfer could facilitate serious acts of violence against women and children before allowing it to proceed,” Susan Bissell, UNICEF’s Chief of Child Protection, said in a press release. “This is critical given that weapons are now one of the leading causes of death of children and adolescents in many countries, including many that are not experiencing war,” she added.

The UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, applauded the inclusion in the treaty of a prohibition on the transfer of arms that would be used in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity and certain war crimes and called on States to act quickly to apply this prohibition.

“Genocide depends in part on the availability of arms and ammunition,” he said. “Despite some shortcomings of this treaty, its adoption represents an important step forward in the struggle to prevent genocide and provides a new legal tool to protect those at risk of their lives, and groups threatened with destruction.”

The European Union hailed the treaty as “a balanced and robust text, the result of comprehensive and inclusive negotiations, where all UN Member States’ views have been expressed and reflected.”

In a statement, EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said,

The international community can claim full ownership of this treaty, which will make trade in conventional arms more responsible and transparent, thus reducing human suffering, and tangibly contributing to international peace, security and stability.

The EU has always argued that in order to make a real difference to people affected by the irresponsible and illicit use of conventional arms, the international community needed a treaty that is strong and robust. The Treaty adopted by the General Assembly today, meets these requirements. The ATT that UN Member States have negotiated and adopted is one that contains strong parameters on international humanitarian and human rights law and will apply to a wide range of arms, including ammunition. These were clear priorities for the EU and for a significant number of other UN Member States, which are reflected in the ATT adopted today.

Wolfgang Grossruck, the president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, which counts the U.S. as a member, called the treaty “an important step in bringing transparency and protection of human rights to a highly profitable but sometimes unscrupulous industry that too often allows weapons to fall into the wrong hands.”

He added, “Now we must work to ensure that arms-exporting countries, including OSCE participating States, live up to the commitments to which they have just agreed.”

Japan also welcomed the treaty, saying it “will contribute to international and regional peace and security and prevent illicit trafficking of conventional arms as it will provide a common international standard to regulate the transfer of conventional arms.”

Turkey said that the overwhelming vote in favor of the treaty “demonstrates the strong will of the great majority of member states for a universal and legally binding mechanism that sets common standards at the highest possible level to regulate the exports, imports and transfers of conventional arms.”

“The Treaty represents the best possible compromise under current conditions and embodies articles that would enable further improvements in the future,” said the Turkish foreign ministry.

Civil society was overjoyed by the UN vote. In a message to supporters, the Control Arms network wrote,

Last July, after negotiations faltered, we wrote an email telling you that an Arms Trade Treaty was coming. It didn’t happen then, but it’s with great joy that we can now say that we’ve finally achieved something. In fact, we’ve changed the world.

After the process was blocked by Syria, Iran, and North Korea last Thursday, the Arms Trade Treaty was moved to the United Nations General Assembly. Today, an overwhelming majority of States voted in favor of adopting this historic Treaty. This landmark vote sends a clear signal to gunrunners and human rights abusers that their time is up.

Amnesty International said the vote represented the triumph of “voices of reason.”

Today’s victory shows that ordinary people who care about protecting human rights can fight back to stop the gun lobby dead in its tracks, helping to save countless lives. The voices of reason triumphed over skeptics, treaty opponents and dealers in death to establish a revolutionary treaty that constitutes a major step toward keeping assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons out of the hands of despots and warlords who use them to kill and maim civilians, recruit child soldiers and commit other serious abuses. Iran, Syria and North Korea blocked consensus at the U.N., while the NRA cynically – and ultimately unsuccessfully – tried to erode the U.S. government’s support through a campaign of lies about the treaty. But in the end, the global call for responsibility in the arms trade won out.

Amnesty International played a leading role in initiating the campaign for this treaty nearly 20 years ago and has fought tirelessly to stop weapons from being sent to countries where we know they are used to commit human rights atrocities. This has been a life-saving struggle that never could have been achieved without the support of millions of human rights activists who stepped forward to demand change. We call on President Obama to be first in line on June 3 when the treaty opens for signature.

The U.S. gun lobby however objects to the treaty, calling it a potential infringement on the Second Amendment to the Constitution, despite the fact that language was even worked into the treaty’s preamble to reaffirm “the sovereign right of any State to regulate and control conventional arms exclusively within its territory, pursuant to its own legal or constitutional system.”

The United Nations Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty also makes clear that “the ATT will not interfere with the domestic arms trade and the way a country regulates civilian possession, [or] ban, or prohibit the export of, any type of weapons.”

But the National Rifle Association’s many allies in the Senate – which must ratify the treaty before it becomes legally binding on the U.S. government – have thrown down the gauntlet, making it clear the treaty stands a snowball’s chance in hell of being ratified.

A day after the UN approved the treaty, Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah became the 35th senator to endorse a resolution of opposition, calling the treaty “deeply flawed.” The Constitution requires two-thirds of the Senate — 67 votes — to ratify a treaty.

“I have great concerns that this treaty can be used to violate the second amendment rights of American citizens, and do not believe we should sign any treaty that infringes on the sovereignty of our country,” Lee said in a statement.

“It’s time the Obama administration recognizes it is already a non-starter, and Americans will not stand for internationalists limiting and infringing upon their Constitutional rights,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.).

For its part, the Obama administration is being rather tight-lipped about how hard it might be pushing for ratification, or even whether Obama would put his signature on the treaty.

“As is the case with all treaties of this nature, we will follow the normal procedures to conduct a through review of the treaty text to determine whether to sign the treaty,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney. “What that timeline is, I cannot predict to you now — we are just beginning the review process, so I wouldn’t want to speculate when it would end.”

Civil society, however, is not wasting any time in pressing for full U.S. adherence to this landmark treaty. Noting that the United States accounts for the bulk of the world’s arms exports – many of which end up in the hands of brutal dictators like Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov and the Bahraini monarchy, or help facilitate war crimes by Israel – arms control advocates are calling for swift ratification of the treaty, especially by the UN Security Council’s permanent five members.

arms treaty infographic

As Amnesty International USA put it,

While this is a big win, there is still a lot of work to do. The treaty is adopted but “asleep” – it needs to be signed and ratified by 50 countries before it will enter into force. Amnesty International USA will demand that the Obama Administration and the U.S. Congress take this important stand for human rights by signing and then ratifying this landmark treaty.

Amnesty and other human rights groups may have their work cut out for them, with the NRA and other pro-gun organizations spending a huge amount of money to influence Washington policymaking and lining up all their resources in opposition to this treaty that gun manufacturers fear might cut into their profit margins.

The NRA — which is bankrolled by weapons manufacturers — is opposed to virtually every form of gun control, including restrictions on owning assault weapons, retention of databases of gun purchases, and registration of firearms, and is working overtime to defeat the ATT. As the Center for Responsive Politics notes, it spends tens of millions of dollars on campaign contributions and off-the-books spending on issue ads. It is also notorious for its revolving door corruption and influence peddling, with 14 out of 29 NRA lobbyists having previously held government jobs.

It should also be remembered that the U.S. government derailed the Arms Trade Treaty last July, in what Amnesty International called at the time “a staggering abdication of leadership by the world’s largest exporter of conventional weapons to pull the plug on the talks just as they were nearing an historic breakthrough.”

In fact it’s possible that the U.S. delegation to the United Nations only voted for the treaty on Tuesday knowing that it will never be ratified by the Senate, and therefore will not be legally binding on the United States. The chief U.S. negotiator, Thomas M. Countryman, told the press that the U.S. would support the treaty because it would promote global security without affecting the constitutional right to bear arms. He also made clear that there was a PR angle to the U.S. vote, saying that he “would rather be on opposite side of Syria, Iran, DPRK than join them in criticism of this treaty.”

The United States had earlier insisted on consensus for the Arms Trade Treaty but then abandoned that insistence when it became clear that only three U.S.-designated rogue states would oppose it.

Countryman told media there was no “inconsistency” in the US position on consensus, emphasizing that it was always part of the plan. “We always knew that this could go to the General Assembly,” he claimed.

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Washington’s culture of corruption and corporate impunity

revolving-door-cartoon

Washington’s revolving door corruption and culture of corporate impunity reached new lows last week, raising serious doubts about the United States’ commitment to upholding its international anti-corruption obligations as spelled out in the UN Convention against Corruption.

First there was the adoption on Tuesday of the so-called Monsanto Protection Act, which contains a provision protecting the manufacturers of genetically modified seeds from future litigation in the face of potential health risks. Then, two days later, Lanny Breuer, former Justice Department Criminal Division chief, joined a corporate law firm as its vice chairman earning $4 million a year.

The controversial Monsanto legislation, officially called the Farmer Assurance Provision – also known as Section 735 of the spending bill HR 933 – effectively bars federal courts from halting the use of genetically modified seeds, regardless of health issues that may be identified with them in the future. While the use of genetically modified seeds, driven primarily by the biotech giant Monsanto, has proved wildly profitable, many argue that there have been too few studies into the potential health risks of this new class of crop.

But following the adoption of the spending bill HR 933 with President Obama’s signature last week, even if those studies are completed and they end up revealing serious adverse health effects related to the consumption of genetically modified foods, the courts will have no ability to stop the spread of the seeds and the crops they bear.

“This dangerous provision, the Monsanto Protection Act, strips judges of their constitutional mandate to protect consumer and farmer rights and the environment, while opening up the floodgates for the planting of new untested genetically engineered crops, endangering farmers, citizens and the environment,” the group Food Democracy Now said on its website.

Monsanto's campaign contributions by election cycle

Monsanto’s campaign contributions by election cycle

The group had collected more than 250,000 signatures in a petition for Obama to veto the legislation, but to no avail. Monsanto, which helped draft the controversial provision in collusion with freshman Sen. Roy Blunt, is very well connected in Washington, having showered millions of dollars in campaign contributions to federal candidates, with contributions spiking in recent years.

In particular, the Center for Responsive Politics notes that Sen. Blunt received $64,250 from Monsanto to go towards his campaign committee between 2008 and 2012.

Campaign contributions, however, are far from the only way in which Monsanto wields its disproportionate influence in Washington. Its revolving door corruption is legendary in fact, with dozens of Monsanto executives and government officials exchanging titles and paychecks on a fairly regular basis.

Below is a diagram of some of the more prominent beneficiaries of this cozy revolving door relationship. (Click here for a full-size version.)

monsanto-in-government

Michael Taylor, the current Deputy Commissioner for Foods at the FDA, exemplifies more clearly than most the revolving door between the food industry and the government agencies that purportedly regulate it. An attorney for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 1970s, and then in the 80s, a private lawyer at the D.C. law firm King & Spalding, where he represented Monsanto, Taylor returned to government as Deputy Commissioner for Policy for the FDA from 1991 to 1994. He then went back to private industry as Vice President for Public Policy at Monsanto from 1998 until 2001.

Before President Obama appointed him to the FDA in 2010, Taylor was a Senior Fellow at the think tank Resources for the Future, where he published two documents on U.S. aid for African agriculture, both of which were funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

Rather than using his position of power in the FDA to provide stringent oversight over Monsanto’s business practices, Taylor has instead gone after the agribusiness giant’s competitors, particularly small dairy farms that produce fresh milk.

As CREDO has pointed out, “the Food and Drug Administration is running sting operations followed by ‘guns-drawn raids usually reserved for terrorists and drug lords’ as part of a crackdown on unpasteurized milk.”

While this strict enforcement of laws requiring pasteurization could be considered a commendable as zero-tolerance approach to food safety, the fact is, under Taylor’s watch the FDA has been letting the highly consolidated industrial meat and factory farm industry off the hook despite growing problems. But this of course is what’s to be expected with Washington’s revolving door.

lanny breuer

Another fine example of this corruption is the decision by the corporate law firm Covington & Burling to rehire Lanny Breuer, this time as the firm’s vice chairman. Breuer has spent the last four years at the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, where he led the so-called investigation into the financial crisis.

He will now be joining the white-collar defense firm for the third time, and much like he has done at the DOJ, his job will be to defend large corporations from prosecution. This time however, he will be paid $4 million a year.

Not a single prosecution was brought under his watch against the too-big-to-fail financial institutions that crashed the global economy in 2008, and it’s not a conspiracy theory to speculate that Breuer was simply biding his time at the DOJ to build his value in the marketplace and pad his resume as a corporate lackey, a point that this satirical YouTube video makes clear:

This point was also driven home by an official DOJ directive from 2008, the same year that Breuer took over the Criminal Division. That year, the Justice Department announced a shift in policy, deciding to encourage self-policing by the banks and corporations, rather than vigorously prosecuting their law breaking. After all, “federal prosecutors and corporate leaders typically share common goals,” read the directive.

And unfortunately, Obama’s DOJ followed through on this policy of non-enforcement in spectacular fashion. Obama has prosecuted fewer financial crimes than Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton or either of the Bush presidents. Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder, another Covington & Burling alum previously making $2.5 million a year, has publicly stated that he won’t go after big banks.

Because of the notoriously bad policies enacted by corrupt governments, the revolving door practice so common in Washington is prohibited by international law. As a state party to the United Nations Convention against Corruption, the United States has agreed to taking measures to prevent conflicts of interest and corruption in both the public and private sphere.

In particular,

Each State Party shall, in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, endeavour to adopt, maintain and strengthen systems that promote transparency and prevent conflicts of interest.

Each State Party shall endeavour, where appropriate and in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, to establish measures and systems requiring public officials to make declarations to appropriate authorities regarding, inter alia, their outside activities, employment, investments, assets and substantial gifts or benefits from which a conflict of interest may result with respect to their functions as public officials. …

Preventing conflicts of interest by imposing restrictions, as appropriate and for a reasonable period of time, on the professional activities of former public officials or on the employment of public officials by the private sector after their resignation or retirement, where such activities or employment relate directly to the functions held or supervised by those public officials during their tenure.

It could be said that the United States is routinely and flagrantly flouting this international obligation by allowing the corporate-government revolving door to swing so freely and lucratively, with business executives and corporate lawyers becoming government regulators and then returning to the private sector to collect multi-million dollar paychecks once they have completed their stints in “public service.”

Of course, the corporations and the banksters claim that this system works wonderfully.

As Monsanto so artfully explains on its website,

One objection opponents of biotechnology have raised is the fact that some former government employees have gone to work for Monsanto, and some company employees have left the company to take jobs in the public sector. Some critics say this shows collusion by Monsanto and the government. Such theories ignore the simple truth that people regularly change jobs to find positions that match their experience, skills and interests. Both the public and private sectors benefit when employers have access to the most competent and experienced people. It makes perfect sense that someone in government who has concluded biotechnology is a positive, beneficial technology might go to work for a biotech company, just as someone who believes otherwise might find employment in an organization which rejects agricultural biotechnology.

While there is some ostensible logic to this argument, it fails to acknowledge the self-evident reality of the overriding profit motive that trumps any possible public-interest gains to be made by allowing corporate chieftains to dictate public policy or ensure the non-enforcement of statutory law.

There are in fact common sense approaches that could be taken towards preventing these conflicts of interests, such as those adopted by the European Union on March 19, which help to regulate the revolving door between the European Central Bank and the financial institutions it supervises.

Transparency International hailed these reforms as important “democratic accountability mechanisms,” which among other things include:

  • a requirement for the ECB to put in place “comprehensive and formal processes” that prevent conflicts of interest, including the possibility of “cooling off” periods of up to two years.
  • an explicit assurance that ECB supervision will be subject to EU legislation on public access to documents.
  • robust democratic oversight in the form of parliamentary approval of the Chair and Vice-Chair of the Supervisory Board and a stronger right of enquiry.

While a cynic might say that these reforms are a self-serving and inadequate approach to addressing Europe’s own malfeasance, these measures are nevertheless a far cry from anything the United States is currently implementing to rein in its epic levels of corruption. In fact, far from enacting any anti-corruption legislation, U.S. lawmakers are instead cashing in on the gravy train.

As USA Today reported on March 26, “sixteen lawmakers who left Congress recently have landed posts with groups that seek to influence policy — despite rules aimed at slowing the revolving door between Capitol Hill and lobbying firms.”

It’s clear that this problem of corruption is endemic in Washington, and without any push-back from the people it’s likely to continue to deteriorate.

There is some hope in a legislative initiative launched by a group called Represent.Us, called the American Anti-Corruption Act. One of the key points of this piece of legislation is to “close the ‘revolving door’ so that elected representatives and their senior staff can no longer sell off their legislative power in exchange for high-paying jobs when they leave office.”

“Today, politicians routinely move straight from Congress to lucrative lobbying jobs on K Street, in order to influence their former colleagues and friends,” Represent.Us laments. “This corrupts policymaking in two ways: members and their staff anticipate high-paying jobs with lobbying firms, and routinely do favors to their future employers while still in Congress; and once out of congress they enjoy undue access and influence to members of Congress.”

Represent.Us is attempting to rally at least a million American citizens to join its cause, building on popular revulsion to what it deems “the worst political corruption in American history.” After that, it plans to introduce the Anti-Corruption Act to Congress by the end of 2013 and solicit cosponsors.

Perhaps what is more needed though is a reinvigoration of the spirit that brought tens of thousands of Americans into the streets and into downtown parks as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement that surprised the world in late 2011. While that particular movement may have turned out to be little more than a flash in the pan, the spirit of indignation and rebellion that fueled the protests has likely only intensified.

To harness and refocus that energy is what is needed now more than ever if there is any real hope in countering the type of blatant corruption and the culture of impunity on display in Washington right now.

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