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Convention protests highlight U.S. violations of international norms

On issues ranging from U.S. drone warfare to economic human rights to fair elections, protesters against the Republican National Convention this week and the Democratic National Convention the following week are highlighting a host of U.S. violations of international norms. How the police handle the demonstrations will showcase whether the United States respects another important international obligation of the U.S. government – respecting the right to assembly.

Protests related to the RNC in Tampa, Florida, kicked off on Thursday with more than 100 peace activists demonstrating at the local Raytheon plant, stressing the company’s role in manufacturing unmanned aerial drones used by the U.S. to bomb countries such as Pakistan.

The demonstration fell on the same day that Pakistan had summoned U.S. embassy officials to the Foreign Office to lodge protest over U.S. drone strikes in North Waziristan. In a statement, the Foreign Office said: “A senior US diplomat was called to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and informed that the drone strikes were unlawful, against international law and a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty. It was emphatically stated that such attacks were unacceptable.”

The following day, the U.S. launched another drone attack in North Waziristan, killing 18. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which has been tracking U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, reports that since 2004, there have been 340 strikes on the country, with 2,557-3,303 casualties. Civilians reported killed range from 473-880, including 175 children.

A common tactic of the CIA’s drone campaign is to target civilians who are helping to rescue the injured or are attending funerals of drone victims, an investigation by the Bureau has revealed. Columnist Glenn Greenwald points out that these secondary attacks have long been considered a hallmark of terrorists according to the U.S. government, with the Department of Homeland Security dubbing the tactic a “double tap” in a 2007 report.

At Thursday’s Raytheon demonstration, protesters chanted, “Raytheon, shame on you; Children die because of you.”

“Raytheon is one of the companies in production of drone software as well as drones, and one of the companies that profits from war and is addicted to war,” protest organizer Medea Benjamin said. “Companies like Raytheon survive because of our tax dollars.”

On the opening day of the RNC, the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign will march to call for a stop to all home foreclosures, and against “the criminalization of the poor and homeless.”

The Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign is “committed to uniting the poor as the leadership base for a broad movement to abolish poverty everywhere and forever,” according to its website. The organization points out that economic human rights are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which the United States is a party. Articles 23, 25, and 26 of the UDHR, the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign notes,

state our right to such provisions as housing, health care, a living wage job, and education. The founding creed of the United States of America, which asserts our rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, inspired the formulation of these human rights. Our government signed the UDHR in 1948; its full implementation would mean that our country would be living out the true meaning of its creed. This American Dream is possible because our country is the richest and most powerful in the world.

The group will take this message to the RNC on Monday, marching from a “Romneyville” encampment to the Convention site at Tampa Bay Times Forum.

The following day, youth from the Latino community are joining with African American leaders for a large-scale march “to remind candidates and elected officials that their anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric will not dissuade Latinos and African-Americans from flexing their political muscle despite the fraudulent voter suppression laws.”

Organized by the Florida Consumer Action Network, Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and Unidos Now!, the March Against Voter Suppression’s call to action reads,

In Florida, a state with a reputation for egregious voter rights violations, they have been pushing ID requirements they know will disproportionately affect Latinos, African Americans, and youth. Other attempts have included using faulty methods to check citizenship to disenfranchise Latino voters, shortening early voting, and pushing a requirement that volunteers registering people turn in registrations in 48 hours, leading to a high school teacher facing thousands in fines for registering her students. This measure chased the League of Women Voters out of the state, who said that it made voter registration drives impossible since registration workers cannot make the deadline. The League estimated that this would discourage 20% of voter registration, to address voter fraud, which, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, occurs .0004% of the time.

The new restrictions on voting have been challenged in U.S. courts, with a federal three-judge court in Washington blocking a Florida law that had reduced the days for early voting, saying the law violated the 1965 Voting Rights Act in parts of the state.

Many of these new restrictions pertaining to voter registration, inconsistent voter ID requirements and disenfranchisement of ex-prisoners are also likely violations of international commitments on elections, as spelled out in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document.

As the ICCPR states,

Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions:

(a) To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives;

(b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors

In the 1990 Copenhagen Document, the United States as an OSCE member country agreed that in order to “ensure that the will of the people serves as the basis of the authority of government,” it will “guarantee universal and equal suffrage to adult citizens.”

Past election assessments by the OSCE, however, have called into question the U.S.’s respect for this commitment.

Following the 2004 election, the OSCE noted that “allegations of electoral fraud and voter suppression, primarily among minorities, were widely reported and presented to the EOM in the pre-election period.” The observers expressed concern that “the widespread nature of these allegations may undermine confidence in the electoral process.”

Assessing the 2008 election, Audrey Glover, the Head of the OSCE/ODIHR Limited Election Observation Mission, stated, “The controversies during the campaign over persisting allegations of election irregularities showed that electoral reform efforts must continue to address remaining shortcomings and allow voters to fully regain confidence in the election system.”

In a recent preliminary report on the 2012 elections, the OSCE lamented that in 2011, “Florida and Iowa passed legislation that reversed previous reforms, re-introducing permanent disenfranchisement of prisoners and ex-prisoners.” This disenfranchisement is a clear breach of the U.S. commitment to guarantee universal and equal suffrage to adult citizens.

Tuesday’s march against voter suppression is scheduled to start at Centennial Park in Tampa at 5PM. “Stand up with us as we say no more,” the call to action reads. “No more will we stand by and let the Republican war on voting go by unchecked.”

The following week, the Democrats will hold their convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, which as the second largest concentration of finance capital in the United States, has been dubbed “Wall Street of the South.”

Occupy Charlotte notes that North Carolina is “one of the most anti-union states in the country” and that Charlotte is “home of several corporate criminals, most notably Bank of America, one of the mega-banks most responsible for the 2008 economic meltdown.”  It is also the East Coast headquarters of Wells Fargo and the home of Duke Energy, which recently merged with Progress Energy, making Duke the largest energy monopoly in the country.

Public Citizen has criticized organizers of the DNC for allowing its host committee to accept “in-kind” corporate contributions and donations up to $100,000 from wealthy individuals. The Democratic host committee has also formed a separate nonprofit group for soliciting corporate funds for administrative expenses outside the official convention venue.

“Thanks to investigative reporting,” notes Public Citizen, “we know that Bank of America and Duke Energy have opened their coffers to this separate group.”

The influence-peddling at the DNC may be in violation of federal campaign finance laws, Public Citizen says, which could place the U.S. in breach of the UN Convention against Corruption. This Convention calls for measures to be taken to ensure transparency, curb corruption and prevent conflicts of interest among public officials:

Each State Party shall, in accordance with the fundamental principles of its legal system, develop and implement or maintain effective, coordinated anti-corruption policies that promote the participation of society and reflect the principles of the rule of law, proper management of public affairs and public property, integrity, transparency and accountability.

Each State Party shall endeavour to establish and promote effective practices aimed at the prevention of corruption.

Dealing specifically with the issue of funding political campaigns, the Convention requires state parties to “consider taking appropriate legislative and administrative measures, consistent with the objectives of this Convention and in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, to enhance transparency in the funding of candidatures for elected public office and, where applicable, the funding of political parties.”

“Both the Democratic and Republican Parties are controlled by moneyed interests and the 1%, and the Occupy Movement will hold both Parties accountable at the RNC in Tampa in August and at the DNC in Charlotte in September,” states Occupy Charlotte. “We cannot allow this two-party system and its corporate puppeteers to determine our country’s destiny.”

In opposition to this corporate-dominated two party system, Occupy Charlotte and other groups are organizing a wide range of actions for the week of the DNC. The Coalition to March on Wall Street South has called for a “Liberation Fest” for the entire day of Sept. 1, a “March on Wall Street South” for Sept. 2 and a Labor Day parade for Sept. 3.

During the Convention on Sept. 4-6, affinity group and other autonomous actions will take place in the streets of Charlotte.

The Bradley Manning Support Network will also be holding demonstrations in support of prisoner of conscience Pfc. Bradley Manning, both in Charlotte and around the country. In addition to a scheduled protest at the DNC, the group has called for nationwide actions at local Obama campaign offices on Sept. 6.

“Since Army PFC Bradley Manning’s arrest in May 2010 for allegedly sharing the ‘Collateral Murder’ video and other evidence of war crimes and government corruption with the whistle-blower website WikiLeaks,” the support network notes, “progressives and human rights activists have been asking, ‘Why isn’t President Obama stepping in to help Bradley?’”

The group expresses hope that “President Obama can be the vehicle of change on this issue, but first he needs to hear loud and clear from veterans and civilians across the country that the American people want amends for the unlawful torture of Bradley Manning, and believe he should be freed.”

Manning’s treatment has been widely criticized for violating a number of international obligations, including prohibitions against torture.

The cities of Tampa and Charlotte have adopted restrictions on the right to assembly during the conventions, and in the surrounding area of Charlotte, at least nine area counties and municipalities have restricted camping on public property, citing concerns about the Occupy Charlotte movement and potential protests tied to the DNC.

“These radical protest actions create a detriment to the health, safety and welfare of people, and the peace and dignity of the county,” stated Commissioner Jonathan Thomas in defense of new ordinances restricting the right to assembly during the DNC.

Last January, members of the community raised concern over the new ordinances at the Charlotte City Council.

Tampa has also made it clear that it will not tolerate any disruptions of the Republican National Convention (assuming that Hurricane Isaac doesn’t shut it down completely).

County Sheriff David Gee sent out an open letter declaring, “Tactically, we are ready. This is a special time for local civic pride as Tampa Bay gets ready to shine.”

Gee has already emptied the 1,700-bed Orient Road Jail, which is now being converted into a color-coded, closed-circuit “one-stop booking, detention, and bond-issuance center.” There will be “boots on the ground,” their uniforms clearly marked “to provide the appearance of a fine-tuned machine” with “a consistency in garb, response and reaction.”

“To the agitators and anarchists who want only to bring a dark cloud to this event, let me be clear,” Gee said. “Criminal activity and civil disturbances will not be tolerated and enforcement actions will be swift.”

Journalist Rania Khalek has reported that the Tampa City Council recently voted on using some of the $50 million in federal grants secured by the city for the RNC for a “series of police upgrades” that will include an armored vehicle and a high-tech communication system.

Some reports also claim that unmanned aerial drones will be in the sky during the RNC, although federal authorities deny this.

In policing the demonstrations, however, state and local authorities should bear in mind that the United States is a party to international agreements protecting the right to assembly.

As Article 20 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights plainly states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.” And according to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, “the right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized.”

In protest of the undue restrictions on free assembly and the anticipated police crackdowns on the convention protests, Occupy St. Petersburg is organizing a “Death of Democracy March” for Aug. 26. The march will proceed from Mirror Lake Park to Tropicana Feild “where the world’s largest cocktail party is being held at taxpayers expense.”

“Please wear black,” the group requests.

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Supreme Court rulings’ impact on international norms

On issues ranging from immigration policy to the rights of children to anti-corruption efforts, a number of rulings issued yesterday by the Supreme Court impact directly on the state of U.S. compliance with international norms. In some cases, the rulings could bring the United States closer to meeting international commitments, while others could push the U.S. even further out of compliance with those obligations.

Receiving perhaps the most attention was the decision striking down certain provisions of Arizona’s draconian anti-immigrant law, S.B. 1070. Although the Court upheld the law’s “show me your papers” provision, which requires anyone suspected of being “illegal” to produce documentation proving their U.S. residency status, the Court barred Arizona from enforcing three other controversial provisions of the law.

As veteran legal analyst Lyle Denniston explains the ruling, it “was a strong victory for the notion that immigration policy, under the Constitution and federal laws, is for the federal government, not for the individual states, including those on the borders most affected by illegal entry.”

The Court made clear that states are prohibited from adopting provisions that seek to establish a state-level program requiring undocumented immigrants to sign in officially as non-citizens and are barred from setting up policies that would lead to deportation of undocumented immigrants, unless the federal government explicitly asks for such help.

According to Denniston’s analysis, the decision essentially reaffirmed that the national government is the “single sovereign” in charge of “a comprehensive and unified system to keep track of aliens within the nation’s borders.”

By establishing the prerogative of the federal government in regulating immigration and prohibiting states from taking an ad hoc approach to immigration laws, the Court’s ruling could help rein in abusive practices on the state and local levels that in some cases place the United States in violation of international commitments.

As a recent report issued by Amnesty International documented, inadequate oversight of state and local law enforcement has led to increased racial profiling in Arizona and other border states. State laws and local policies are erecting barriers to immigrants accessing education and essential health care services. “While these laws are targeting non-citizens, these policies are also impacting U.S. citizen children,” Amnesty notes.

With extensive documentation of the routine human rights violations of people of color in the American Southwest, Amnesty’s report calls on all immigration enforcement programs to be suspended pending further review, and insists that the federal government takes steps “to ensure that state legislation does not impinge on its responsibility for immigration enforcement.”

“While it is generally accepted that countries have the right to regulate the entry and stay of non-nationals in their territory, they can only do so within the limits of their human rights obligations,” reads the Amnesty report. “The US government has an obligation under international human rights law to ensure that its laws, policies and practices do not place immigrants at an increased risk of human rights abuses.”

The relevant legal framework cited by Amnesty International includes the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, all of which the U.S. has ratified.

By reaffirming that the federal government is solely responsible for immigration enforcement, the Supreme Court’s decision could go a long way to ensure that the treatment of migrants in the U.S. complies with international treaties to which the U.S. has subscribed.

Another major decision that came down yesterday deals with the rights of children, specifically the practice of jailing minors for life, a common practice in the United States, but grossly out of step with international norms. As stated by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, a treaty spelling out the basic human rights of children everywhere:

(a) No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offences committed by persons below eighteen years of age;

(b) No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily. The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time;

(c) Every child deprived of liberty shall be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, and in a manner which takes into account the needs of persons of his or her age. In particular, every child deprived of liberty shall be separated from adults unless it is considered in the child’s best interest not to do so and shall have the right to maintain contact with his or her family through correspondence and visits, save in exceptional circumstances;

These concepts are considered so uncontroversial around the world that the Convention on the Rights of the Child became the most quickly and widely ratified human rights treaty ever. “More countries have ratified the Convention than any other human rights treaty in history—192 countries had become State Parties to the Convention as of November 2005,” UNICEF points out.

Only two countries, Somalia and the United States, have not ratified this popular accord. Somalia has not ratified the Convention because it has no recognized government. The U.S. has failed to do so for reasons that can only be speculated, but its utter failure to respect the treaty’s provisions, such as the requirement that children be treated differently than adults in the criminal justice system, may be the primary cause.

While sidestepping the subject of international norms, yesterday’s 5-4 Supreme Court decision on youth life sentences held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits a sentencing scheme that requires life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders.

The decision, as Denniston explains it, “continues the trend that started a quarter-century ago of demanding that criminal punishment for children generally must be different — and less harsh — than for adults.”

The premise behind that trend is that children are not adults and have the capacity to change. As this is also one of the main rationales behind the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the fact that the U.S. is moving towards compliance with widely recognized international norms on this subject is an encouraging sign.

In a less encouraging sign, however, the Supreme Court yesterday struck down a 100-year-old Montana law that banned direct corporate political campaign spending in state and local elections. In a 5-4 decision, the Court reversed a lower court decision, ruling that “independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”

Critics, however, note that all available evidence points to the contrary. The Court’s decision will only strengthen the role of corporate money while weakening the ability of lawmakers and citizens trying to fight corruption in electoral politics, according to fair election and anti-corruption advocates.

“The 2012 elections make one thing clear: unlimited spending by super PACs and secretive nonprofits is corrupting our political process and threatens to swamp our democracy,” said Adam Skaggs, senior counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program.

“Increasing numbers of Americans believe our government is bought and paid for by special interests and that their votes don’t matter. By not taking this case, the Court missed a critical opportunity to rein in some of the worst excesses of Citizens United, and other rulings, that created this super PAC mess.”

Yesterday’s ruling places the United States further out of step with the UN Convention against Corruption, of which the U.S. is a state party. The Convention calls for measures to be taken to ensure transparency, curb corruption and prevent conflicts of interest among public officials:

Each State Party shall, in accordance with the fundamental principles of its legal system, develop and implement or maintain effective, coordinated anti-corruption policies that promote the participation of society and reflect the principles of the rule of law, proper management of public affairs and public property, integrity, transparency and accountability.

Each State Party shall endeavour to establish and promote effective practices aimed at the prevention of corruption.

Dealing specifically with the issue of funding political campaigns, the Convention requires state parties to “consider taking appropriate legislative and administrative measures, consistent with the objectives of this Convention and in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, to enhance transparency in the funding of candidatures for elected public office and, where applicable, the funding of political parties.”

The issue of transparency is at the heart of the debate on reversing the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which opened the floodgates for unregulated money to pour into elections. Under federal law, political action committees must report the names of their donors and super PACs do regularly disclose corporate contributors.

But as the Washington Post points out, “transparency can be a bit blurry at times.”

In 2011, the Mitt Romney-linked Restore our Future super PAC reported a $1 million contribution from “W Spann LLC.” Never heard of it? Neither had several enterprising reporters, who learned that its address in New York was the same as that of Bain Capital — Romney’s former firm. After the press demanded to know what Romney was hiding, a former Bain executive came forward to say that the donation was his. He had given it through a shell corporation that his lawyer had created for that purpose.

An exhaustive investigative report by journalist Andy Kroll in the current issue of Mother Jones magazine provides an in-depth historical analysis of the role of money in politics and the efforts of American reformers over the years to curb its corrupting influence.

Tracing the modern era of campaign finance reform to the brazen abuses exposed in the Watergate scandal, Kroll points out that for many political observers, the recent flood of anonymous cash into the electoral process “feels like a return to the pre-Watergate years.”

“Rich bankrollers,” writes Kroll, “cut jaw-dropping checks backing their favorite candidates. Political operatives devise ways to hide tens of millions in campaign donations. And protesters have taken to the streets over what they see as a broken system.”

Kroll quotes political scientist Norman Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute: “We’re back to the Nixon era, the era of undisclosed money, of big cash amounts and huge interests that are small in number dominating American politics.”

The corrupting influence of unregulated money in U.S. elections has become a concern to the international community, with even the International Monetary Fund noting the disastrous implications that it has for public policy.

In a 2009 report exploring the causes of the 2008 financial collapse, the IMF noted that “two of the largest mortgage lenders in the nation, spent respectively $20.5 million and $8.7 million in political donations, campaign contributions, and lobbying activities from 2002 through 2006.”

The lending companies achieved their desired outcome for these financial contributions – the loosening of anti-predatory lending regulations. The IMF noted that “anecdotal evidence suggests that the political influence of the financial industry contributed to the 2007 mortgage crisis, which, in the fall of 2008, generalized in the worst bout of financial instability since the Great Depression.”

International election observers have also pointed to the U.S. campaign finance system as a cause of concern. The vast spending in 2010 and the widespread use of negative advertising led the OSCE’s U.S. election observation mission that year to describe a “dirty campaign environment” with “money playing a significant role in creating an uneven playing field between candidates.”

“Upwards of four billion dollars were spent on the campaigns, making it the most expensive mid-term election in the United States to date,” OSCE observers noted. “About three-quarters of that money was spent on political campaign ads on television and radio. The ads inundated the airwaves, made huge profits for many television and radio stations, and also turned off many voters.”

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which was essentially upheld yesterday, experts project spending on the 2012 election cycle could top a staggering $11 billion – more than twice the 2008 total and nearly three times the amount spent on the 2010 midterm elections.

Obama signs watered-down STOCK Act amid growing anger over government corruption

A February 29 anti-corruption protest in Portland, Oregon

President Obama yesterday signed legislation to curb some of the more blatant corruption on Capitol Hill, in a move that government reform advocates are welcoming as a significant, yet limited, victory.

The Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act for the first time affirms that members of Congress and staff are not exempt from insider trading laws and mandates that lawmakers and certain government employees report some investments within 45 days of making the trade.

It also prohibits them from enjoying special access to initial public offerings and requires that they notify their ethics offices when negotiating for a private-sector job.

The version of the legislation passed by the Senate included an amendment that would have required insiders who collect political intelligence and sell it to corporate America to register under lobbying disclosure laws. It also contained the bipartisan Leahy-Cornyn amendment that would have given law enforcement certain tools to detect and prosecute public corruption and would have prevented public officials from accepting gifts given because of their government positions. It would have also provided for prosecution of public officials who accept private compensation.

But House Republicans stripped these provisions from their version of the bill. The Senate then passed the House’s bill, which is the version Obama then signed into law.

“The version of the STOCK Act signed today is only a shadow of the strong bill initially passed by the Senate,” said Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) in a statement yesterday. “Unfortunately, the House dropped the strongest provisions from the Senate-passed bill, which would have strengthened the ability of prosecutors to target public corruption.”

The legislation Obama signed yesterday goes a long way towards bringing the United States into compliance with the UN Convention against Corruption, ratified by the U.S. Senate in 2006, but could have gone a lot further. As the Convention states:

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 …

However, the STOCK Act still doesn’t address one of the most important provisions against corruption, preventing the “revolving door” practices in Washington, in which corporate insiders  go to work in the public sector regulating the companies they once ran, and then after their “public service,” end up back at those very same companies. This practice is prohibited under the Corruption Convention which calls on states parties to adopt legislation that

Prevent[s] 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.

The STOCK Act was first introduced in 2006, but Congress only moved on it following a “60 Minutes” report on congressional insider trading. The report documented that members of Congress bought stock in companies during debates on legislation that might affect the businesses. Studies have shown that congress members’ stock trades perform 6-12 percent better than the market average.

The adoption of the legislation also comes amid a mounting public outcry over government corruption, particularly in relation to corporate influence over government agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as the corporations that wield disproportionate power over those agencies.

In particular, opposition is growing in the U.S. and worldwide to the biotechnology giant Monsanto and its influence over public policy, including in Congress and the White House, as well as the FDA which is charged with regulating the company.

In a report on the growing worldwide resistance to Monsanto released yesterday, Via Campesina documents how handsomely Monsanto’s lobbying efforts and campaign contributions have paid off in the United States:

The US – which produces 45% of GM crops worldwide – has rewarded Monsanto’s White House lobbying efforts by promoting its seed technology both nationally and internationally.

Between January 1999 and June 2010, Monsanto spent over US$50 million on lobbying Congress and various government agencies,including on the regulation of GM crops, patent protection reforms and subsidies. …

According to the non-profit alliance of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the US government has been collaborating with Monsanto to secure agricultural export markets, removing barriers to the spread of GM crops, including into national wildlife refuges.

The report goes on to describe the intensifying efforts to roll back the company’s sway over public officials:

In one of the most recent battles to disrupt the US government’s relationship with Monsanto, environmentalists and lawyers launched an initiative to prevent Monsanto’s GM crops contaminating national wildlife refuges. ..

[L]egal battles led by PEER and the Centre for Food Safety (CFS) forced the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) to end the planting of GM crops in 12 states.

In addition to legal battles, Americans have also taken to the streets against the biotech giant with direct action and street theater. Last month, members of the “Genetic Crimes Unit” of Occupy Monsanto took the case against Monsanto to the Expo West Natural Products trade show in Anaheim, Calif.:

Also last month, protesters shut down Monsanto’s Davis, Calif., offices for a day. According to the organizers, the objective of the protest was to bring local awareness to Monsanto’s control and involvement with toxins in food and water supplies and expose its ties to the government.

In New York, the Occupy Wall Street movement has continued to protest the nexus of finance and politics with a major Stock Exchange demonstration on March 30. Demonstrators marched through Manhattan and converged on the New York Stock Exchange at the end of the business day.

As Mark Bray of OWS stated, “The closing bell of the stock exchange symbolizes the prioritization of economics over politics in our society, the fact that our politicians are more beholden to these institutions than to the people they are supposed to represent.”

Last week in Washington, demonstrators turned their attention to corruption at the Environmental Protection Agency, marching to its headquarters in what was called the largest protest ever against the agency. Calling for EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to resign due to failure to treat employees fairly or adequately protect the environment, the Occupy EPA protesters also demanded increased nuclear regulation and an end to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for oil and gas.

The EPA has carved out an exemption from the Clean Water Act for corporations like Halliburton to engage in fracking, having concluded that “the injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids into CBM wells poses little or no threat” to drinking water, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary. Whistleblowers who have pointed to corporate influence over these policies have been aggressively pursued by the EPA, with some, such as Jon Grand, landing in prison.

Despite a 2002 law designed to protect government whistleblowers, demonstrators on Friday said that the EPA continues to discriminate against those who expose corruption within the agency.

The Friday demonstration was the first of a series of planned actions this spring dubbed the National Occupation of Washington D.C., or NOWDC. Other activities include a demonstration at the Department of Education and a protest of the Justice Department in support of U.S. prisoner of conscience Bradley Manning, the Army private accused of treason for providing embarrassing state secrets to WikiLeaks.

Click here for a full listing of actions this spring.

Monsanto, the FDA and the Convention against Corruption

The nexus between Monsanto and the federal government

An online campaign to remove Michael Taylor, a former executive and lobbyist for agribusiness giant Monsanto, as senior advisor at the Food and Drug Administration, is exceeding all expectations. With an original goal of 75,000, the petition as of today has over 220,000 signatures.

“President Obama,” the petition reads,

I oppose your appointment of Michael Taylor, a former VP and lobbyist for Monsanto, the widely criticized genetically modified (GM) food multinational, as senior advisor to the commissioner at the FDA. Taylor is the same person who as a high-ranking official at the FDA in the 1990s promoted allowing genetically modified organisms into the U.S. food supply without undergoing a single test to determine their safety or risks. This is a travesty.

Michael Taylor exemplifies the revolving door between the food industry and the government agencies that regulate it, and more generally between private industry and public policy-makers. 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.

As the documentary “The World According to Monsanto” makes clear, the conflicts of interest inherent in the revolving door between agribusiness and regulatory agencies produces notoriously bad policy, such as the approval of bovine growth hormone in the food supply without proper testing.

“Taylor was in charge of policy for Monsanto’s now-discredited GM bovine growth hormone (rBGH),” the online petition points out, “which is opposed by many medical and hospital organizations. It was Michael Taylor who pursued a policy that milk from rBGH-treated cows should not be labeled with disclosures. Michael Taylor and Monsanto do not belong in our government.”

Because of the potentially disastrous effects of the revolving door on public policy, the practice is banned under 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.

Not surprisingly, rather than using his position of power in the FDA to provide stringent oversight over Monsanto’s business practices, Taylor is instead going after the agribusiness giant’s competitors, namely small dairy farms that produce fresh milk.

As CREDO points out,

While factory farm operators are getting away with serious food safety violations, raw milk dairy farmers and distributors across the country have been subjected to armed raids and hauled away in handcuffs.

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. Meanwhile, the FDA is letting the highly consolidated industrial meat and factory farm industry off the hook despite growing problems. …

Whether or not you think unpasteurized milk is a good idea, it’s clear that the FDA under Michael Taylor has its priorities wrong. When industrial agribusiness sickens thousands of people, it’s absurd for the FDA to target Amish farmers producing fresh milk, much less to engage in “guns drawn” enforcement raids.

To add your name to the petition to fire Michael Taylor, click here.

Demonstrators in DC demand accountability, compliance and an end to corruption

January 11, 2012, the ten-year anniversary of the first detainees arriving at Guatanamo Bay, saw Washington, DC’s largest ever demonstration against the U.S. military’s prison camp.

Amnesty activists march from the White House to the Capitol on 10 year anniversary of Gitmo. (Photo by Scott Langley)

The LA Times reported that “Chants of ‘Guantanamo has got to go’ echoed down Pennsylvania Avenue on Wednesday as a crowd of rain-dampened protesters marked the 10th anniversary of the arrival of the first 20 detainees at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.”

Demonstrators march through DC on Jan. 11, 2012 (Photo by Witness Against Torture)

More than 800 people demonstrated in solidarity with the 171 inmates who remain in the prison, according to the Times, although other estimates put the number in the thousands:

“The protest was so large,” reported Indymedia, “that it had to divide into multiple elements going to multiple targets, as not everyone could fit at the Supreme Court.” Nearly 200 marchers in orange jump suits and black hoods marchers went to the Supreme Court.

In front of Supreme Court, activists call for prosecution of U.S. torturers (Photo by Scott Langley)

Other marches went to Congress, the Department of Justice, and one returned to the White House.

Amnesty activists in front of White House on 10 year anniversary of Gitmo. (Photo by Scott Langley)

According to the LA Times report,

Protesters voiced anger with President Obama‘s failure to close the prison — which he promised to do during his 2008 presidential campaign — and with his approval last month of the National Defense Authorization Act, which codified the U.S. government’s authority to detain prisoners, including U.S. citizens, indefinitely without trial.

“President Obama is largely responsible for the failure to close Guantanamo, and his administration should not take its progressive base for granted,” said Vincent Warren, the executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a legal advocacy group that represents some Guantanamo detainees.

“Guantanamo is one part of an illegal, inhumane and unjust global detention policy,” Warren said. “Our message: ‘No excuses. Shut it down.'”

Among the groups involved with organizing the demonstrations were Amnesty International, Witness Against Torture, World Can’t Wait, and the Center for Constitutional Rights.

A report at DC Indymedia noted that “Occupy DC added their numbers to the existing ranks of antiwar protesters who have marched against Guantanamo Bay every year on the 11th of January.”

A number of protesters drew connections between the ongoing detentions at Guantanamo and the new indefinite detention provisions that President Obama recently signed into law with the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

Protesters draw the connection between indefinite detention at Guantanamo and the potential for such abuses in the USA with the adoption of the NDAA (Photo by Witness Against Torture)

An open letter to Obama by Human Rights Watch on Jan. 10 urged him to reaffirm his stated commitment to close the notorious prison camp in Cuba and noted:

We are deeply disappointed that you chose to sign into law the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) despite your administration’s repeated threats to veto the bill if it contained detention provisions detrimental to the rule of law and US national security. The new law represents a complete rejection of the vision you outlined for counterterrorism policy when you took office. The final version of the bill, while amended slightly, seeks to upend the effective use of law enforcement for countering terrorism and replace it with a military detention system.

Your signing statement appended to the bill noted a number of deeply problematic areas which you have committed to interpreting in a manner that avoids constitutional conflicts and complies with the laws of war. Yet those problematic areas are the very reason you should have vetoed the bill, and why you must make repeal of those provisions a top priority for your administration this year. As long as the NDAA remains a part of US law, it can be used by future administrations to detain people indefinitely even in circumstances your administration has disavowed.

As this blog noted in December, the indefinite detention provisions of the NDAA are not only a violation of the U.S. Constitution, but also international law. Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states,

1. Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention. No one shall be deprived of his liberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedure as are established by law.

2. Anyone who is arrested shall be informed, at the time of arrest, of the reasons for his arrest and shall be promptly informed of any charges against him.

3. Anyone arrested or detained on a criminal charge shall be brought promptly before a judge or other officer authorized by law to exercise judicial power and shall be entitled to trial within a reasonable time or to release. It shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody, but release may be subject to guarantees to appear for trial, at any other stage of the judicial proceedings, and, should occasion arise, for execution of the judgement.

4. Anyone who is deprived of his liberty by arrest or detention shall be entitled to take proceedings before a court, in order that that court may decide without delay on the lawfulness of his detention and order his release if the detention is not lawful.

5. Anyone who has been the victim of unlawful arrest or detention shall have an enforceable right to compensation.

Ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1992, the ICCPR is legally binding on the United States.

The issue of the NDAA indefinite detention provisions is likely to remain at the forefront of protests moving forward. A call to “Occupy Congress” starting Jan. 17 notes as a prominent grievance the fact that the supposedly “do-nothing” 112th Congress “voted to allow the President to use the military to indefinitely detain, without charge or trial, any person, including U.S. citizens on U.S. soil, that he deems an enemy. While ostensibly about terrorism suspects, the language is so vague and broad that interpretation is guaranteed to expand to cover almost anyone.”

In a Facebook post on Jan. 12, the Center for Constitutional Rights called on the American people to intensify the fight against the NDAA’s unconstitutional and illegal indefinite detention policies:

On January 17, let’s take this movement to the next level: Occupy Congress and demand a government for the people by We the people. We have to push back against the NDAA of 2012, this law not only threatens to undermine or effectively nullify laws which restrict the involvement of U.S. military forces in domestic law enforcement operations, but it’s also the first time since the McCarthy Era that Congress has passed a statute authorizing the indefinite detention of citizens and non-citizens without charge or trial.

Other grievances cited by Occupy Congress include:

Largely because of all this questionable legislation, the U.S. Congress currently has a 5% public approval rating.

An overarching concern of the Occupy movement as well as the public as a whole is the institutionalized corruption that produces many of the bad laws adopted by Congress. Even the recent adoption of the NDAA appears to be at least partially the result of the legalized bribery on Capitol Hill known as the “campaign finance system.”

As the Constitution Campaign blog reported last month,

The internet hacktivist group Anonymous revealed a possible explanation to the rushed passage of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) by Congress this month, after they hacked the accounts of the 83 senators who voted for the bill and found that many proponents had received large amounts of lobbying money.

The NDAA began as simply a funding bill, but now contains worrisome provisions that could allow the indefinite military detention of American citizens without constitutionally guaranteed rights to trial in an impartial court. Anonymous uncovered a money trail connecting senators’ votes for the NDAA detention provisions to defense contractors passing large sums of money under the proverbial table. Most notable was Senator Robert Portman (R-OH), an outspoken supporter of the bill, who received a whopping $272,853–more than any other member of Congress, according to Anonymous.

“We are truly disturbed by the ludicrous $272,853 he received from special interest groups supporting the NDAA bill that authorizes the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens on U.S. soil,” said Anonymous in their information dump. One defense firm in particular, SunFire LLC, has been linked to lobbying congress and Portman for the detention provisions. SunFire has since rebuked the accusations.

The idea that military contractors have long shaped our nation’s foreign policy is by now well established, having been presaged by President EIsenhower (himself a former general) 40 years ago.  For those same corporate interests to now shape our military’s domestic policy is disturbing, to say the least.

It should be no surprise, however, as the NDAA’s indefinite detention provisions could create vast new markets for defense contractors, especially those involved in building private prisons or detention camps.  With each detainee at Guantanamo Bay costing the U.S. government $800,000 a year, there could be enormous corporate profits available through detaining Americans without trial.

So, here we see a clear nexus between the corrupting influence of money in politics and the adoption of dreadful laws that abrogate vital constitutional rights and important principles of international law. This is one reason that the United Nations Convention against Corruption – of which the U.S. is a state party – calls for measures to be taken to prevent corruption and conflicts of interest among public officials:

Each State Party shall, in accordance with the fundamental principles of its legal system, develop and implement or maintain effective, coordinated anti-corruption policies that promote the participation of society and reflect the principles of the rule of law, proper management of public affairs and public property, integrity, transparency and accountability.

Each State Party shall endeavour to establish and promote effective practices aimed at the prevention of corruption.

These principles are at the heart of Occupy movement’s demands, and on Tuesday they will be brought directly to the Capitol steps:

Legislation to curb insider trading in Congress required under international law

A public outcry has followed the broadcast of a CBS “60 Minutes” segment detailing the common practice on Capitol Hill of using insider knowledge to play the stock market. Since this sort of activity is illegal in the private sector, many Americans may have assumed that it would be against the law for elected officials as well. But that is not the case.

According to ProCon.org, the US Senate and the US Supreme Court are the only two out of 975 federal entities that have no rules or laws prohibiting them from trading stocks based on nonpublic information they gain on the job. The US House of Representatives Ethics Manual states that its members should “never use any information coming to him confidentially in the performance of governmental duties as a means for making private profit,” but the rule is not legally binding.

The CBS report documented that members of Congress bought stock in companies during debates on legislation that might affect the businesses, a clear conflict of interest that may be unethical, but in the United States, is not illegal.

And it appears that the insider knowledge that members of Congress possess (being that they are the ones who make the laws which affect industries and individual businesses) pays off handsomely.

A 2004 Georgia State University study revealed that US Senators’ stock trades performed 12.3% better than the market average. A 2011 study showed that US House members’ stock trades performed 6% better than the market average.

This is the very essence of corruption, defined by global watchdog Transparency International as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain.”

Introduced three times in Congress, the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act intended to close this loophole for members of Congress, but it has received only a handful of cosponsors for predictable reasons.

Now, members of the House Financial Services Committee are advocating new restrictions on insider trading to help lift waning public trust in Congress. With a congressional approval rating of just 9 percent – lower than the public support for porn, polygamy and communism – members feel that the legislation is necessary to appease an angry public.

“This is about restoring faith,” said Representative Tim Walz (D-Minn), who is sponsoring legislation to explicitly ban insider trading. “If you think a 9 percent approval rating is bad, don’t do anything, drag it out and watch what happens,” he said.

While curbing this corruption in Congress may be necessary to placate the public, it is also an obligation that the United States has as a state party to the UN Convention against Corruption, which states:

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 …

These international obligations have been legally binding on the United States since its ratification of the treaty in 2006.

The budget Super Committee and U.S. anti-corruption obligations

With a deadline for reaching agreement on a broad-based deficit reduction deal just three weeks away, it is becoming increasingly clear that the primary targets of the so-called Super Committee are popular social programs that millions of low-income Americans and senior citizens depend on for basic subsistence and health care.

“Nothing,” said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Monday, “nothing, would send a more reassuring message to the markets than taking bipartisan steps to fix the structural problems in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.”

When asked whether the committee was looking to cut Social Security benefits, Super Committee co-chair Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash) said, “Everything is on the table, and we’ve made no decisions.”

Receiving far less attention than the potential cuts to these vital programs is the option of cutting military spending, begging the question of whether it is on the table at all. This is despite the fact that the Pentagon accounts for 20% of the federal budget and more than 40% of global arms spending. The Pentagon budget, in fact, is over six times larger than the military budget of China, the United States’ closest competitor in the field of military spending.

When it comes to the deal that the Super Committee must reach by Nov. 23 before automatic triggers on across-the-board spending cuts kick in, the Air Force Times reports, “There has been strong resistance to almost every imaginable cut in federal spending, but especially in possible cuts in the defense budget.”

Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee, according to the Air Force Times, oppose any additional defense cuts, a position that severely limits the options of the Super Committee, officially known as the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction.

Americans might be scratching their heads as to why their representatives in Congress are placing vital entitlement programs “on the table” while taking off the table wasteful Pentagon spending.

But a recent non-partisan investigation provides valuable insight, and should serve also as a reminder that the United States government – including the unelected Super Committee – is bound by international treaty to take necessary measures to counter corruption.

The report, “Tools of Influence:  The Arms Lobby and the  Super Committee,” jointly released Monday by the Center for International Policy and Common Cause, details the substantial monetary contributions made by the arms lobby to members of the Super Committee.

“The defense industry has a major stake in the deliberations of the budget super committee,” the report begins, “which is empowered to propose reductions in military spending.”

Pointing out that one out of every five dollars distributed by the Pentagon in fiscal year 2010 went to just five companies (Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics and Raytheon), the report notes that “these companies are pooling their resources – working through vehicles such as their trade group, the Aerospace Industries Association – in an attempt to keep Pentagon spending as high as possible in the face of pressures to reduce the federal deficit.”

The military-industrial complex spares no expense in utilizing its tools of influence on Congress, the Executive Branch, and the Super Committee in particular. “In the two most recent election cycles,” the report documents, “the defense industry contributed over $1.1 million to the 12 members of the budget super committee.”

Five former Super Committee staffers now serve as lobbyists for at least one of the nation’s top ten military contractors, with one, Shay Michael Hancock, working on behalf of three at the same time (Boeing, General Dynamics, and Raytheon).

Besides having nearly two lobbyists for every member of Congress, the industry had “at least 682 ‘revolving door’ employees in 2010 – people who had worked in government overseeing the arms industry before leaving government to work for a defense firm.”

All of this is a violation of the United States’ obligations under international law.

As a state party to the United Nations Convention against Corruption, the United States has agreed to take certain measures to prevent conflicts of interest and corruption in both the public and private sphere.

Specifically, in order to prevent corruption:

Each State Party shall, in accordance with the fundamental principles of its legal system, develop and implement or maintain effective, coordinated anti-corruption policies that promote the participation of society and reflect the principles of the rule of law, proper management of public affairs and public property, integrity, transparency and accountability.

Each State Party shall endeavour to establish and promote effective practices aimed at the prevention of corruption.

Further, states parties to the UN Convention against Corruption shall adopt such legislative and other measures as may be necessary in order to:

Prevent 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.

In the U.S., we don’t refer to our system as institutionalized corruption, but that’s exactly what it is. The main difference between the American version of corruption and the petty corruption seen elsewhere in the world is that ours has a much deeper and broader impact. While the run-of-mill corruption in a country like Nigeria might negatively impact the quality of life within that country, American corruption spreads its injustice and chaos around the world.

For an Occupy Wall Street demand, how about ‘accountability and compliance’?

With protests against Wall Street corruption spreading across the country, a common complaint from the media is that the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protesters lack a cohesive message or demand. Coming from a mainstream media in the United States that insists upon convenient soundbites and simplifies big, novel ideas into a pre-conceived framework of left-vs-right, this criticism perhaps should not be taken too seriously. There is something to be said for allowing the demonstrators to naturally work out their demands over time, which is an idea articulated by the the OWS slogan, “the demand is a process.”

There is also a point to be made that by articulating one overarching demand, the demonstrations will unnecessarily limit themselves to a single issue, running the risk of becoming myopic and irrelevant. If, for example, the fledgling movement demands the re-implementation of Glass-Steagall, the protesters could end up alienating potential allies who may be more concerned about getting money out of politics and ending “corporate personhood,” climate change, the prison-industrial complex, immigration reform or the U.S.’s ongoing wars.

But if there is one demand that could both focus the demonstrations and encapsulate the broadest possible scope, which would express Americans’ desires to hold Wall Street accountable for crashing the global economy, to ensure fair elections, end corporate rule, as well as broaden the scope to include ending the U.S. wars and prosecute U.S. officials responsible for authorizing torture, that demand could be “accountability and compliance,” or, alternatively, “return to the rule of law.”

As this blog has consistently pointed out, some of the biggest problems facing the nation and the world would be solved if the United States would simply adhere to the rule of law — both domestically and internationally — follow legal principles and live up to political commitments. There are consequences when the rule of law is cast aside by the United States; when it comes to issues such as waging wars of aggression and implementing torture, these consequences tend to be a general decline of human rights standards around the world, and a culture of impunity in which leaders know that there will be no repercussions for their actions.

When it comes to Wall Street greed and Washington corruption, the consequences have included the global financial crisis that began in 2008 and shows no sign of abating.

It is no secret what caused this crisis. Financial and monetary experts around the world see the origins of this crisis as a regulation failure — lack of regulations and failure to enforce existing regulations. And the reason for this, too, is all too clear.

As the International Monetary Fund pointed out in a June 2011 report on the causes of the financial crisis, “regulatory failure, in which the political influence of the financial industry played a part, may have contributed to the 2007 meltdown in the U.S. mortgage market, which by fall 2008 had escalated from a localized U.S. crisis to the worst episode of global financial instability since the Great Depression of the 1930s.”

The IMF continues:

To go beyond anecdotes and systematically study how much lobbying and campaign contributions affected U.S. financial legislation in the years preceding the crisis, we developed a new data set of U.S. financial companies’ politically targeted activities during 1999–2006 (Igan and Mishra, forthcoming). We found that lobbying expenditures by the U.S. financial industry were directly associated with how legislators voted on key bills in the years before the crisis—and that bills proposing regulation that the industry considered unfavorable were far less likely to pass than bills proposing financial deregulation. We chose to focus on the United States not because lobbying doesn’t take place in other countries, but because U.S. transparency laws make it possible to gather the necessary details on political spending and lobbying for such analysis.

It is widely accepted that the current economic crisis has its roots in misguided deregulation policies in the United States, which in turn resulted from the institutionalized corruption seen in the U.S. system of corporate-financed political campaigns and the vast expenditures on lobbying on the part of the financial industry. Further, it is recognized that any sort of economic recovery must include the reinstatement of regulations that were lifted over the past several decades.

Specifically, when the 1933 U.S. Glass-Steagall Act, which separated commercial banking from investment banking, was repealed in 1999, commercial banks began taking on risky activities that directly led to the current situation.

In late 1999, the bill repealing Glass-Steagall passed the Senate by a vote of 90 to 8 and the House by 362 to 57, but there were were those at the time who warned that ignoring the lessons of the Great Depression would lead to a repeat of history. As the New York Times reported on Nov. 5, 1999,

The decision to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 provoked dire warnings from a handful of dissenters that the deregulation of Wall Street would someday wreak havoc on the nation’s financial system. The original idea behind Glass-Steagall was that separation between bankers and brokers would reduce the potential conflicts of interest that were thought to have contributed to the speculative stock frenzy before the Depression.

In one particularly prescient statement, U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan said in November 1999 that “we will look back in 10 years’ time and say we should not have done this but we did because we forgot the lessons of the past, and that that which is true in the 1930s is true in 2010… We have now decided in the name of modernization to forget the lessons of the past, of safety and soundness.”

Now, 12 years later, it is clear that those warnings should have been heeded. As Public Citizen recently put it in a statement expressing solidarity with Occupy Wall Street:

Millions of people are out of work because of Wall Street’s recklessness. Millions more have been thrown out of their homes for the same reason. Meanwhile, the federal government fails to take obvious steps to address these problems because of the outsized influence of the very Wall Street firms and giant corporations that caused our economic problems.

Public Citizen identifies a number of specific policy proposals that have been expressed by the OWS movement:

Put the unemployed to work retrofitting energy-inefficient buildings, teaching children and meeting other unmet needs. Invest in a green energy revolution. Impose a financial speculation tax, and increase taxes on the wealthy and corporations (and make them pay). Put in place a single-payer, Medicare-for-All health care system. Undo NAFTA-style corporate trade agreements – and don’t enter in any new ones. Force banks to renegotiate mortgage terms, and let foreclosed-upon families stay in their homes as renters. Overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission with a constitutional amendment and reestablish the principle that corporations exist to serve the people, not the other way around.

While these are all worthwhile policy prescriptions, what remains unsaid is the importance of simply holding wrongdoers accountable, punishing those who broke the law, enforcing regulations and taking measures to combat corruption as laid out in international law.

As a state party to the United Nations Convention against Corruption, the United States has agreed to take certain measures to prevent the kind of corruption that led directly to the economic crisis that the world is now in. These commitments provide general principles that states parties have agreed to as well as specific measures that should be taken to prevent conflicts of interest, and corruption in both the public and private sphere.

In order to prevent corruption:

Each State Party shall, in accordance with the fundamental principles of its legal system, develop and implement or maintain effective, coordinated anti-corruption policies that promote the participation of society and reflect the principles of the rule of law, proper management of public affairs and public property, integrity, transparency and accountability.

Each State Party shall endeavour to establish and promote effective practices aimed at the prevention of corruption.

With the flood of anonymous corporate money that has been unleashed on the American political process by the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, it is difficult to see how the United States is complying with the following provision of the Convention against Corruption:

Each State Party shall also consider taking appropriate legislative and administrative measures, consistent with the objectives of this Convention and in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, to enhance transparency in the funding of candidatures for elected public office and, where applicable, the funding of political parties.

There are also provisions against conflicts of interest which the U.S. appears to be flouting:

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

With the famous Washington-Wall Street revolving door, it is clear that the United States is doing little to nothing in order to comply with this important provision against corruption. The magazine Business Insider recently compiled a list of 29 prominent figures who have gone from careers on Wall Street to careers in Washington as regulators, and then back to Wall Street. “The Wall Street-to-Washington-and-back revolving door has been swinging at least since 1934,” Business Insider reports, “and it’s still going.”

The reality is expressed well by the following graphic from an article in New York magazine:

Obviously, this kind of institutionalized conflict of interest, in which regulators have a financial interest in ensuring that regulations are not too strict, is a recipe for disaster. It makes adhering to the Convention against Corruption unlikely, particularly the following provision:

Each State Party shall take measures, in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, to prevent corruption involving the private sector, enhance accounting and auditing standards in the private sector and, where appropriate, provide effective, proportionate and dissuasive civil, administrative or criminal penalties for failure to comply with such measures.

It is well known that one of the major causes of the 2008 financial meltdown was the fraudulent accounting methods of the mortgage lenders as well as the “independent” ratings agencies that were supposed to serve as a watchdog. Yet, to date, nobody has been prosecuted for the misdeeds that led to the economic collapse.

This is why a simple demand of “accountability and compliance” is key. While continuing to call for increased government spending on jobs and education, or for the forgiveness of mortgage debt and student loans, or for higher taxes on the rich may be in order, what is most important is that the U.S. government begins respecting the rule of law. This means that no one is above the law, that there is equal justice under the law, and that no one is “too big to jail.” The U.S. must enforce its laws and regulations and if that means imprisoning Wall Street bankers than so be it. As the saying goes, “Let justice be done though the heavens fall.”

Further, the call for accountability and compliance is just as relevant in other areas that are not directly related to the current economic situation, which would both focus the Wall Street protesters’ demands as well as broaden their scope. Not only should bankers be held accountable, and not only should the U.S. begin complying with the UN Convention against Corruption, but so too should Bush administration officials who authorized torture.

While the U.S. protests have been claiming headlines in recent days, the movement is clearly growing internationally, with a call for global demonstrations on October 15:

The international protests will offer a fresh opportunity to make this case for U.S. accountability and compliance.

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