Bush Tries to Block Human Rights Case Against Oil Company


I’ll continue my series on how liberal and conservative goals overlap, and on the ‘60s, next time.


Perhaps you didn’t see it, since it didn’t get much press, but the Bush administration is asking courts to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses in the name of fighting terrorism. The particulars in a moment. But let me first propose a general principal here: That we are starting down a road exactly like fighting communism and are rushing headlong toward making all the same mistakes. Fight terrorism? Have to. Make the same mistakes? No need to.


In case you’ve forgotten the mistakes made while fighting communism here’s a short list: Supporting dictatorial, oppressive regimes. Typically a regime is oppressive in order to get rich at the expense of the people, so opposition grows. The opposition is populist and violent because there are no peaceful ways to protest. Because they’re populist they’re easily painted with the brush of communist. The regime claims this and the U. S. ends up supporting a regime we know is bad because our government thinks it’s better than letting communists gain power. The opposition is anti-U. S. because they see us supporting the dictator. The dictator offers to allow a U. S. base somewhere we want one, a base the opposition would not allow. We continue this support even when it’s clear a democratic election would throw the dictator or puppet regime out. We therefore create many new enemies for ourselves and violate our own principles. Our government also lies to us to cover up an unacceptable policy. Just some of the countries where variations on this story played out were Nicaragua, Panama, the Philippines, Iran (under the Shah we installed), Chile, and the granddaddy of this ilk of mistake, Viet Nam.


When Saddam Hussein used deadly gas on the Kurds in his own country and on the Iranians we were still supporting him, trying to be friends with a dictator over an area important to oil, for fear of Russian or Iranian control. (You hadn’t forgotten we used to support Hussein, had you? No? I didn’t think so.) When John Walker, the U. S. citizen convicted for fighting with the Taliban, when he first went there we were still aiding the oppressive Taliban lest Afghanistan fall to the Russians. (You hadn’t forgotten our support of the Taliban either, had you? Didn’t think so.)


Sometimes you have to give qualified support to an oppressive government, simply because we live in an imperfect world. But under the principle of fighting communism we lost the distinctions. When Hussein used deadly gas we should have at least raised holy hell about it. We didn’t. In fact there’s evidence we knew about it in advance. We supported Marcos in the Philippines long after democratic processes had clearly shown the people wanted him out. Not every time we deal with an ugly state is it a mistake. But quite often it is. The rationale of fighting communism (or terrorism) seems to make us lose all sense of judgment on what’s right.


Other mistakes made fighting communism were the McCarthy hearings, sort of his own personal tribunal, in which peoples lives were destroyed based on accusations of communist connections without due process. (Seems I’ve heard something about no due process recently too. Hmm.) Another mistake was an over-zealous FBI turned suspiciously against our own citizens, trying to infiltrate and disrupt even peaceful anti-war groups (no doubt such “unpatriotic” types had it coming) and attempting to slander such “dangerous” characters as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.


Do you really think if anti-war-against-Iraq groups spring up that they won’t be scrutinized? Know anyone who’s against war with Iraq? Probably, since the public is quite split on it. Suppose anyone you know might buy a newsletter from such a group? Or contribute a pot-luck dish to a rally on the courthouse square promoting the idea that we should think twice about this?  Years from now some freedom-of-information release of documents will probably show you or your friend had their name in a file the FBI kept on that organization. Thankfully, these days the FBI have to follow guidelines that prevent such abuse. (Oops! Forgot. Those guidelines have just recently been set aside to fight terrorism. Oh well. I’m sure we won’t make the same mistakes this time. After all, it’s our own government. We can trust them not to get carried away, right?)


The current situation is that Exxon-Mobil oil company, at their Indonesian facilities, relied for security on the local military which stands accused of murders and tortures. A group of Indonesians has brought suit in the U. S. claiming the company knew of the situation and did nothing to stop it. That the atrocities occurred is not so much in dispute as whether the company bears blame. The merits of the case aside, the oil company asked the State Department to intervene, and the administration is obliging them by writing to the judge to have the case thrown out, strictly on the grounds that it might interfere with our alliance with Indonesia against terrorists. (I guess pointing out to an abusive government its faults is kind of undiplomatic, huh? )


So let’s get those pesky human rights out of the way, we have terrorists to fight! Wait! If we’re throwing human rights aside, what are we fighting to preserve again? The administration can’t see the forest for the trees.


The State Department’s letter goes on to point out that the suit could hurt U. S. business interests. (Oh, there’s a good reason to throw human rights aside. I guess we can see where this administration’s priorities are.)


Ironically the whole question of terrorists in Indonesia grows out of an exact case of what I described above, where we supported a dictator, etc. Indonesia does have a lot of Muslims. The largest population in the world to be exact. Just to throw our stereotypes a curve, they’re not Arabs. Just to further muddle any stereotypes you may still harbor about Muslims wearing the black hats in these issues, not only are the supposed terrorist-breakaway-states Muslim, so is the Indonesian government we’re supporting. The point of contention is a decades old struggle by the Aceh area which wants independence. Not surprising since they never were part of Indonesia until the Dutch lumped them into one country, the better to manage their colonies with, much as the French, when Viet Nam was their colony, wanted it in one piece.


The usual story played out in communist times. People in parts of Indonesia wanted independence. The opposition was populist and easily labeled communist and therefore assumed to be a threat to us, so we supported the dictator, Soeharto, who oppressed his people with our help. The people of Aceh have not shown themselves to be anti-U. S., though it’s surprising, with all the reason we’ve given them. What they have going now is a struggle for independence, the Indonesian government is saying they are terrorists, and the U. S. is moving right back into the same mistake as before; supporting an oppressive regime, even when democratic principles would say that the people of Aceh should be able to make their own choices.


It may help to keep in mind, when discussing the rights of people in other countries, that our constitution does not give us rights. The founding fathers said these right are already ours as human beings. The constitution just confirms that the government has no business infringing them. They already belong to all humans, in the U. S., and everywhere else.


To add to the news of mistakes recently, the Bar Association has added their voice to those telling the administration that holding U. S. citizens without due process is wrong. (There’s that issue of due process again.) And in a case about searching the offices of a group accused of supporting terrorists, the Justice Department confirmed that they did the search without a warrant, something they apparently want to go on doing.


With our fight against communism, it took decades of protest by loyal opposition to end a bad war in Viet Nam, bring to light the abuses of the FBI and get rules in effect to guard against such abuses, and to begin to get some grudging acknowledgement that our support of oppressive regimes was a mistake, as in El Salvador.


I don’t mean to say that everything the Bush administration is doing is wrong. We have to fight terrorism. We can do so without all these mistakes, and probably be more effective, and make fewer future enemies, and certainly do ourselves less harm, for it. If you really want to be a patriotic supporter of the struggle against terrorism, then help the administration avoid these mistakes. Like a bull in a china shop, loyal public opposition needs to lead it by the nose when it heads in the wrong direction.



If any of these links expire, email me and I will send you a copy.


Regarding the State Department trying to have the human rights case thrown out:



U.S. Moves to Block Human-Rights Lawsuit Against Exxon Mobil

-By Tom Wright, Dow Jones Newswires; 6221 3983 1277; 8/6/2002



US seeking to stop human rights suit vs ExxonMobil; says may block terror war

© AFX News 8/5/2002



ExxonMobil welcomes US backing on Aceh human rights lawsuit

© AFX News 8/8/2002



Regarding the U. S. potentially knowing in advance that Hussein was going to use deadly gas while we supported him:


Arizona Republic 8/18/2002

U. S. Aid to Iraq vs. Iran more covert

Patrick E. Tyler, New York Times




Regarding the history of U. S. relations with Indonesia and Aceh:


Brief History



Interview with an author on the subject



Current problems in Aceh


This link leads to a transcript divided into several parts. Just one part deals with Aceh, about halfway down, starting with, “we are hearing a lot these days about Islamic rage…”.




Regarding the search without a warrant:


Arizona Republic 8/9/2002

Judge narrows Muslim charity’s suit against U. S.

Christopher Newton, Associated Press



Regarding Bar Association criticism of holding suspects:


Arizona Republic 8/10/2002

Lawyers assail policy on holding U. S. citizens

Republic Wire Services