Q & A

Questions & Answers

What’s the problem?

Your government is putting you into business with brutal dictators, murderous rebels, and militias who use sexual violence as a weapon of war. Your government decides who in other countries will have the legal right to sell natural resources to your country. Today your government’s rule is might makes right: whoever can seize control over oil and minerals in other countries will be awarded the right to sell those resources to your country. When those raw materials are made into goods that you buy, you’re in business with the dictators, rebels, and militias.

Because of your government’s policy, some of the money you’re spending on everyday goods—gasoline and magazines, clothing and cosmetics, cell phones and laptops, perfume and jewelry—may be enriching the world’s worst violators of human rights. And your government’s policy of rewarding whoever can be most violent with the legal right to sell resources will encourage even more violence in the future.

How do we know that this is your government’s policy? Because it is every government’s policy—and will be until we change it.

Why is this happening?

Imagine for a moment that New York declared might makes right for New Jersey. Imagine that the government of New York declared that whoever can seize property by force in New Jersey would be given the legal right to sell that property to New Yorkers—and this legal right would be enforced by New York’s police and courts.

You would expect to see kingpins, syndicates, gangs, turf wars, waves of violent thefts in New Jersey. That is: you would expect to see in New Jersey what really does happen today in some resource-rich countries—because our governments today really do declare might makes right for other countries’ natural resources. In today’s real world, the natural resources of whole countries are being stolen because our governments declare that whoever has the might in those countries will be given legal right to sell resources to us.

(If you live in the UK, you can change the example from New York/New Jersey to England/Scotland; if you live in India: Haryana/Rajasthan; in China: Zhejiang/Anhui; in Canada: Ontario/Manitoba; in Australia: New South Wales/South Australia; in Germany: Bavaria/Thuringia; in the Netherlands: Utrecht/Flavoland…)

Why is this so bad?

The right to sell natural resources to us is worth a lot of money—whoever our governments give this right to may get billions, ultimately from what we spend on our day-to-day shopping.

When our governments give this right to whoever has the might, it encourages and enriches people who are willing to do anything for power:

  • Dictators use our money to pay for soldiers and weapons to oppress the people and suppress the opposition;
  • Coup plotters look for ways to overthrow the government and become dictators in turn;
  • Militias and rebels try to seize resource-rich territories to get money to start or escalate a civil war.

Meanwhile ordinary citizens in resource-rich countries become the victims of the violence: killed, tortured, subject to sexual assault, imprisoned, disappeared, forced to live in fear because of political repression or chaos.

Our governments claim to uphold the basic principle that the people of each country have the right to control the natural resources of their country. But in fact our governments use the rule that whoever can gain enough power will get the right to sell us the resources. Our governments’ standing policy is to reward whoever can be most ruthless, so the most ruthless to rise to the top – and then sell off resources to entrench their own power, violating the rights of the people to control their country’s natural wealth.

How bad is this really?

You may have heard of the “blood diamonds” that came from Sierra Leone during the civil war from 1991 to 2002. The militiamen who took over the diamond mines (mostly illiterate teenagers hyped up on drugs) called themselves the Revolutionary United Front. The RUF’s soldiers gave themselves names like General Baby Killer, Wicked to Women, and Queen Chop Hands. This last name refers to the signature RUF terror tactic, which was to round up villagers (including children and infants) and hack off their limbs with machetes. As journalist Greg Campbell reports in his book Blood Diamonds:

Sometimes, after capturing a village, RUF fighters would gather civilian prisoners in the town square and make them choose small strips of paper from the ground that described different forms of torture and death, such as ‘chop off hands,’ ‘chop off head,’ or simply ‘be killed’. Soldiers would bet with one another about the sex of pregnant women’s unborn children. Winners were determined after the baby had been removed from the womb with a bayonet. In one instance, a young boy was beaten and roasted nearly to death on a spit in front of his mother for refusing to kill her. The RUF’s depravity served the military strategy: It induced tectonic population shifts away from the diamond areas.

The RUF would scare most of the locals away from the diamond areas, and force others to work in the mines. The rebels would then sell the diamonds harvested to foreign traders who in turn sold them to jewelry stores in the US, UK, Canada, France, Japan, and other countries. Many of Sierra Leone’s blood diamonds were set in engagement rings bought by couples wanting to express their enduring love.

And here is an excerpt from a recent New York Times article on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where warlords fight over mines that produce metals needed to make our cell phones, laptops and game consoles. The militias in the DRC use the cash from their mineral sales to fund their battles, in a war that has already cost up to six million lives.

Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist, cannot bear to listen to the stories his patients tell him anymore. Every day, 10 new women and girls who have been raped show up at his hospital. Many have been so sadistically attacked from the inside out, butchered by bayonets and assaulted with chunks of wood, that their reproductive and digestive systems are beyond repair…

In almost all the reported cases, the culprits are described as young men with guns, and in the deceptively beautiful hills here, there is no shortage of them: poorly paid and often mutinous government soldiers; homegrown militias called the Mai-Mai who slick themselves with oil before marching into battle; members of paramilitary groups originally from Uganda and Rwanda who have destabilized this area over the past 10 years in a quest for gold and all the other riches that can be extracted from Congo’s exploited soil…

Few seem to be spared. Dr. Mukwege said his oldest patient was 75, his youngest 3.

“Some of these girls whose insides have been destroyed are so young that they don’t understand what happened to them,” Dr. Mukwege said. “They ask me if they will ever be able to have children, and it’s hard to look into their eyes.”

Sierra Leone and the DRC are not just one-offs. Studies show that the more a country exports resources, the more it risks repression and violence. In many countries around the world more resources means less life, and more death.

What countries are affected by this might makes right policy?

  • Oil-rich countries like Sudan, where the indicted war-criminal Bashir presided over the genocide in Darfur. Or like Equatorial Guinea, where the dictator Obiang has become richer than Queen Elizabeth while leaving two-thirds of the country’s people in severe poverty.
  • Natural gas exporters like Burma, where the fearsome military junta refuses to hand power over to the Nobel laureat who won the last real election, while launching armed attacks on ethnic minority groups and peaceful protestors.
  • Countries like Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe uses money from diamond smuggling to maintain his grip on power even in the midst of a humanitarian disaster.
  • Resource-rich countries in the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia, and South America also suffer from “the resource curse.”

Isn’t this just the way the world works?

Our governments don’t have to put us into business with the world’s worst dictators and militias—even today, they sometimes choose not to. Right now, for example, the EU does not allow its citizens to buy timber, gems or metals from the Burmese regime. And right now the US government denies Bashir the right to sell Sudan’s oil to Americans.

Our governments could follow this rule: “Don’t put our citizens into business with the world’s worst dictators and warlords.” Yet instead our governments almost always use the rule might makes right: our governments say that whoever has enough power to capture a country’s resources will be given the right to sell those resources to us, for huge sums.

The might makes right rule is a holdover from past centuries when kings and queens claimed absolute authority over their subjects, and when international law allowed empires to capture new territory by conquest. All of our governments have publicly proclaimed the principles of the modern era: principles like human rights and national self-determination. Yet our governments continue to use might makes right as their trade policy, in violation of major international treaties that they have signed years ago (and in some cases, that they helped to write).

Even the states often considered the most “moral,” like those in Scandinavia and the Low Countries, are caught in this contradiction between proclaiming a foreign policy based on the fundamental modern principles and the corrosive ancient rule of might makes right.

The way the world works has changed a lot since the era of absolute monarchs and European empires. Might makes right is one of the last vestiges of the old system. It’s the twenty-first century: it is time that we change our laws to respect the people’s rights in countries from which we get resources.

Why should we care?

One reason to care is that today’s global trade in oil and other raw materials is bad for almost everyone, including us. Our money ends up in the hands of hostile regimes that threaten our countries. Our governments end up supporting regimes so repressive that the people of the country turn against us, sometimes violently. Terrorists hide in chaotic failed states where warlords fight over resources. Corrupt and unaccountable officials rip resources out of the ground for their own profit, causing vast environmental damage and huge greenhouse gas emissions. In all these ways, using the might makes right rule ends up biting us back.

And we end up paying for goods made from raw materials stolen from some of the most violated people in the world. Should we care about those people?

Whether anyone really cares about other people in the world is, ultimately, up to them. If you meet someone who does not seem to care about where their money goes for what they buy, you can ask them how they would feel if they had to barter for their weekly gasoline fill-up by handing over ankle irons that would be used in a dictator’s dungeon for political prisoners. Or how they would feel if they could only get their next cell phone by paying with machetes and torches that militiamen would use to attack a village. If you meet someone like this, you can ask would they care if they actually had to wipe blood off their new shoes, magazines and electronics before using them.

There are not very many people who are so attached to the things they buy that they are unwilling to talk about where these things come from. But there are always some people like this. The poet Cowper satirized them in 1788, at the start of the movement to abolish the British slave trade with the sugar plantations in the Caribbean:

I own I am shock’d at the purchase of slaves,
And fear those who buy them and sell them are knaves;
What I hear of their hardships, their tortures, and groans,
Is almost enough to draw pity from stones.

I pity them greatly, but I must be mum,
For how could we do without sugar and rum?
Especially sugar, so needful we see,
What? give up our desserts, our coffee and tea!

The British abolished the slave trade in 1807—and of course did so without giving up sugar, rum, coffee or tea. We do not need to give up the global trade in raw materials to get rid of the might makes right rule. We just need to change our own rules for who can sell us resources.

How should the system change?

The main insight is this: The world’s dictators, coupists, rebels and militias don’t own a country just because they can be more violent than anyone else. They may seize control over a country, or some resource-rich territory, but seizing control gives them no right to sell off the country’s natural assets. If bandits take over a warehouse they don’t become the owners of the goods in the warehouse. Might does not make right. Today dictators, coupists, rebels and militias are literally stealing natural resources, and fencing those resources out of the country in order to enrich themselves and gain more power.

Since might does not make right our governments should end their policy of saying that it does. Our governments should give up the might makes right rule, and affirm they will no longer put their own citizens into business with the world’s worst violators of human rights.

What should the rules be for international trade in natural resources?

The citizens of each country have the ultimate right to decide their country’s future, including what should be done with the country’s natural resources. It is the people – not the regime, or rebels, or foreigners – who have this final authority.

As Article 1 of both of the major human rights treaties puts it:

All peoples may, for their own ends, freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources.

This means that our governments should not put us into business with anyone in countries where the people could not possibly be controlling the resources. Anyone selling us resources totally outside of the people’s control is literally selling us stolen goods.

What concretely is required for citizens to have some control over their natural resources? What counts is whether the citizens in a country have at least some civil liberties and political rights:

  • There must be at least some absolutely minimal press freedom for citizens to be able to find out what is being done with the country’s resources. The state must not be so deeply corrupt that it is impossible for the people to tell what happens to the revenues from resource sales.
  • Citizens must be able to pass information about resource sales to each other without fear of surveillance and arrest.
  • The state must put some political mechanisms in place through which the people can effectively protest decisions over resources: at the very least occasions on which individuals or civic groups can present petitions to the government that the government will take seriously.
  • There must also be some minimum rule of law, ensuring that citizens who wish to protest resource sales publicly and peacefully may do so without fear of cruel judicial punishment, disappearance, serious injury, or death.

In short, the state must be neither utterly authoritarian nor entirely failed – if it is, we must not import resources from that country.

There are several independent organizations that rate how well the people’s rights are respected in different countries. For example, Fund for Peace and Polity. The “worst of the worst” authoritarian and failed states get ‘7’ on both scales from Freedom House. And you can read what life is like in those “worst of the worst” countries here.

Can you be more specific about these rules?

The Clean Trade framework is described in detail in the policy brief, which you can download by clicking the button on the top right of this webpage.

A quick summary:

  1. Your government structures its trade policies to support public accountability over resources in all of the countries that your country gets natural resources from;
  2. Your government passes Clean Trade legislation blocking any business dealings with the “worst of the worst” regimes;
  3. Your government enters into talks with trade partners, encouraging them also not to deal with the “worst of the worst” regimes. Trade partners that continue to deal with the “worst of the worst” regimes will face duties on their exports, the proceeds being held in Clean Hands Trusts for the people of the exporting countries.

This policy framework is designed to help the citizens of exporting countries gain more control over what is rightfully theirs—their country and its natural wealth. That’s in their interests, and it’s in our interests too.

Does this mean we can only buy natural resources from democracies?

No. It wouldn’t be feasible right now for any country to declare that it will only get its raw materials from democratic countries. But we can design our own policies to encourage popular sovereignty in all of our trade partners – while refusing to buy from countries where the people have no control over their resources at all.

Wouldn’t this mean interfering with the politics of other countries?

This is a very important question. Actually it’s what your government does right now that interferes with the politics of other countries. Clean Trade asks governments to stop interfering with other countries’ politics.

Look at what your government says to other countries right now. It says, “Whoever can gain control of natural resources by any means—severe repression, coup d’etat, mass murder, ethnic cleansing—we will give you the right to sell those resources to our consumers. The right we will give you may be worth millions, even billions. You can use that money any way you like—spend it on more troops and weapons, use it to undermine your political opponents, buy private planes and luxury property abroad, deposit it in secret bank accounts, whatever you like. And so long as you can keep your grip on power, we will channel our citizens’ money to you in exchange for your country’s natural wealth.”

That’s your government’s current policy, and it’s not a policy of non-interference. Any government claiming that its trade policy is “no politics, just business” while empowering dictators and warlords is not being honest. Our governments should stop interfering with the politics of other countries: they should stop offering the prize of our money to whoever can be the most violent.

No one wants dictators and warlords. But doesn’t history show what a mess governments can make when they intervene to try to change the politics of other countries?

This question is like the last one, except it asks about “intervening” instead of “interfering.” You can see that the same answer is the right one: our governments are today intervening in other countries when they channel our money to tyrants and bloody rebels, and when they give big cash incentives to coup plotters and civil warriors. We are asking our governments to stop intervening in the politics of other countries like this.

Clean Trade reforms only require that we change the laws within resource-importing countries. If you live in Canada, say, you will just be asking the Canadian government to stop stolen natural resources from entering Canada. You will be asking the Canadian government to change Canada’s laws, enforced in Canada’s jurisdiction, so that these laws reflect Canada’s principles.

Not a single soldier or bomber will cross any border when these reforms are made. We only need to improve our own trade rules. Clean Trade is 100% peaceful change.

There’s a lot of money at stake. How could these changes be feasible?

There is a lot of money at stake, especially in the big internationally traded resources like oil. Changes are feasible because the current global system actually works against the long-term interests of major players: powerful governments and the large multinational resource (e.g., oil) corporations. They should want to change the system too.

There’s more detail on this in the policy brief for policymakers and corporate leaders. In short, the resource curse is bad for major importing governments and major corporations. They end up pumping funds into hostile, repressive and failing states in ways that threaten their national and business interests.

For example, look at today’s global system from the perspective of the rich industrialized countries in the West. These countries have sent a lot of money to hostile powers in the past 35 years (in the Soviet Union, Iran, Iraq, Libya, etc.) in exchange for petroleum. They have also supported repressive rulers in ‘friendly’ exporting countries, especially in the Middle East, attracting resentment and even terrorism in return. Threats to international peace such as Al Qaeda and Hezbollah have used diamonds bought from authoritarians to evade financial assets freezes, and terrorists have sought havens in areas of resource-fueled conflict (such Yemen or the Great Lakes region of Africa).

Multinational corporations are also harmed by the resource curse in the long run. They are denied access to several resource-cursed countries ruled by hostile authoritarians. When allowed to enter a resource-cursed country, their large fixed investments (wells, pipelines, mines) have been tempting targets for nationalization, as well as attack by rebels. Firms that enter resource-cursed countries can become a magnet for popular discontent over corruption and pollution; they can be spurned by ‘ethical’ investors in rich countries; they are vulnerable to reputational damage from consumer pressure campaigns; they are subject to lawsuits, NGO whistle-blowing, and bad publicity for complicity in human rights and environmental violations. A firm’s recruitment and its employee morale may also suffer people see it, or its industry, as bad.

Changing the global system is feasible because it’s in everyone’s interests. The principles to guide reform have already been agreed on by almost every state. The policies based on those principles are to hand. When it comes to replacing might makes right in the system of international trade, doing the right thing will also make everybody better off—everyone, that is, except the dictators and warlords, the coup plotters and the civil warriors.

How can we help these changes to happen?

We want to work with national governments and multinational corporations to change the rules of the international trade in resources. These are powerful actors, who can make real change happen quickly. And the current system works against their long-term interests too – states and corporations should want to change these rules.

Yet governments and corporations tend to focus on the short-term: the next election and the next financial year. For the short term, they think: “That dictator can sell us the oil now – we’ll do business with him.”

We can convince governments and corporations to take a longer view, by holding them accountable to the fundamental principles they’ve already signed up to. We can hold them accountable for respecting the people’s rights, everywhere. Here are three ways:

  • Citizen Power can convince our governments that we really want them to stop putting us into business with the world’s worst tyrants and rebels. We need to get this message to our representatives loud and clear.
  • Shopper Power: With better information, shoppers can choose goods made from raw materials that come from countries where the people’s rights are respected. For instance – imagine everyone could decide which cell phone to buy knowing which manufacturers buy their raw materials from the shockingly violent militias in the eastern Congo.
  • Legal action. The principles of human rights and national self-determination are basic legal principles that our governments and corporations are legally bound to. This means they can be held accountable in our own courts of law. For instance, when a dictator who savagely represses the people of the country sells off the country’s oil, he is literally selling stolen goods. A tanker full of that oil is a tanker full of stolen oil, and when that tanker docks in our ports the company that owns it can be brought to court—for possessing stolen goods. Bringing cases like this can change how companies think about doing business with authoritarian regimes.

What can I do?

Right now the most important thing is to help spread the word. Tell people you know about this website and our Facebook page. Send a message to your representative in government saying “Support Clean Trade.” Use new technology, social media, your own innovative ways to alert people to the issues. We’ve found that people quickly see the problem with our governments putting us into business with the world’s worst dictators and warlords – and they like finding a way to support peaceful, positive change.

Beyond this you might have ideas to share—on how today’s trade in natural resources is hurting your country, on effective strategies for Clean Trade. We’d like to hear your ideas and benefit from your expertise as we act on our Project Agenda.

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