Finance and Human Rights

James Picardo, Campaign Director at Jubilee Scotland, spoke as part of the ‘Global Challenges’ series of events hosted by Edinburgh University. Here is what he said:

Economics on the one hand, and justice and human rights issues on the other hand, are often discussed as separate phenomena; as ways of looking at the world that don’t connect or intersect. But I believe that it’s of fundamental importance that we consider them alongside each other. In this blog I would like to use the example of Egypt’s arms debt to the UK to argue this point, touching on the gaps in international law and the importance of lending in the often violent shaping of the political map.

Jubilee Scotland is campaigning at the moment alongside its sister organisation – Jubilee Debt Campaign – for the cancellation of $100 million is owed by the Egyptian people to the UK government.

We are asking for it to be cancelled because we believe it to be an odious debt. An odious debt is one taken on by an unelected dictator – in this case Hosni Mubarak – the repayment for which is then demanded from the people of the country. This is the moral equivalent of someone breaking into your house and taking out a huge second mortgage against it, which you then have to repay when you get back into the house.

This would be enough to make the debt odious, but in the case of Egypt there is another layer to consider. The debt was used to pay for Rapier and Swingfire missiles, Lynx helicopters and a tank factory, weaponry which would actually have been used to shore up the illegitimate Mubarak regime. So to use our previous analogy, the house owner is also having to pay for the weapons that kept them out of their own house

Unfortunately, international law doesn’t recognise the concept of odious debt. This ties into the wider fact that it only recognises sovereign states and leaders; individuals, or whole peoples even, have no personality in its eyes. To go back to the house example, national law would seek to protect the interest of the party whose house had been stolen, but international law, if it operated the same way, would recognise the existence of the house, but assume that whoever was in charge of the house was the rightful owner – a kind of ‘finders-keepers’ approach to ownership. It is not a Code of Law in the true sense, as first formulated in ancient Babylon, because it does not protect the weak against the strong. It’s a system in which individuals – and whole peoples – are totally exposed to the Great Predators of the global economy: dictators, arms manufacturers, and lenders.

Mubarak’s arms debts are owed to a branch of the UK government called the Export Credit Guarantee Department (now renamed as UK Export finance), who use British tax-payers’ money to underwrite ‘high risk’ exports such as arms deals, meaning that both the arms exporter and the dictator remove themselves from the equation, leaving a debt owed by the people who suffered from the deal to us, the UK taxpayers.

The Export Credit Guarantee Department are the UK’s Export Credit Agency. Every major world power has one of these bodies, whose job it is to promote and support risky investments overseas. By using tax-payers’ money to underwrite deals they totally transform the risk profile of these risky deals, in effect creating a market where otherwise there wouldn’t be one.

For decades, Export Credit Agencies such as the ECGD have been used to set up trading relations with dictators in all parts of the world, including President Suharto in Indonesia and President Marcos in the Philippines. Their activities have provided domestic weapons manufacturers with stable overseas markets, have shored up regimes sympathetic to the West and have ensured a steady flow of debt repayments.

Export Credit Agency lending forms part of a wider portfolio of lending and aid – and it’s worth knowing that to qualify as ‘Overseas Development Assistance’ (the most widely used concept of aid) capital flows only have to have a 25% component of grant finances. This lending has been used for many decades to shape the map of the world, and to ensure that governments sympathetic to lending powers remained in charge of the house.

By sympathetic, we mean sympathetic to the supporting superpower, rather than sympathetic to the people of the country. As Franklin Roosevelt famously said of Nicaragua’s dictator Somoza, ‘he may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.’

Because the bloody origins of many of these debts are not widely discussed, all debt campaigners are frequently asked whether we should in fact cancel debts to poor countries without being very vigilant on how the money is spent. To my mind this would be shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. In the case of an Egypt or Indonesia the money for these debts has already been spent by a dictator on arms – often under the lender’s very vigilant eye.

Cancelling the debts is morally essential because it’s wrong to keep collecting money from the people whose oppression we have unwittingly colluded in. But if we are serious about stopping oppression we need to put a stop to bad lending, not just cancelling pre-existing bad debt.

In 1997, when Robin Cook became Foreign Secretary, he spoke of an ‘ethical foreign policy’. This statement was widely derided at the time as being a joke. In 1998, the scoffers were to some extent proved to be right, when the UK’s Export Credit Guarantee Department underwrote a huge sale of jet-fighters to the Indonesian dictator Suharto. The phrase ‘ethical foreign policy’ – even the idea of having an ethical foreign policy – became at this point even more bankrupt.

This trend needs I believe to be reversed. We may view ourselves as individuals, or as citizens of the world, we may campaign or give as individuals, and strive as campaigners to change the international system but we should not ignore the large proportion of our individual global impact which is mediated through UK foreign policy. It’s for this reason that, as well as building individual links with debt campaigners around the world, and while campaigning for an international system through which odious debts can be recognised and cancelled as as such, Jubilee Scotland also campaigns – alongside Campaign Against the Arms Trade and Amnesty International – for the radical reform of the Export Credit Guarantee Department.

Find our more about the campaign to end unfair lending at www.cleanupexports.org.uk and Jubilee Scotland at www.jubileescotland.org.uk

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