Finance and Human Rights

4 January 2012

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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EXTRENAL DEBT AUDITS AND FAIR AND TRANSPARENT ARBITRATION – THE CASE OF ECUADOR

11 March 2010

On the 15th of December 2008 Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa took the unprecedented step of declaring that Ecuador would stop paying interest on commercial bonds owed by the government on the basis that they were ‘obviously immoral and illegitimate’. The decision came as a result of a comprehensive debt audit for which Ecuadorian civil society had been campaigning for a number of years.

Concern was over debt incurred under previous governments and for which many Ecuadorians felt they suffered an undue burden. This unrest was based on the belief that this debt was the result of illegal practices under former regimes, and as it turns out, they were right. The audit which aimed to establish the origins and nature of Ecuador’s external debt concluded that owing to the conditions on which they were issued and restructured, much of the private debts owed by Ecuador were illegal under both Ecuadorian and international law.

What followed from this audit was a series of shrewd financial manoeuvres by President Correa. A full scale default would not have been in Ecuador’s best interests. The possibility of being ostracised from world financial markets and the risk of being sued presented serious consequences. The threat of default however was strong enough for President Correa to cut a restructuring deal which resulted in Ecuador paying back only 35 cents in the dollar. This was helped a great deal by the President announcing the default on the very day that the three large hedge-funds which held much of the debt were being forced to liquidise their holdings as a result of the financial crisis. This devalued the debt considerably, allowing Correa to then use a large Ecuadorian bank to buy the loans back at rates high enough to fragment the debt distribution sufficiently to allow an extremely favourable restructuring deal to be forged.

Perhaps most importantly was the response from the multilateral finance institutions who, in not lodging any formal objections, implicitly offered some degree of support for such a process. This was a surprise to many, much of the mainstream media and many financial commentators condemned Ecuador for not playing by the rules and portrayed the step as a political manoeuvring by a renegade president. Their concern was over the precedent this sets, a precedent which allowed Ecuador an effective debt default despite having the ability to pay, and the worry that this will create grey areas over when debt is and isn’t required to be repaid, therefore undermining the principles on which international financial lending was structured.

These opposing reactions has therefore created clear tension and uncertainty regarding illegitimate debt and default. It does however significantly strengthen the call for an international system of fair and transparent arbitration as is advocated by a wide network of organisations including the Jubilee Movement. The adoption of such a system would allow issues of illegitimate debt to be addressed while maintaining security and stability in the international financial system, working out compromises which acknowledge fairness and responsibility.

The call for such a system is continually being strengthened as a result of various countries signalling their intentions to follow the same path as Ecuador. On December the 30th 2009 Bolivian Parliament approved resolution to set up an commission for a review of the external debt of Bolivia. In Paraguay President Fernando Lugo similarly signalled his wish for such a process and in Zimbabwe, civil society has long been calling for an audit to identify the staggering amount of odious debt incurred as part of the post colonial burden. This is an issue of tremendous relevance not only for countries in the developing world, but in the developed world as well. Iceland and Greece are two examples of countries suffering heavily as a result of increasing external debt burdens. Fair and Transparent Arbitration is therefore poised to be an issue of much debate in times to come and an idea which may cement itself as an essential part of the post-crisis financial infrastructure. This would be good news for many, especially for the poor for whom the repayment of illegitimate debt has hampered their countries efforts at poverty reduction for decades.

Drew Ritchie, Jubilee Scotland


THE EUROPEAN INVESTMENT BANK by Cornelia Trogmann

25 April 2008

Previously we examined the role of the Export Credit Guarantee Department (ECGD) and its role as the major UK government debt generator. Cornelia Trogmann here turns the spotlight on another lender funded by the UK government. The European Investment Bank (EIB)

The European Investment Bank was established in 1958 as the long-term lending institution of the European Union. It is mandated to provide financing in support of all policy objectives of the EU (CEE Bankwatch Network: The European Investment Bank. Promoting Sustainable Development “Where Appropriate”. November 2007). With an annual lending portfolio of more than €45 billion, the EIB is probably the largest public international financial institution. But it also is the least transparent European institution. It operates worldwide in a wide range of projects – in 2006 alone, the EIB distributed €5.9 billion to projects outside the EU – yet it does so without clear environmental, social or development policies in place. (Bank Watch 2008)  

 

But while the World Bank and the IFC operate with a single overarching mission in all their countries of operation, the EIB operates with distinct regional mandates outside the EU, as defined by the European Council. Acting outside of the EU, the bank is charged with implementing European Commission policy in the sphere of development cooperation. As a European Institution it has the duty to promote human rights and social principles outside the EU. But it still lacks specific operational policies on key social development and safeguard issues such as potential risks and impacts, public participation and information, health and safety, independent experts, meaningful prior consultation with affected communities, core labour standards, gender equality, and resettlement  (Tom Griffiths 2006) Instead, the main focus seems to lie on the European companies’ profit. Certainly, their controversial projects display a strong lack of expertise and an even stronger interest in lucrative investments. (The Guardian 2008)

The EIB is rather secretive about its projects. Minutes of its meetings are never published, so it is widely suspected that there is a culture of swapping favours between the countries. The EIB doesn’t even publish staff contact information and the evaluation of individual projects is considered as internal information and is not made public in principle. (Bank Watch 2007).

Counter Balance and Bankwatch have recently had a closer look at some of the projects the EIB has helped to fund, and the findings are worrying. One the EIBs more controversial recent involvements has been with the Gilgel Gibe hydro power project in Ethiopia, to which it contributed millions of euros (the remainder of the project was financed by the World Bank, the Austrian Development Cooperation and the Ethiopian Government). This project dates all the way back to 1985, but is still being implemented in 2008. The EIB has so far leant €41m for the construction of Gilgel Gibe I and €50m for Gilgel Gibe II. The bank has been formally approached by EEPCo for a new loan for Gilgel Gibe III, an offer that the World Bank has flatly refused to accept because of criminal proceedings that are hanging over the head of Salini Costruttori, the Italian construction company responsible for the building of the Gilgel Gibe II dam. Nevertheless, the EIB is still considering a multi-million euro loan for the construction of this third dam.

The EIB’s participation in the operations raises various concerns about the coherence and the compliance with international standards and best practices (the Gilgel Gibe III Dam does not comply with any of the seven strategic priorities of the World Commission on Dams), as well as with EU policies and with the bank’s own operational policies. For example, the EIB has apparently failed to consider that the energy generated by Gilgel Gibe III is fully export oriented. This will certainly not help the cause of Ethiopia, which already has one of the world’s lowest levels of access to modern energy services, and relies primarily on traditional biomass, which is responsible for massive deforestation that in turn causes severe erosion and loss of topsoil in many of Ethiopia’s river basins. While EEPCo (fully state-owned and currently the sole electric utility in the country) claims to have increased energy access from 17 percent to 22 percent between 2005 and 2007, figures reflecting direct access to electricity remain at only 12 percent of the population, and there is a great disparity between the access rates of urban and rural residents (Counter Balance 2008)

Also, the project cannot be considered as one of poverty reduction. Rather than bringing social development and an alleviation of poverty, the creation of the reservoir has resulted in the displacement of an estimated 10000 civilians. Of these, many were resettled on swampland, which was of poor agricultural quality and which had no electricity supply, despite being crossed by the high voltage transmission line. (CEE Bankwatch Network and International Rivers 2007).

 Neither did the EIB consider Ethiopia’s hydrological vulnerability to drought or climate change. The dam’s impact on animal disease, child and health nutrition, environmental health and ecology, epidemiology and infectious disease and soil fertility is still being analysed. (Counter Balance 2008)

The European Investment Bank, as well as the other main donors supporting the Ethiopian energy sector, justifies its investments by the projects’ potential for exporting to neighbouring countries. But from the evidence given above, the difficulties that this particular project has brought to the Ethiopian population are very clear to see. And this example is far from unique, in fact, a recent report of Counter Balance, which focussed specifically upon the Gilgel Gibe I, II and III large hydro projects, showed how goals to eradicate poverty and support local communities are most often compromised when major corporations and political elites are intent on maximising profits ( Counter Balance 2008)

Other examples of the EIB’s involvement in controversial projects include:

 Water privatisation in Indonesia. Since 1993, the EIB has granted almost €300 million in loans to projects in Indonesia, mainly in the gas and water sector. But rather than helping the poor to safe or more accessible water, these investments helped the private sector companies to increase profits at the expense of millions of consumers. (CEE Bankwatch Network 2006)

Bolivia-Brazil gas pipeline. Constructed in the late 1990s, this pipeline crosses several important ecosystems. The EIB granted a €55m loan for this project to a consortium including Enron and Shell. The EIB ignored the fact that gas is not a renewable energy, proof to many of the lack of respect the EIB shows towards EU environmental law in its projects. (CEE Bankwatch 2006)

Chad-Cameroon oil and pipeline project. In 2001, the EIB granted loans to the Chadian and Cameroonian governments and to Chevron and Exxon. Amnesty International found that the Chadian security forces carried out large-scale massacres of unarmed civilians in the oil-producing region in the late 1990s at the time of intense project preparations. The scandal was deepened further by the fact that Chad used part of the loan to purchase weapons. Nevertheless, the bank ignored the severe human rights abuse and corruption in these two countries. Negative effects include the loss of biodiversity along the pipeline route, and the poor waste management of the oil and drilling fluids threaten groundwater supplies. (CEE Bankwatch 2006)  

Mining in Zambia. The following year, the EIB granted a loan of €14m for the construction of a large mine without asking for an Environmental Impact Assessment prior to its approval of the project. This mine is a major source of air and water pollution in the local area. (CEE Bankwatch 2006).

 So what can be done to prevent the EIBs continued involvement in such controversial projects in future? Opposition parties have provided many answers, though all effectively seem to come to the same conclusion. Counter Balance, for example, has suggested that the EIB has to adopt clear and binding standards that are coherent with EU policies, and must also become more accountable for the catastrophes that are brought by their actions. (Counter Balance: European Civil Society Concerns About Inadequate Policies and Practices of the European Investment Bank. Memo for European Parliamentarians. February 2008). As Tom Griffiths has suggested, the EIB as a European Institution has a duty to promote human rights and social principles outside the EU as enshrined in European external policies and in European development co-operation treaties.  (Griffiths, Tom: 2006) Similarly, Bankwatch has suggested that the European Commission and Parliament have to exercise more control over EIB operations in poorer countries and ensure compliance with long-term sustainable development objectives. (CEE Bankwatch 2006).