by Roland Watson
September 2000

On June 20, the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the Burma purchasing ordinance in the State of Massachusetts was unconstitutional. The state had enacted a law which effectively precluded companies which do business in Burma from winning state contracts. The law was intended to take an ethical stance: “if your company supports the military dictatorship in Burma, which engages in widespread repression, slave labor and murder, we do not want to do business with you.”

The Supreme Court overturned the law. It viewed the case as an issue between states rights and federal government rights, over who can set foreign policy. It ignored the issue of individual rights, the Constitution's Bill of Rights, including the right to speak out against unethical government purchasing, and also to have one's elected representatives do so as well.

Strictly speaking, the Massachusetts law was rejected because it was in conflict with the United States' own sanctions against Burma (if you believe the rationale presented by the Court). The U.S. was not speaking with one voice. However, the story is more complex than this. The Massachusetts law was enacted before the federal government imposed sanctions, and further: it had teeth. The sanctions were much weaker: they were designed to suit corporate interests, particularly those of Unocal, the American oil company with a large investment in Burma, since they (and other companies) were not required to divest their current operations, only not to engage in new projects.

The Massachusetts law was principled. The government sanctions were crafted to give the appearance of being principled.

The ruling, although seemingly narrow, will have a broad impact. It undermines all government procurement ordinances which have a specific ethical motivation, such as to forbid the purchasing of goods made using child or sweatshop labor, or products made from rainforest hardwoods. Had the ruling been issued in the 1980s, it would have invalidated all of the selective purchasing ordinances which helped bring about the end of apartheid in South Africa.

Courts normally punish unethical behavior. It is rare indeed that they reject the desire and\ restrict the ability of individuals, and governments, to do right.

The corporate trade group which sued Massachusetts, the National Foreign Trade Council, was triumphant. They called the ruling “a victory for the U.S. Constitution.” They received vindication from the nation's highest court of the ethical standard which underlies their behavior, which is: “if we don't do it, someone else will.”

(Unocal is a member of the NFTC, as is the oil field services group, Halliburton, which also is active in Burma. Halliburton was headed by Dick Cheney, until he left to become the vice-presidential candidate for the Republican Party. Previously, as a congressman from Wyoming, he opposed the application of sanctions against South Africa. The net effect of all this for Burma is that the existence of weak sanctions was used to overturn hard law, and that if the Republicans are elected it is likely that there will be a push to eliminate the sanctions as well.)

Three oil companies, Unocal, TotalFinaElf of France, and Premier Oil of the United Kingdom, provide hundreds of millions of dollars to the Burmese dictatorship each year. And some fifty percent of the dictatorship's budget goes to the army, in other words, to military domination of the Burmese people. These corporations argue that there is no link between their funding and the political situation in the country. By saying this, they demonstrate that they are either delusional to the point of psychosis, or bald-faced liars.

Corporate executives and spokespeople say, if we don't exploit the oil and fund the dictatorship, someone else will. If we don't use child or slave labor, someone else will. If we don't destroy the environment for profit, someone else will. And if we don't brainwash the general public, someone else will.

All around the world, the fight to replace dictatorship with democracy is being lost. Many democratic governments support political dictatorships, including the worst. This means the dictatorships are not going to be swept away anytime soon.

Such support normally begins in the military, which is expert in the techniques of perpetuating conflict, and the fear of conflict, such that its “services” will always be required. Also, these services must constantly be “upgraded,” as with new weapons technology, and at a great cost to the public.

The militaries of democracies regularly support the armies of foreign dictators, both with officer training and weapons supply. One of the most notorious examples of the first, in the U.S., is the School of the Americas, at Fort Benning, Georgia, the graduates of which include the former dictators of Argentina and Panama, and the soldiers who murdered priests in El Salvador. (It is also noteworthy that the son of the dictator of Cambodia graduated from the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, in 1999.)

One could go so far as to say that the objective of the military, in many if not all countries, is not to achieve peace but rather to keep the world destabilized. This way their privileged position - they “protect the nation” - will never be threatened. (Orwell called it: “War is Peace.”)

As a related example, the United States refuses to support the formation of the proposed International Criminal Court, which will be the venue for trials of individuals charged with war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity (for trials which cannot be held fairly in the nations where the crimes are committed). It is a case of selective application of a standard. If soldiers or generals in foreign armies (or businesspeople who conspire with them) commit these crimes, then the government's view is that they should be convicted and imprisoned (as under the current International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia), but American soldiers and generals (and such businesspeople) who are guilty of these crimes must never be held to account. (The argument which is presented is that any such military personnel would be tried in the U.S., in a U.S. military court, which is a sure guarantee that justice would be served! The idea that such culpability would extend to businesspeople has never been raised, other than in the Earth Rights International lawsuit against Unocal.)

This pattern continues, in a different way, in the arena of commercial trade. United States government support for permanent normal trade relations with China, and (along with similar support from the European Union) for the country's bid to join the World Trade Organization, basically says: “We don't care what you do to your one point two billion people. We just want our corporations to make as much money as possible from them.”

China is also the Burmese dictatorship's strongest ally and an imperialist power in its own right, most notably with its violent annexation and colonial occupation of Tibet.

Further, every corporation has an autocratic and authoritarian structure, starting with its Chief Executive Officer, and many if not most will do anything and work with anyone in their determination to earn profits. And dictatorial supranational institutions, including the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, impose their views and desires on all of the people of the world. They not only globalize trade, they
institutionalize class structure and repression.

And then, there is the United Nations, which welcomes the representatives of the dictatorial regimes of the world, rather than their democratic oppositions. Burma is represented in the United Nations by thugs from the illegal and murderous regime which rules the country, and this is a travesty. The regime, and all others like it, should be expelled, with their seats left vacant or, in those cases - as in Burma - where valid elections have been held, given to the elected representatives of the people. (For Burma, one could envision the National League for Democracy appointing such a mission.)

Hence, the new campaign in the Free Burma movement: UNseat the Regime!

Similarly, the United Nations should admit Taiwan, and Tibet. That the UN is not independent, and that it supports politics rather than justice, and the interests of those with power rather than the general public, could not have been made clearer through the decision not to invite the Dalai Lama to the Millennium World Peace Summit, and instead to “kow tow” to the demands of the dictators of the “People's Republic.”

Finally, the democracies of the world themselves, on closer inspection, look like dictatorships as well. One could even ask if there is one well-functioning democracy on the entire planet.

In nominally democratic countries, the individuals and institutions which have accumulated economic power have used it to gain political and judicial power. As the huge contributions in the current United States presidential campaign illustrate, corruption is out in the open.

The Republican and Democrat campaign funds are expected to total, by the date the election is held, approximately one-half billion dollars, and the vast majority of this will have been supplied by corporations. And these corporations expect a return on their investment. They are not stupid. These contributions are bribes, for which they expect favorable regulations and rulings. Indeed, that's why many corporations give to both parties. They cover their bases - double their bribes - because even after doing so it is still a bargain relative to what they will receive in return.

A “monetary” democracy equals “no” democracy. Instead, it is fascism. Political and economic power is unified; the only remaining check - judicial power - has signed on as well (courts, of course, have almost always supported the interests of the economic and political elites, so they weren't much of a check anyway); and the entire structure is protected by the military and the police.

Dictatorship is now legitimate. It is accepted. Oppression of the many by the few has been institutionalized worldwide. But we, the ordinary people of the world, will not stand for this. From the streets of Philadelphia and Los Angeles, and now New York and Rangoon, to every country around the globe, we will fight back and tear this oppressive structure down. The dictatorial institutions of the world cannot stop our dissent by issuing court judgements or by making laws against us. They cannot eliminate our resistance through harassment, illegal detention and abuse. Regardless of what they do, up to and including killing some of us - many of us in Burma, Tibet and China - they cannot destroy our courage or our will.


© Roland O. Watson 2001-3