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Interview
Last Updated: 12/15/2003
Paul Martin on Human Rights
Joe Schumache

Joe Schumacher interviews J. Paul Martin, executive director of the Center for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University, New York

Dr. Martin, together with Professor Louis Henkin (University Professor Emeritus/Special Service Professor, Columbia University), founded the Center in 1978, and has served as its executive director ever since. Dr. Martin spent several years as a missionary and university teacher in Africa, and over the years, Dr. Martin's primary research interest has been human rights education, especially in Africa, as well as religion and human rights. Currently his work is focused on the impact of multinational corporations on developing countries from a human rights perspective.


What do you do at Columbia’s University’s Center for the Study of Human Rights?

 

The mandate of the Centre is to develop human rights education, teaching and research, both at Columbia and at other locations overseas. The other characteristic of the Centre is that it is multi-disciplinary. We focus on building bridges and dialogues among human rights actors, primarily practitioners and scholars in human rights.

 

Much of your own experience and work has been in Africa looking at the role of the big transnational corporations in the extractive industries. Is there a blue print for how these TNC’s should act in a developing country to avoid undermining the local economy and exacerbating corruption?

There is no blue print as such. The classic book in this field is ‘Petrostates’, by Terry Karl. In this book, he traces all the things that can go wrong, and how difficult it is for things to go right, for a variety of different reasons. One of the chief reasons is taxation. If people are taxed, they want the Government to respond, but if they are not taxed then the government does what it wants.  The income is seen as the Governments’ money and people do not feel they need to watch what the Government is doing with that money. There are so many dimensions to this particular problem.  Today it is not so much that gas and oil were discovered in Africa, but much more the change in America’s interest, realizing that Middle East oil has lots of problems and that there is not only plenty of oil and gas in Africa, it is also off-shore.  It is thus easy to get to and the Governments in that region are quite weak. They has been a lot of activism around oil in and with respect to Nigeria. Nigeria is interesting because it has been known for some years that there is around a hundred years worth of oil and gas in Nigeria alone. Therefore multinational Corporations like ‘Shell’ and ‘Chevron’ know they do not want to be thrown out. If they are thrown out, they will lose billions of dollars over many decades. So these oil companies have to think long term.  They cannot afford to think short term.  They have to have a plan to keep themselves in Nigeria and the region – for a long period of time. The question then is how do they do that?

 

Isn’t that plan usually bribery of those in control, making them dependent on oil revenues for their own continued power.

 Well it obviously varies country to country. That might be possible in a country like San Tome, or Equatorial Guinea which are tiny countries, poorly organized, with an elite that can do what it wants. On the other hand, in a country like Nigeria it’s far more complicated, because Nigeria has a very active civil society and an increasing awareness of what the value is of its riches, and the importance of somehow transposing those riches into real benefits for the country. So, what you have then is quite different circumstances in all those different countries: Cameroon has one set of circumstances, Chad another.

 

Do you see some success stories out there in Africa?

 

Well, we’re always hopefully moving towards a better situation. My main concern would always be, what is the relevant distribution of wealth, what does the MNC get and what does the country get. Now there are certain figures out publicly though I’m not to sure, as to how accurate they are, and what the whole picture is. That's the big question – net profits. Then in Nigeria, there’s the legacy of Ken Saro Wiwa, and the sense amongst the corporations of ‘we don't want that to happen again’. What are the problems?  One would be unhappy local residents. What can we do about that? In Nigeria, they’ve passed a law that increases the amount of oil revenue that has to go to local communities, a set figure. The next question is, who in local communities has the right to spend that money. You have the same problem at the level of local community as you have at national government, some of these people will be looking for money they can sift off into their own pockets. Overall there is some movement towards transparency but it has been modest.

 

What are your thoughts on the recent program to institutionalize transparency requirements, under the EITI (Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative)? Do you foresee a time when there will be real obligations on the big corporations with respect to transparency and community development?

My opinion is that the real focus has to be on the governments. Africa needs governments who feel that it is their responsibility to do much better for their own people from these deals with the corporations. So there has to be a real commitment on the part of the Governments to meet the challenge of putting together the best possible team to get the best possible deals from the corporations. You can’t expect the corporations to do too much.  They want the best deal for their shareholders.

 

You don't think its possible to develop some kind of legally coercive system beholding Corporations to certain standards?

That's what I’m proposing; in the negotiations, you develop a legal contract with quite specific requirements defining behavior and initiatives to benefit the country in ways other than just from the income.

 

Are there NGO’s helping Governments in this field?

There are people who are doing it; I cannot put a finger on a specific domestic NGO in Africa that is engaged in this.  Oxfam are trying to promote this awareness through its advising. To achieve a legally coercive contract, you really have to people who are thoroughly competent in the field and somewhat single minded.  They should also not be caught up in a pro-bono or ‘do-gooder’ model of service.  They need to be experts who can technically state the options that governments need to put on the table and then assist in the negotiations. The classic simple option that could be become formal at no cost, which I have also have mentioned to Shell, Exxon and BP, would be for the corporate experts working in a given country, such as their economists, architects and engineers, to give courses at the local university.

 

Some critics say that the record of some governments in these African countries is so bad that they cant be expected to take into account their peoples best interests. Yesterday’s warlord is so often today’s minister of finance, and getting these kinds of Governments to take the concerns of civil society is unfeasibly difficult.

Well that's the thing, that's what’s hard. Civil society has to develop techniques to implement its agenda associated with accountable governance. This is going to be the issue in a place like Liberia, how do you prevent another dictator coming to the surface.

 

Has civil society evolved enough in these countries?

Well in Liberia yes: the most powerful person in Liberia other than the President Taylor was the Archbishop. He is categorically civil society.  On the other hand, it is not just a question of politics, economic motives and the economic resources are critical. My classic case for that is Colombia where the people who explained it to me were the military. They were giving a slide presentation on the current civil war, identifying first the hotspots; and they then put on top another slide showing where the main economic resources were. They overlapped almost completely.  The same is true of diamonds in Sierra Leone and wood and other resources in Liberia. You are facing the challenge of people who stop at nothing to make money out of these situations. The question is how do you tackle the economic realities as well as human rights and disarmament.

 

Seems like an unfair fight, civil society vs. a warlord.

That's right, it may be an unfair fight, but we have to think the strategies through and go on. In the search for strategies you can go back to the late middle ages in Europe.  We may not have called their rulers warlords, but how was peace brought to large segments of Europe?  How did Britain get out of its civil war in the 18th century? How did it avoid future civil wars?

 

Hansiatic league, peace through mutual trade.

That's the sort of thing you are looking at; the traders realized that they could do much better without wars and brought pressure to bear on the rulers.

 

What do you think about the ‘odious debt’ principle, the idea that certain countries, could be declared ‘rogue countries’ if they aren’t using the natural resources of a country for it’s citizens benefit, yet continue to borrow from international lending institutions, often for the enrichment of the ruling regime. If these countries are identified as being such, by a body such as the UN then banks accept that they are lending to the regime, rather than a sovereign government, with all the entailing risks for collection. Is this a good idea?

Well there are a lot of issues like that, and I would think there would be some way to do that. My analogy would be the way that a bank (this struck me when I was negotiating a mortgage) makes sure that it has all the information needed to make sure that I can pay back the loan and that they have security. When a bank lends to a country with a dictator who could be thrown out tomorrow, that should be the bank’s problem not the people’s.

The other argument is on takings and recompense.  The West has very strong laws on intellectual property and enforces these laws to punish those who “steal” or use that property without paying.  On the other hand, what do we say about the millions of human beings who were “taken”, that is shipped from Africa to the Americas. That is definitely a sort of taking what did not belong to the takers.  However there is no established legal argument or treaties comparable to those that assure to western corporations compensation for their loss of intellectual property.  Whether or not Africa has a claim for all those people is obviously something that politically is not yet ready to fly. However, at the same time, those are the sort of arguments, which will begin to be tested in different forms, shapes and sizes. Going back to the odious debt issue, the challenge is to put in place the remedial and judicial systems that can deal with these concepts

 

Perhaps the IMF could develop some sort of stamp of approval, as they have already in the past declined to lend to certain regimes, which do have not met standards of transparency and civic responsibility. If this was extended to a loan moratorium, it could segue into this notion of ‘odious debt’

Well that's a possibility; it has a logic to it. Whether it’s going to be possible politically in the foreseeable future, I don't know. I think some of these countries are so belabored by debt, that there’s no way they can pull themselves up.  Again we have to first focus on whether an unstable or oppressive regime which cannot or does not progress economically, should receive more loans.

 

What is the relationship between the Macro and Micro when looking at these issues?

Well problems always exist at both levels. My emphasis however, as a teacher is to get away from the macro, which is what most people talk about – the way the World Bank and the IMF all portray the issues, and start saying, well ok all these things are important but what difference does it make at the level of the local village. Really, that's the aim, talking about human beings. Human Rights are designed to make the life of people more humane. And the only way I can see to do that is to look from the point of view of the villagers, at the policies of the World Bank, at the policies of the National Bank, at the human rights treaties signed by governments, to see how the affect life at the village level. Are people’s lives better? Is poverty less? Is there more access to health care? Is there more access to education? That's the way I link the micro and the macro.

 

Are you optimistic?

What I’m interested in and most enthused about is the growth of civil society – NGOs and such. I still don't see much happening at universities in Africa, even though they are critical actors in the development African society. What I’m looking at is how do you help develop a new generation of people in Africa who will take responsibility for their country, their people. It’s about getting them to take charge. I’m off to Liberia soon to help develop some human rights education programs. I am not going to run a program. The person who manages the program will be Liberian and the person who is the main instructor will be a Liberian. Every group will also have a full time external expert sitting in on the class, but essentially I want to be able to walk away and leave a number of local people who can manage the program and that have all the materials they need to carry on.

 

 

Is this emphasis on the importance of self-help shared throughout the NGO community in Africa?

Well, yes but there is a difference between theory and practice. Most people know what the recipe is, rights-based development. Whether it always happens at the ground level is a different story.

 

Why is that? Is it cultural arrogance?

No it is just that people get frustrated.  When you are trying to implement a project something and your waiting for someone else to do his part, you loose patience because it is slow. You think you know what the answer is and you go ahead and do it. It is like counseling, in the end the best counseling is helping people come to a conclusion and feel that they’ve made the decision about what to do with their life as opposed to you telling them what they should do. Rights-based development calls for a large component of self-help.

 

Mr. Martin, thank you very much

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