Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Australia’s Ethical Atrophy Part II

In a pique of nationalist anti-Americanism, some letter writers to The Age (on Saturday 4 February 2006) have criticised US Senator Coleman for his attacks on the AWB corruption scandal and the Howard government. (He thinks he was misled by Australia’s then Ambassador to the US, who’d lobbied Senators to drop a US inquiry into the AWB kickbacks to Iraq.)

Strange to think where this anti-Americanism is coming from – Howard supporters – considering the popularity of and support for Howard’s pro-American/pro-Bush stance and involvement in the war on Iraq.

One correspondent’s comments particularly struck me: he condemned Coleman as supporting the vested interests of the wheat farmers he represents and thus tarnishing his intervention as mere maneuvering against Australian wheat exports, and condemned the American’s interference in ‘our internal affairs’.

Another letter writer basically said that international business is built on deals that are eased by lots of grease along the way – the real-economic of ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’. Another writer questioned who the Yanks were to lecture ‘us’ about palm-greasing and dodgy dealings with corrupt regimes.

Hmm. It strikes me that many have missed one of the biggest ethical issues – that the kickbacks were in direct contravention of the US/UN sanctions against Iraq. I think this aspect is not quite in the current public picture of this corruption scandal: it wasn’t just that kickbacks were paid to secure the sale of Australian wheat to another country, or even that they were paid to one of the most brutal dictators (Saddam Hussein) and regimes of the day (Ba’athist Iraq). In short, UN Sanctions were broken.

The AWB paid $300 million to the regime, securing Australia’s wheat sales to Iraq through the now discredited UN Food-for-Oil program. The corrupt practices allowed the Iraqi regime to charge ‘transport surcharges’ and other extra costs on the Australian wheat. It assured Australian exports to Iraq, allowed the regime to skim off the top, and filled the pockets of Saddam and his cronies at the expense of sick and malnourished Iraqi children.

This is why this is not just Australia’s ‘internal affair’ – breaking the sanctions is about breaking international law and undermining the UN. It’s an ethical issue that concerns all of us across the globe.

I remember a time when breaking UN Sanctions was the worst thing a country (or business) could do. When the world was united in condemning South Africa’s Apartheid regime, we believed that maintaining the Sanctions against South Africa was tremendously important; anti-apartheid activists worked hard to ensure the sanctions were maintained in the face of growing resistance and white-anting from business interests and the apartheid government. If my memory serves me, Margaret Thatcher made herself quite unpopular amongst Commonwealth countries for not supporting the sanctions wholeheartedly and convincingly enough in the 80s.

Despite the fact it created a blackmarket of profiteers collaborating with the racist regime, the apartheid sanctions still held us. So much so that my skin would crawl when I started seeing South African products in our supermarkets when apartheid fell and the sanctions were lifted.

But our current concerns with the failures of the UN Food-for-Oil program and the contravention of sanctions against Iraq are not as simple as the struggle against apartheid. In principle, it is important to acknowledge that breaking UN Sanctions is a major ethical and legal failure by Australia.

However, for so many peace campaigners, anti-imperialists and human rights activists through the 90s, the US instigated UN sanctions against Iraq were unjust, unfair and brutal. Sanctions were instrumental in the malnourishment, illness, death and despondency amongst the Iraqi civilian population. They suffered whilst the regime continued to enrich and protect itself. The Sanctions were unethical.

The sanctions were a punishment by the US and its allies against Saddam for defying the nascent ‘New World Order’ of post-Cold War US power and invading Kuwait. They were an expression of US power in the UN, over their European competitors and in the Middle East, and to prevent Iraq from re-arming itself with weapons of mass destruction (and there were no WMDs after all!). And the sanctions clearly were corrupt. The UN Food-for-Oil corruption scandal has shown that.

Here is the ethical conundrum: Australia’s complicity in the corruption of the UN program and collaboration with the Iraqi government to circumvent sanctions should be condemned even though so many – myself included – believed that the sanctions were unjust and hurt Iraqi children the most, and should be lifted.

Huh? How can we hold the Australian government and the Wheat Board (now AWB) accountable for unethical actions against something that was unethical in the first place? It makes my head hurt thinking about it. But, persevere.

It was wrong to flout international law and pay bribes to a corrupt, despotic regime so that we could sell them our wheat, at a time when we were on the brink of going to war with that regime over lies that we told ourselves and the rest of the world.

As the inquiry continues, it remains to be seen whether those who pay the ultimate price for this corruption are those involved or the Australian public – through our failure to think through these issues and call our government and business leaders to account.

More news here.


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