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Blog Archive March 2012

Fighting crime across international borders

In the Vincent Calvino series, the novels are divided between crimes that are domestic in nature—though an expat might be involved—and those with and cross-border connection. The distinction between international crime and domestic crime often blurs once cash enters the picture. Mountains of cash from illegal activity make for strange bedfellows inside the world of crime.

In a globalized economy, crime has been at the vanguard of moving money, people, and products around the world. Criminals have an incentive. They don’t want to get caught and sent to prison. So they put money,  thought and time into avoiding risks. In the shadowy world of illegality world, the basic business skills are largely the same. But there is an important difference.

First, the criminal is relying on gaps, flaws or holes in the system, and similar gaps and flaws in the moral and ethical values of those who run the system. They exploit both. Second, criminals use threats, guns and violence if things go pear shape. Rather than recourse to the police or courts to redress breaches, criminals have their own methods of settling disputes. It’s called intimidation and violence. Legal businessmen delegate the intimidation and violence to entities of the State. They have less need to get blood on their hands.

Law enforcement has traditionally been a local affair in most countries because most crimes have been local in nature. The criminal and victim were from the same city, province, county and/or country. A case can be made that organized crime kicked started globalization. The British Opium Wars in the early 19th century is a good example of a legitimate business becoming a crime syndicate (looting and pillaging by merchants/warriors/politicians has a longer history).

As part of its empire and trade-expansion imperial policies, Britain lent military assistance to The East India Trading Company (which became drug dealers but they weren’t called that) who used guns and canon to force open the domestic market in China to sell massive quantities of opium to the Chinese. The British were able (because of the opium business) to cut their trade deficit. Fiscal and monetary policy had different moral dimensions in the 19th century.

Organized drug gangs continue to operate but they no longer have the overt support of a government, which supplies them military muscle, tax benefits and place their officers on the annual Honors List.  There will be readers who will cite examples of contemporary thugs who have received a gong before eventually finding their way to a prison. All of that is true but beside the point. I am speaking about a change in the general arc of history. There has been a shift—led by technological innovations—that continues to weaken the link between organized illegal activities and government officers.

Not all the forces inside governments are working to change the analog cash system. You would expect eliminating corruptions to be a priority but that lofty goal also means the breaking of many rice bowls that have been inside the system for generations. Giving up easy money is harder than kicking a drug habit. Reformers are put on committees to write reports and show the way. But nothing much happens at the grassroots level, at the end of the money pipeline where the rural school teacher, hospital worker, prison guard, cop and migrant worker are waiting for pay day.  That is money raked off inside the government system by officials skimming money from the low-level beneficiaries.

The other unofficial source of revenue for government officials is generated from illegal activities such as drug trafficking, logging, prostitution, gambling, and smuggling. Let’s have a look at opium. A big, profitable market that despite law enforcement efforts shows no sign of slowing down in Southeast Asia.

The current opium production in Southeast Asia is on schedule to record a bumper crop year. That means a couple of things: (1) moving the product across borders; and (2) laundering mountains of cash.

When the opium finds its way into the international market, how do governments in the region enforce the law? The poppies are grown in one place. The processing of the poppies into opium paste takes place in another place. The storage and transportation are likely in other locations. And the flow of money crosses multiple borders, going through numerous bank accounts. Some of that money is paid as bribes to politicians, cops, military personnel, customs inspectors, and others in the chain of security, protection and enforcement. Organized crime is highly profitable because it has the ability to patch together a makeshift set of mutually beneficial relationships that thrives on secrecy, non-traceability, and the sanctity of borders.

Co-operation between various levels of law enforcement and security officials complicates the risk factor for organized crime. By allowing co-operation across the borders, the sharing of technology and information, the cost to organized crime bosses increases dramatically. It is like insurance premiums. If that huge, devastating flood only occurs once every hundred years, the cost of insurance is relatively low. But if the hundred-year flood level happens every six months, the cost of insurance skyrockets to the point no one can afford to buy insurance.  Successful co-operation is a real threat to transnational crime.

Everyone sees the part of the elephant standing in their district but don’t see the overall dimensions of the beast.  According to the Bangkok Post, 43 Thai cops traveled to Hong Kong to meet their police counterparts. The idea was to establish co-operation between the two police forces. They can exchange information about finances and training, for example. Hong Kong and Thai authorities have promised to enter a memorandum of understanding on the nature and scope of their co-operation. What crimes and in what circumstances co-operation will occur remains to be hammered out. Whether anything tangible will arise from this arrangement is impossible to know at this stage. It is hard enough to get people within in the same department to co-operate. Extending co-operation across borders with different traditions, languages, and customs is what is called a ‘challenge’.

In this part of the world the problem is often not lack of co-operation but that there is too much co-operation between law enforcement, civil servants and politicians and the organized big league crime ventures. A glimpse of that organized crime world of powerful insiders using thuggish methods to drive out competition was revealed recently in China. In this ‘business’ model the local government ran the organized crime business through their friends and associates and those who tried to compete found themselves beaten and tortured and driven out of the country.

The Chinese government released information about Bo Xilai, the Chonguing party chief who recently lost his job in a power struggle. The New York Times reported:

Once hailed as a pioneering effort to wipe out corruption, critics now say it depicts a security apparatus run amok: framing victims, extracting confessions through torture, extorting business empires and visiting retribution on the political rivals of Mr. Bo and his friends while protecting those with better connections.

How best to approach the problem of corruption and organized crime in league with government officials? Follow the money. The pain criminals feel the most is when their traditional money routes are closed down. Big, organized crime is a headache because it is largely a ‘cash’ business. How does the criminal with bags of bank notes work the cash through the financial system? Brokers arise whenever there is a market. Cash is a market and brokers create an informal banking system to launder the illegal funds.

Money laundering legislation has slowed down but not stopped the Amazon River flow of cash. This is particularly true in less developed countries where there are few banks and almost no one has a bank account. Cash in hand systems are vulnerable to corruption. Every time money stops at someone’s desk on the journey from the person who sent it and the person who will eventually receive it, someone is taking a piece of the action. This rent seeking happens in the underground economy as well as in banks in legal economy and we call these fees. In the underground world, we call this corruption if the person exacting a fee is a government official.

In Afghanistan, payrolls for the ordinary cop and low-level officers were first distributed by higher-level officers, who took their cut before passing the cash down the line. A Vodafone program, first created for payments in microfinance operations in Kenya, was adapted to pay the Afghan police directly through their cell phones. That computer program caused mixed feelings. The high command hated the innovation. But low-level police thought they’d receive a raise. It was the first time they’d received a payroll without someone above skimming off the top. They loved the new system. In a country where very few people have bank accounts and there are a handful of ATM machines, banking through a cell phone is a mini-revolution. It is also an effective way to reduce corruption or, to use the lovely term, ‘money leakage’.

One frustrated commander demanded that his officers turn over their phones and PINs and attempted to collect their salaries from an M-Paisa agent.

India is examining the new technology to increase the reach of electronic transfers as a way to reduce government corruption. Argentina used electronic voucher cards as part of a successful campaign to beat corruption.

Money as a physical object is so much a part of our experience that it is difficult to believe there were long stretches of history when our ancestors didn’t use coins or paper money. We are going to a financial system that is digital. The knock-on effect means that electronic money transfers will continue to reduce the role of physical money passing through many sticky fingers.

Organized crime works at the municipal, county, provincial and national levels in many countries because corruption is difficult to root out. The technology is available to largely eliminate corruption. But those who benefit the most from the current cash and carry and skim system are not likely to step forward as willing first adopters. One would expect those with vested interest to subvert attempts to bypass the original channels in which cash flows.

Meanwhile co-operation between police forces across borders makes for a good study trip to another country, the hotel buffets, the sightseeing, and making of new friends. But let’s be honest. The problem isn’t lack of co-operation, as the officials often co-operate a bit too much. The problem is finding a direct way to make payments that avoids pushing bags of cash down the old traditional ramps in a world where the most powerful porters drive Benzes and live in mansions.

Posted: 3/29/2012 8:53:51 PM 

 

Organized Crime Building a Supply Chain

You never see a ‘company’ handcuffed and paraded before the press. But in this part of the world, pictures of flesh and blood criminals often appear in the newspaper or on TV.  Mostly, they are low-level criminals who were caught holding the illegal goods. Holding the bag so to speak.

They are presented at press conference with rows of uniformed officers looking on as the accused sits in front of desk loaded with parcels containing contraband. Most of the time the parcels contain drugs.

Next time you look at a drug suspect sitting handcuffed as kilos of drugs are displayed, remember this deliveryman was paid to deliver a product.

Now and again a missing piece of the story pops up in the press.

The accused at the table is the tip of iceberg but what sunk the Titanic laid underneath and it was huge. Organized crime is the forces that build this force of criminal nature. It creates, operates, manages and controls a chain of supply; a chain of distribution, and it has operational chiefs, people of influence and status, as well as significant financial and legal talent. In many ways, it is like many other businesses. All of this chain is to source, process, and distribute without undue risk to the principals who earn windfall products from a product that is illegal. Meth possession will likely land the end user in prison.

The end user is at the same level as the delivery guy, the poor mule, who sits alone. Those are the two faces you see over and over. What about the others? Isn’t it time for at least a show of looking inside the organization part of organized crime?

The recent case of 30 Thai hospital and clinics supposedly implicated in buying and selling pills with the active ingredient called pseudoephedrine, an essential chemical compounded needed to make meth—one extremely nasty, ugly drug—is a rare look at a hidden part of the chain. Let’s get out of the way a couple of things that you should know about meth and crystal meth before we get to the hospitals and clinics. These drugs put people in the hospital or the grave. Here are some of the short term and long-term effects: panic and psychosis, convulsions, seizures, permanent damage to blood vessels of the heart and brain, liver, kidney and lung damage. That’s enough. You don’t have to examine every last body to know when you are in the presence of a massacre either.

Last year the Guardian reported: “The number of methamphetamine users in Thailand will reach 1.1 million this year, the head of the country’s anti-drug police told the Guardian – equivalent to one in every 60 citizens.”

That’s a big, profitable market.

According to the Bangkok Post, police found a senior pharmacist at Udon Thani Hospital had a role in diverting some 65,000 cold and allergy pills out of the hospital. Another pharmacist at a hospital in Uttaradit is implicated in using his hospital to launder 975,000 pseudoephedrine-based pills. The upcountry hospitals are under investigation. The reported number of pills from various hospitals and clinics no matter how many times you read them simply don’t add up in the story. They rarely do in such cases as it seems math and journalistic skills rarely come together in one person in Thailand. The upshot is that a huge quantity of the pills with the essential ingredient to make meth was being sold out of the backdoor of hospitals and clinics.

There was no report of any arrest being made of anyone from a hospital or clinic.

The story about how a vast hospital and clinic chain pumped millions of pills into the meth chain of production wasn’t discussed. As a classic case of how the free market model of capitalism really runs when left without adult supervision, is itself illuminating. As this was a story about hospitals and clinics, you gather they’d run a photograph of such a building. That didn’t happen.

Would you like to guess what ran picture the newspaper ran with this story instead… give up? Three delivery people at a table surrounded by a platoon of cops and right in front of them were 2.5 million speed pills and 50 kilos of crystal meth.

We get the message. The story is about the role of hospitals and clinics in the meth production in Thailand. But none of those people wanted their picture in the newspaper. The pool of photography subjects is pretty obvious from the arrested mules. These are the human livestock of the drug business. The same class of people who were hunted down and some 2,500 killed some years ago during the last ‘war on drugs’ in Thailand.

Not that we really need a lesson in the obvious.  Yet we have come to not question the lesson any more. We assume those in the picture are those in the story. Even though we’d likely never find a factory worker’s picture in a story about he CEO of Ford or Shell Oil. In the illegal drug business, it is the employees, the working class, those who drive the truck who become the face of the problem, who get all the press coverage.

It is unlikely to happen during the lifetime of anyone now alive that your descendants will open an electric screen and look at faces of high-level officials from the private and public sector sitting at a table handcuffed for their role in the drug trade. Things don’t work like that at the present time in most places. Getting a piece of the chain in the illegal drug business is a guaranteed way to getting your hands of some of the massive profits.

Life is good when you’re rich.  Unfortunate for a few mules lost along the way. But as Darwin taught us we inhabit a world of survival of the fittest. And a degree in pharmacology also helps.

Posted: 3/22/2012 9:17:40 PM 

 

Forcing people to shut up or throw up

It’s not only you who’s looking to high-tech to solve all of your problems. Repressive and not-to-date-so-repressive governments are taking notice of new weapon technology.

If you are a protester or demonstrator your future will likely include being made mute or stuttering uncontrollably and throwing up. These weapons are currently in development and in some cases are operationally ready. Welcome to the Brave New World of high-tech equipped security forces. Controlling people is something governments have traditionally sought to achieve.

There is a long history of political demonstrations and most of it is violent, repressive and bloody. Power instinctively seeks to stamp out challengers. Thumbs screws, the rack, beheadings, chopping off hands, arms, legs, and burning at the stake often drew large crowds who found that sort of thing highly entertaining.

Except for a few places, we don’t live in that world any more. Our world is one of modern technology that has rapidly added new weapons to the arsenal of governments. CCTV surveillance cameras, monitoring phone, computers and emails are already in place. The newest technology makes the life of demonstrators move in the range between difficult and miserable.

We’ve entered an age of mass demonstrations with news reports from many countries around the world. The powerful would like a neat way to cause people in such crowds and their speakers to be either unable to speak or to vomit and feel dizzy. Speech may be free but those who insist on exercising their right can be made to pay a high fee.

Police forces in America and many other countries have become militarized. Fighting crimes is more warlike than ever before. The new weapons on the ground and those patrolling the skies such as predators, give the cop/soldier hybrids better information, firepower, and protection against return fire. It is better to think of the cops and soldiers as one unified security force which share weapons, intelligence and tactics to marginalize common enemies. That includes demonstrators.

A number of the new high tech toys fall in the category of ‘shock and awe’ firepower, stealth capability, and protective gear for the cop/soldier. That means the bank robber, car thief, and mugger will find it increasingly more dangerous to carry out their self-employment. They won’t be missed.

What governments wish us to believe is that dangerous, violent criminals when they aren’t robbing banks, stealing cars or handbags are attending political rallies and demonstrations. The cops/soldiers (the security forces) are finding the general public is less inclined to support their decision to order their security forces to shoot demonstrators in the streets. Even repressive governments have come to understand that slaughtering demonstrators is bad public relations. And it invites charges of crimes against humanity and genocide and a public trial in Geneva.

The Chinese label demonstrators in Tibet as ‘outcasts, criminals and mentally ill’ people. This description of demonstrators, with a few local variations, pops up on the lips of politicians in many countries once activists and protesters accumulate in crowds, and demonstrators challenge the central authority. How best to stop demonstrators has been the work of some creative scientific minds. The first goal is to disperse a crowd. Second, weapons are needed to discourage, demoralize or disable people who demonstrate against the government. These are government goals in many places.

In the bad old days the security forces used rubber bullets, tear gas and water canons. These low-tech responses to demonstrations only partially worked. In a large political demonstration of 50,000 people a high tech response is needed. What’s the latest way for the political class to mess with the rest of us?

LRAD

One answer is the LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Device). This little baby will blast 95 plus decibels of sound—heavy metal music or a cat in heat—at the crowd. That’s loud, and later models will likely burst eardrums. Though at this stage of development, I am not certain a crowd in Thailand would notice 95 decibels of sound as anything other than normal. But that is another matter.

Scientists are working to increase the range of the LRAD and combine it with other features. Like scent. These good scientists have done research on what smells induce uncontrolled vomiting, inability to maintain balance, and reduced sensory capability. The political demonstration starts to look like an alliance of binge eaters, acidheads, and disabled lap dancers with everyone bumping into each other on their rubbery legs. Some of the Bangkok klong water will at last find a market, as it could be bottled and sold to the manufacturers of the new LRAD for ammo. The slogan will be along the lines: ‘KlongBomb: Smells worse than shit’, and ‘Knocks out a skunk’. Politicians will claim that Bangkok is a LRAD ammo ‘hub.’

SPEECH JAMMERS

The problem for the security forces are the leaders who hold their ground and the smell of shit only seems to fire them up. For these people, the scientists have come up with a speech jammer. The Japanese came up with this wonderful idea. Who wouldn’t want their own jammer for use against the loud, rude talkers who always manage to get a table next to yours at a restaurant, the seat next to you on the subway, cinema or lecture?

But do you want your government using them on you when you beg to disagree?

Here’s how the speech jammer works. It delays a speaker’s words for a couple hundred milliseconds and blast the words back at the speaker. The technical term is ‘auditory feedback.’ What this means is the device messes with out brain’s cognitive processes. In non-technical terms it makes you stutter. Apparently these jammers were originally developed to help people who stutter to overcome this disability. Of course the security forces of the world often see a golden lining in such developments and wondered if it cures stuttering, can we tweak it to make people stutter. The answer is, “yes, general, you can turn this baby on the speaker on the stage and turn him or her into an incoherent, jabbering fool.” And when you label the leader of the demonstration an incoherent, jabbering fool, you can replay the words from his or her latest speech as Exhibit A.

Shut up or I’ll jam you into a stuttering retard. That is an improvement on stop or I’ll shoot you. This is only the beta model. Ten, twenty years down the road, the implant versions will be ready and demonstration leaders will have sentences handed down that include insertion of such devices.

We have eight more years left in this decade. By the time 2020 rolls around, the security forces will have effectively curtailed public demonstrations as they will have their squares and streets ringed with high-tech weapons that make such protest impossible. We are just at the start of the civilian repression that lies ahead. It’s not just a pre-Enlightenment dark age that threats all of us, it is that cone of silence when we are left to our own thoughts and those too are on the high-tech drawing board for the post-2020 world.

Posted: 3/8/2012 7:58:55 PM 

 

LOST BROTHERS PROJECT

Imagine if your brother, son, husband went out to cover a war -  to tell the truth of what was happening to innocent bystanders who cannot affect any change to the situation they are in - and while covering that war they disappeared.
Never to be heard of again.
Nothing for 41 years.

This is what happened in Cambodia in the early 70's.
Five years of war, four years of Pol Pot, ten years of Vietnamese occupation and then a landscape littered in land mines and UXO's, meant that the missing media have disappeared from our thoughts - but not from the thoughts of their families and loved ones.

Tim Page has returned dozens of times to Indochina trying to learn their fate.  He has done this on his own dime and his own time.
Now he needs help to get back.  this is not a search for remains but for the last living memories of the people that saw them, helped them and that possibly know their fate.
Please watch the trailer and if you feel moved to help, please make a pledge.

And please pass it on…..


 

….. a search for the last living memories, their recollections of our lost brothers and the imprint they left behind …….


http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/111709504/lost-brothers?ref=card

Posted: 3/5/2012 10:23:38 PM 

 

Corporations carrying out crime inside Alice in Wonderland

There is something Alice in Wonderland like about asking whether a corporation is a person. It is unclear whether the United States Supreme Court might be taking a page out the Mad Hatter’s book of logic when it comes to corporate ‘personhood.’

“Mad Hatter: “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”

“Have you guessed the riddle yet?” the Hatter said, turning to Alice again.

“No, I give it up,” Alice replied: “What’s the answer?”

“I haven’t the slightest idea,” said the Hatter.

Corporations are legal constructs. Abstractions that arise because a law allows people to create them, run them, profit from them, and defend them. No one will ever walk into a bar and find Microsoft or Apple sipping a glass of beer. People who work to advance the interest of the company are the ones at the bar drinking.

Corporations also have a long historical reputation for being a popular vehicle for colonial expansion. Read that as meaning raising armies, launching wars of conquest, killing and enslaving indigenous populations, looting treasure, plundering natural resources, and corrupting the local legal system.

The United States Supreme Court not long ago (Citizens United) decided that corporations were to be treated as a ‘person’ for purposes of political expression. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. Now that decision has come back like a bad penny. Can the corporation be a ‘person’ for political expression and not a ‘person’ when it comes to paying compensation when it is implicated in third-world countries that engage in human rights violations such as murder, extracting natural resources without caring too much about the environment.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of the East India Company (not to forget the Dutch West India Company) will know that if corporations were people that had vast monopolies, controlled vast estates, wielded political power, and you never had to look too far to find a lot of blood dripping from the hands of the flesh-and-blood people who ran them. Did I mention that they also did a lively business running the slave trade? That’s unlikely the image they wish to be viewed taking into account their current corporate TV ads or corporate brochures.

Corporations from the 17th through the 19th century were the vanguard of organized crimes, raising armies, selling weapons, drugs, beating, torturing, imprisoning or murdering the locals who raised a voice in protest.  If you’ve read along this far, and you’re saying, yes, that is all true. But didn’t all of those terrible things happened a very long time ago? There are no more colonies. Independent states run their own affairs. The United Nations has mandates about human rights and the environment. And that means, corporations are no longer evil polluters, looters, pillagers, and murderers, right? When a dog gets the taste of raw eggs it’s hard to keep him out of the hen house even though the house looks different from the old days.

The Royal Dutch Petroleum Company has found itself a defendant in an American case that has reached the United States Supreme Court. So you thought all of that nasty business of colonial plunder and murder was behind us? Let’s take a brief look at the Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum case. To do that, put your mind back to Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, to the space and time that reappears as officials of the Royal Dutch Shell worked along side officials of the Nigerian government to arrest, torture, and murder environmental activists, members of the Ogoni, in the Niger Delta, protesting the adverse health and environment fall out that resulted from unregulated drilling and extraction of oil from that region.

No one is apparently arguing whether the corporation through its officers and employees was complicit in the human rights violations that occurred in the 1990s. The argument instead is whether the victims who otherwise have no connection with the United States can pursue legal remedies against Royal Dutch Petroleum in the American judicial system. To do so the victims need to convince the high court that the Royal Dutch Petroleum Company is a ‘person’ under the 1789 Alien Tort Statute. If they are a ‘person’ then the victims of the faraway crime can sue them in an American federal court. In an earlier case, the Court established that an individual, who was a foreigner but who did business or had assets in the United States could be successfully sued for wrongful acts such as torture and murder carried out against another foreigner abroad.

It comes as no surprise who has filed briefs in support of the Royal Dutch Shell claim that the case should be thrown out. Britain, the Netherlands, and Germany—the countries with a rich colonial past, which means they know a thing or two about using corporations to keep a teach a lesson to the restless natives while enslaving the rest to extract natural resources from their lands. Funds limited to paying off he elites and profits for the shareholders. That’s pretty much sums up how the old corporate system operated and, despite the TV commercials about their responsibility to the environment and community, continues to operate in many ‘foreign’ countries.

The United States filed a brief in support of the victims right to bring the lawsuit. Who are the judges going to support? The Europeans with their corporations harvesting profits that come from valuable resources extracted from the mines, wells, pits and forest of the third-world. The American government may have decided that exposing foreign corporations to the full radiation of the American justice might cause such corporations to make a correction in their activities that have in the past led to the most ghastly abuses. And after paying out on a few lawsuits would take away some of the competitive edge gained through such exploitation by making compensation for third-world murder based on the American scale.

Assessing American styled civil damages against a foreign corporation operating in foreign lands against foreigners is a revoluntionary and clever way of reckoning the true cost of running the international resource business. That’s a novel scary enough idea to get three ex-colonial European governments to come down to rescue the Royal Dutch Shell. Come to think of it, I also wonder why the China and Russian hadn’t filed a brief support of Royal Dutch Shell. The potential countries involved are a cozy club of mutual self-interested resource extractors. Perhaps no one hasn’t anyone explained to them what is potentially at stake in this case should Royal Dutch Shell be conferred with ‘personhood’. Knighthoods for the CEOs, but no personhood for the company, thank you very much. They know where to draw the line in the sand.

The Supreme Court Justices at oral argument on the case have revealed their thinking about allowing these foreigners to use the American court system to chase down the wrongdoers and bring them to account.

John Bellinger in Lawfare reported on this exchange during the oral arguments:

Justice Kennedy said:  “But, counsel, for me, the case turns in large part on this:  page 17 of the red brief.  It says, “International law does not recognize corporate responsibility for the alleged offenses here.  And the — one of the — the amicus brief for Chevron [written by Jack Goldsmith, a former Kennedy clerk] says, “No other nation in the world permits its court to exercise universal civil jurisdiction over alleged extraterritorial human rights abuses to which the nation has no connection.  And in reading through your briefs, I was trying to find the best authority you have to refute that proposition, or are you going to say it is irrelevant?”

Justices Roberts and Alito showed their hand, too:

Justice Alito:  “Well there’s no particular connection between the events here and the United States.  So, I think the question is whether there’s any other country in the world where these plaintiffs could have brought these claims against the Respondents.”

Chief Justice Roberts:  “If — if there is no other country where this suit could have been brought, regardless of what American domestic law provides, isn’t it a legitimate concern that allowing the suit itself contravenes international law?”

Human rights and environment rights are detailed in standards by the United Nations. That’s wonderful. But corporations understand that the United Nations doesn’t operate a judicial system that can hold them to account. They know the place of the crime is on their side and no effective legal remedy is available to the victims. The question before the Supreme Court is whether to open American courts as a venue to reign in corporate terror.

A majority of the Supreme Court  justices decided in an earlier case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010)  that corporations were persons with the same right to freedom of expression as an individual. Meaning corporations could fund political campaign ads that advanced their political agenda just as an individual. Having put themselves in the business of bringing individual rights to corporations, whether it will take the next step is to apply civil remedies to a foreign corporation implicated in murder and torture. Or someone might whisper in the court’s collective ear that the case isn’t really about the murder and abuse of victims’ human rights, it’s about the unfair competition that violence assisted in allowing certain corporations a large cost cutting advantage not shared by their more ethical competitors. And we can teach those foreigners a thing or two about punitive damages to claw back some of that advantage.

On chasing that rabbit down the hole, the court enters Alice in Wonderland, where nothing is quite as it seems. In that world the successors of the East India Company and the Dutch West India Company are filing their briefs to carry on their business in the tradition of the 17th century. Big time crime syndicates called corporations, and the big time criminals who work for them artfully dodge and dart like a virtual particle in physics between separate states: being an individual when it suits their political agenda, and an abstract legal entity when it engages in plunder, looting and murder.

The Supreme Court can’t put Royal Dutch Shell Corporation into the Large Hadron Collider and settle the question once and for all. But the physics of justice isn’t scientific. The justices aren’t searching for the judicial equivalent of the Higgs Boson. Court decisions are hardnosed, practical, messy, contradictory, and never, ever above the politics and economic interest that make the world a duplicate copy of what it has always been. In the future if the Royal Dutch Shell Corporation and other ‘foreign’ companies like them may find themselves entangled in the spider web of defending damage claims in an American civil action.

We will be left wondering if the advancing the economic interest of the Americans was the real reason behind the decision. Making a corporation a person is a good cover story and it also comes with the added bonus of making the court look consistent with its earlier ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?”

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass

Posted: 3/1/2012 7:55:48 PM 

 

 

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