In recent months the world's richest countries, led by the US and Britain, have been claiming noisily that they plan to have the world's poorest regions, particularly Africa, lifted out of poverty; they also intend to improve human rights there, they say. But that the very opposite is true has now been shown beyond doubt by two reports published by independent organisations in the very countries making these claims. One report, by Amnesty International, deals with the potential threat to the human-rights situation of local populations from legal agreements that a consortium of Western oil-companies, led by Exxon Mobil, has drawn up with African governments. In the other report Christian Aid, which conducted its research in partnership with the pressure group Tax Justice Network, cites statistics showing how the "developing countries" are losing hundreds of billions of dollars as a result of tax-evasion arranged through Western-controlled offshore tax-havens and secrecy laws for banking.
In its report, published in mid-September, Christian Aid estimates that ‘Third World' governments lose up to $500 billion a year in revenues because of tax-evasion – an amount that is far more than that promised by the rich countries to reduce poverty in the world. This evasion is made easy by the tax-havens offering low tax-rates and minimal requirements for disclosure about such details as the source and route of moneys deposited in their accounts. This enables rich individuals (or ones aspiring to be rich) and multinational companies with offices in poor countries to pull off systematic tax-dodging by moving money offshore without fear of detection. Moreover, politicians exploit the same banking laws on secrecy to deposit public funds in private offshore bank-accounts. Christian Aid singles Britain out for censure because many of the main tax-havens are under its control. These include well-known havens such as Jersey,Guernsey, the Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands, all of which are British territories or dependencies.
Andrew Pendleton, policy advisor at Christian Aid, was quoted in the media on September 18 as saying that the British government has a "unique responsibility" and should act accordingly. "Of the world's 72 tax havens, 35 are British or Commonwealth members. Tackling global evasion will take a lot of international cooperation, but it would be fitting for Britain to take the lead."
In these circumstances it is not surprising that tax-receipts in African and Latin American countries are proportionately far lower than in the "developed world" (also known as the "first world"), as statistics set out in Christian Aid's report show. The report's damaging conclusions and criticism of Britain, and to a lesser extent other rich countries, coincided with the UN summit and British prime minister Tony Blair's much-publicised expression of desire to "alleviate poverty" in Africa. But tax-havens (also known as offshore havens) were mentioned by neither Blair nor anyone else at the summit. As Pendleton put it, "tax is the forgotten issue in the debate about how to tackle poverty, and if these leaks could be plugged, poor countries would not be so reliant on handouts."
Equally daunting are the conclusions of Amnesty International's report on how western oil-companies are robbing poor nations, not only of their tax-revenues but also of their human rights. Naturally the report deals only with the issue of human rights, narrowly defined, as is usually the case in Western discourse. Amnesty is particularly concerned about the precedents set by the legal agreements that the Exxon-Mobil-led consortium has signed with the governments of Chad and Cameroon. Its 84-page report alleges that the agreement could require the two governments to give precedence to the oil-companies' interests over the rights of those living near the pipeline or oilfields. The agreements relate to the 665-mile pipeline running from the Doba oilfields in Chad to the Atlantic-ocean terminal at Kribi in Cameroon.
Andrea Shemberg, a legal advisor at AI, explained the dangers posed by the agreements succinctly. "The Exxon Mobil-led consortium that operates the pipeline is effectively sidestepping the rule of law in Chad and in Cameroon," he said. "Human rights are not negotiable items that companies and governments are permitted to eliminate by contract." But according to Amnesty the operations of the oil-fields and the pipeline have already led to abuses: poor farmers in the Doba region have been expelled from their lands and denied compensation, for example. Other villagers have been denied access to the only supply of safe drinking water available to them. This sort of thing is only to be expected in countries like Cameroon andChad, which, as AI points out, have a very poor record on human rights. Chad, for instance, has agreed with the oil companies that within a pipeline's perimeter it is forbidden for "any person to undertake activities which may interfere with the construction, operation and maintenance" of the pipeline. Cameroon has agreed to a similar provision.
The Exxon-Mobil consortium, which has its headquarters in Texas and enjoys the full support of the Bush administration, is well placed to assert its power in poor countries, and more than rich enough to bribe officials and rulers there. The strength with which it denies the accusations in the Amnesty report, and its claim that a good portion of its profits are used to finance ‘development' in these countries, show that no one should hope for much change in the human rights situation there.
But the very fact that Western organisations are at last admitting the existence of these situations is a small step forward. For a long time Muslim charities, think tanks and print and broadcast media have been exposing both situations and others, only to be dismissed as "anti-Western fundamentalists".
No such charge can be levelled at such groups as Christian Aid or Amnesty International.