April 23, 2004

Whose Human Rights is the Occupation Defending?

By David Bacon

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA and BAGHDAD, IRAQ — The disaster that is the occupation of Iraq is much more than the war that plays nightly across U.S. television screens. The violence of grinding poverty, exacerbated by economic sanctions after the first Gulf War, has been deepened by the US invasion. Every day the economic policies of the occupying authorities create more hunger among Iraq’s working people, transforming them into a pool of low-wage, semi-employed labor, desperate for jobs at almost any price.

While the effects of U.S. policy on daily life go largely unseen in the U.S. media, anyone walking the streets of Baghdad cannot miss them. Children sleep on the sidewalks. Buildings that once housed many of the city’s four million residents, or the infrastructure that makes life in a modern city possible, remain burned-out ruins a year after the occupation started. Rubble fills the broad boulevards that were once the pride of a wealthy country, while the air turns gritty and brown as thousands of vehicles kick up the resulting dust. Sewage still pours into the Tigris River, and those who must depend on it for drinking or cooking continue to get sick.

The violence of poverty is not held to be a violation of human rights in the United States - just one manifestation of the great division in the world between the wealthy, industrialized north, and the developing south. The US does not recognize that human rights include economic and social rights, in part because they are collective rights of groups, social classes, or even nations. Therefore, the accusations made by the US against the regime of Saddam Hussein focus on his violation of the human rights of individuals - the assassination of the regime’s enemies, and the prohibition on political activity by individuals who dissented from its policies. Most popular organizations in Iraq, whether on the left or the right, religious or secular, make the same accusations.

But they don’t confine the discussion of human rights within those limits. For them, the occupation and the social conditions it imposes are human rights abuses as well.

For the Bush administration and the Coalition Provisional Authority, limiting the discussion of human rights to those of individuals persecuted by the former regime provides a convenient distinction. It allows them to enforce in Iraq an economic model of their own choosing, with drastic effects on the lives of millions of people, and yet refuse to discuss these consequences as potential violations of their human rights. As a result of the occupation, U.S. contractors get rich from the billions of taxpayer dollars supposedly appropriated for Iraq’s reconstruction. At the same time, the country’s national wealth — factories, refineries, mines, docks, and other industrial facilities — are being readied for sale to foreign companies by the occupation bureaucracy, who treat democracy and the unrestrained free market as the same thing.

Iraqis have lost control of their own economy and country. This is far more than a symbolic loss. Yet symbols are an important element in the way in which any people react to this basic economic reality, and nothing could have been more symbolic than the way in which the occupation authorities have treated the legacy of Iraq’s nationalist, progressive and anti-colonial past.

Since 1958, July 14 has been Iraq’s national day. Last year, under the occupation, it was declared a “Saddam-era holiday,” and its celebration banned. Instead, occupation authorities declared, the people of Iraq should celebrate the day of the fall of the Saddam

Hussein regime, which is also the day the occupation began. While most Iraqis were glad to see Saddam go, prohibiting the celebration of national day is not just an insult, but a sign of the occupation’s true intentions.

For progressive Iraqis, June 14 recalls their anti-colonial history. 1958 was the year nationalists and radicals threw out the monarchy imposed by the British after World War One. Over the next five years of relative freedom and democracy, Iraq began building a nationalized, planned economy, based on its oil wealth. Hundreds of factories were eventually built, making it the most industrialized country in the Middle East. The Iraqi government organized a national healthcare system, and treated education as a right. Women were represented in professions in percentages larger than any other Middle Eastern country. Even after that government was overthrown in 1963 (a coup in which the Central Intelligence Agency played an important role), those reforms were so popular that they were continued under the Baathist regime that took over.

A new deepwater port was constructed on the Persian Gulf, Umm Qasr, which became a lynchpin in that plan. From its piers Iraq began to ship the goods from those factories to buyers in other countries throughout the region. The port became a symbol of progress and independence.

Today Umm Qasr has become war booty. It was the first Iraqi enterprise to be turned over, not just to a private owner, but to a foreign one. Even before US troops reached Baghdad, in Washington DC the Bush administration gave the concession for operating the port to Stevedoring Services of America, a politically-connected firm handling cargo around the world. Privatizing Umm Qasr began the transformation of the Iraqi economy — from one based on nationalization and production for an internal, domestic market, to one based on ownership by transnational corporations, sending their profits out of the country. To Iraqis, instead of a symbol of national pride, Umm Qasr now represents a new era of foreign domination.

The free trade ideologues of the Bush administration see the occupation of Iraq as a beachhead into the Middle East and south Asia. Their first objective is the transformation of the state-dominated economy of what was once one of the region’s wealthiest countries. A free-market Iraq will then set new ground rules for the rest of the area, much as the North American Free Trade Agreement first helped to transform Mexico’s economy, and then became a prototype for the Free Trade Area of the Americas.

In Iraq, where Um Qasr was the nation’s pride and a source of its wealth for decades, its conversion into a business for the benefit of a Seattle firm and its stockholders was a fundamental human rights violation. By extension, so was the occupation itself, which enforced privatization at gunpoint.

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