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Mary McGrory

Powell's Awkward Position

By Mary McGrory
Thursday, August 29, 2002; Page A31

Secretary of State Colin Powell goes to South Africa next week to represent the president at a global warming parley, which is being heavily attended by world leaders. Powell's position is awkward because his leader does not believe in global warming. Powell's brief tour of other African nations might present other awkward moments, particularly if the talk turns to human rights. President Bush doesn't seem to believe in them, either -- at least not when big oil is involved.

A State Department ruling this month sent a shudder through the human rights community. Legal counsel William H. Taft IV asked U.S. District Judge Louis Oberdorfer to dismiss a lawsuit accusing Exxon Mobil of terrorizing Indonesian villagers who somehow thwart the world's biggest oil company. The suit, brought by the International Labor Rights Fund, cited murder, torture and rape.

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Taft didn't mince words or priorities. If Exxon Mobil was driven away from the wells by protesting peasants, the Chinese might move in and make the millions. And, Taft warned, the lawsuit could impede the war against terrorism. Indonesia and its bloodthirsty military are our allies in that struggle. Sensitive souls in the central government in Jakarta, some of them engineers of the copiously documented savageries of the war against East Timor, would be upset, and their efforts against al Qaeda could be curtailed "in response to perceived disrespect for its sovereign interests."

Taft acknowledged that the human rights record of the Indonesian army was "poor" -- the State Department's annual human rights report said so -- but still the question was a distant third to the bottom line, terrorism and international business competition.

The executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, issued a blistering statement about the double hypocrisy. An administration that professes support for human rights and corporate responsibility in this instance ignores both.

The Taft letter sent a thrill of hope through Unocal, the California-based energy company that faces charges of forced labor in extracting oil and gas from Burma. Unocal promptly applied to Foggy Bottom for a similar intervention in its case. The State Department has yet to respond, but some human rights advocates, such as Arvind Ganesan of Human Rights Watch, think the outcome may be different, because "Burma is already under sanctions for human rights violations and it has no part in the war against terror."

Colin Powell might like to take a hand. He is not heeded on the Middle East, where the president is said to wish to spread democracy far and wide. Bush still has to prove it is not a cover story for his assaults on Palestinians, whom he has instructed to democratize and hold a "free and fair election," which has to come out the way he says. If Powell is asked by ragged Third Worlders whose side he is on, he may get away with saying he's on theirs -- there's no danger of upsetting Ariel Sharon.

Powell's itinerary does not include Nigeria, which has become ground zero in the war between the moguls and the mud huts of undeveloped countries. For years the peasants of Nigeria have watched millions being drained from their land into the pockets of Western CEOs and their own corrupt politicians. They ask each other, "If this is such a rich country, why are we so poor?" Violent protest, in the way of kidnapping and sabotage, by males of the community has been frequent -- and futile.

In mid-July, the women of Nigeria took over. Six hundred of them turned up in the gorgeous primary colors of their native dress and occupied the docks and platforms of ChevronTexaco's Escravos oil terminal. They closed the operation down. They said that Nigeria needed the money that was flowing out of their country -- for roads, schools, hospitals, electricity, running water, and jobs for their men and other basic elements of a better life. They caught the world's attention, especially after they threatened to take off their clothes, to emphasize their total have-not plight. They announced they would talk only to the men in charge and would not be fobbed off on some token local. As representatives of the world press swooned with the vividness of their coverage, ChevronTexaco hastened to the bargaining table and made huge promises of cooperation, compassion and kindness.

The State Department's assistant secretary for African affairs, Walter Kansteiner, visited Nigeria in July and didn't mention human rights. "It is a strategic interest that we are keen to see oil production and exploration continue in the region, and that's really the primary focus of what our policy is."

If the secretary of state has another view, this would be a good time to say so.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company