World Bank declares itself above the law

The World Bank has for decades left a trail of human misery. Destruction of the environment, massive human rights abuses and mass displacement have been ignored in the name of “development” that works to intensify neoliberal inequality. In response to legal attempts to hold it to account, the World Bank has declared itself above the law.

At least one U.S. trial court has already agreed that the bank can’t be touched, and thus the latest lawsuit filed against it, attempting to obtain some measure of justice for displaced Honduran farmers, faces a steep challenge. Regardless of the ultimate outcome of legal proceedings, however, millions of people around the world have paid horrific prices for the relentless pursuit of profit.

A trail of evictions, displacements, gross human rights violations (including rape, murder and torture), widespread destruction of forests, financing of greenhouse-gas-belching fossil-fuel projects, and destruction of water and food sources has followed the World Bank.

Honduras (photo by Zack Clark)

The latest attempt at accountability is a lawsuit filed in the U.S. federal court in Washington by EarthRights International, a human rights and environmental non-governmental organization, charging that the World Bank has turned a blind eye to systematic abuses associated with palm-oil plantations in Honduras that it has financed. The lawsuit, Juana Doe v. International Finance Corporation, alleges that

“Since the mid-1990s, the International Finance Corporation [a division of the World Bank] has invested millions of dollars in Honduran palm-oil companies owned by the late Miguel Facussé. Those companies — which exist today as Dinant — have been at the center of a decades-long and bloody land-grabbing campaign in the Bajo Aguán region of Honduras.

For nearly two decades, farmer cooperatives have challenged Dinant’s claims to sixteen palm-oil plantations … that it has held in the Bajo Aguán region. On information and belief, Dinant’s former owner, Miguel Facussé, took that land from the farmer cooperatives through fraud, coercion, and actual or threatened violence. The farmer cooperatives have engaged in lawsuits, political advocacy, and peaceful protests to challenge Dinant’s control and use of the land. And Dinant has responded to such efforts with violence and aggression.”

Bank’s own staff cites failures

EarthRights International alleges that the World Bank has “repeatedly and consistently provided critical funding to Dinant, knowing that Dinant was waging a campaign of violence, terror, and dispossession against farmers, and that their money would be used to aid the commission of gross human rights abuses.” The lawsuit filing cites “U.S. government sources” to allege that more than 100 farmers have been killed since 2009.

The suit also says that the International Finance Corporation’s own ombudsman said the World Bank division “failed to spot or deliberately ignored the serious social, political and human rights context.” These failures arose “from staff incentives ‘to overlook, fail to articulate, or even conceal potential environmental, social and conflict risk’ and ‘to get money out the door.’ ” Despite this internal report, the suit says, the World Bank continued to provide financing and that the ombudsman has “no authority to remedy abuses.”

(World Bank representatives did not respond to a request for comment. Although not directly a party to the lawsuit, Dinant describes the allegations as “absurd.” In a statement on its web site, the company said “All allegations that Dinant is — or ever has been — engaged in systematic violence against members of the community are without foundation.”)

Three Gorges Dam, a project funded by the World Bank that displaced 1.3 million people (photo by Christoph Filnkössl)

EarthRights International’s lawsuit faces an uphill challenge due to an earlier suit filed by it on behalf of Indian farmers and fisherpeople being thrown out by the same court when it ruled that the World Bank is immune from legal challenge. The bank provided $450 million for a power plant that the plaintiffs said degraded the environment and destroyed livelihoods. The court agreed with the World Bank’s contention that it has immunity under the International Organizations Immunities Act. (The dismissal has been appealed.)

The International Organizations Immunities Act provides that “International organizations, their property and their assets, wherever located, and by whomsoever held, shall enjoy the same immunity from suit and every form of judicial process as is enjoyed by foreign governments.” The World Bank has been declared the equivalent of a sovereign state, and in this context is placed above any law as if it possesses diplomatic immunity.

This law is applied selectively; lawsuits against Cuba are not only allowed but consistently won by plaintiffs. These are not necessarily the strongest of cases, such as participants in the Bay of Pigs invasion winning judgments and a woman who was married to a Cuban who went back to Cuba winning $27 million because the court found that her marriage made her a “victim of terrorism”!

More than 3 million people displaced

Despite its immunity, a passport may not be needed to enter a World Bank office, but can it be argued that the lending organization uses its immense power wisely? That would be a very difficult case to make.

A 2015 report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists found that 3.4 million people were physically or economically displaced by projects funded by the World Bank. Land was taken, people were forced from their homes and their livelihoods damaged. Some of the other findings of the report, on which more than 50 journalists from 21 countries worked:

  • From 2009 to 2013, the World Bank pumped $50 billion into projects graded the highest risk for “irreversible or unprecedented” social or environmental impacts — more than twice as much as the previous five-year span.
  • The bank regularly fails to live up to its own policies that purport to protect people harmed by projects it finances.
  • The World Bank and its International Finance Corporation lending arm have financed governments and companies accused of human rights violations such as rape, murder and torture. In some cases, they continued to bankroll these borrowers after evidence of abuses emerged.
  • Ethiopian authorities diverted millions of dollars from a World Bank-supported project to fund a violent campaign of mass evictions, according to former officials who carried out the forced resettlement program.

One of the articles that is a part of this investigative report said the bank routinely ignores its own rules that require detailed resettlement plans and that employees face strong pressure to approve big infrastructure projects. The report says:

“The World Bank often neglects to properly review projects ahead of time to make sure communities are protected, and frequently has no idea what happens to people after they are removed. In many cases, it has continued to do business with governments that have abused their citizens, sending a signal that borrowers have little to fear if they violate the bank’s rules, according to current and former bank employees.

‘There was often no intent on the part of the governments to comply — and there was often no intent on the part of the bank’s management to enforce,’ said Navin Rai, a former World Bank official who oversaw the bank’s protections for indigenous peoples from 2000 to 2012. ‘That was how the game was played.’ …

Current and former bank employees say the work of enforcing these standards has often been undercut by internal pressures to win approval for big, splashy projects. Many bank managers, insiders say, define success by the number of deals they fund. They often push back against requirements that add complications and costs.”

Funding that facilitates global warming

Incredibly, one of the outcomes of the Paris Climate Summit was for leaders of the G7 countries to issue a communiqué that they would seek to raise funds “from private investors, development finance institutions and multilateral development banks.” These leaders propose the World Bank be used to fight global warming despite it being a major contributor to projects that increase greenhouse-gas emissions, including providing billions of dollars to finance new coal plants around the world. The bank even had the monumental hypocrisy to issue a report in 2012 that called for slowing global warming while ignoring its own role.

It is hoped you, dear reader, won’t fall off your chair in shock, but the World Bank’s role in facilitating global warming has since only increased.

What happens to rain forests when the market is allowed to decide. (Photo of Montane Rainforest in Ecuador by Gunnar Brehm)

Financing projects that facilitate global warming had already been on the rise. A study prepared by the Institute for Policy Studies and four other organizations found that World Bank lending for coal, oil and gas reached $3 billion in 2008 — a sixfold increase from 2004. In the same year, only $476 million went toward renewable energy sources. Oil Change International (citing somewhat lower dollar figures) estimates that World Bank funding for fossil fuels doubled from 2011 to 2015.

Destructive logging projects across the Global South funded by the World Bank accelerated in the 1990s. Despite a January 2000 internal report finding that its lending practices had not curbed deforestation or reduced poverty, Southeast Asia saw a continuation of illegal logging and land concessions, and untimely deaths of local people blowing the whistle, as has Africa.

Similar to its report on curbing global warming that ignores its own role, the World Bank shamelessly issued a 2012 report calling for international law enforcement measures against illegal logging. Perhaps what is illegal are only those operations not funded by the bank?

Loans to pay debt create more debt, repeat

Ideology plays a critical role here. International lending organizations, such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, consistently impose austerity. The IMF’s loans, earmarked for loans to governments to pay debts or stabilize currencies, always come with the same requirements to privatize public assets (which can be sold far below market value to multi-national corporations waiting to pounce); cut social safety nets; drastically reduce the scope of government services; eliminate regulations; and open economies wide to multi-national capital, even if that means the destruction of local industry and agriculture. This results in more debt, which then gives multi-national corporations and the IMF, which enforces those corporate interests, still more leverage to impose more control, including heightened ability to weaken environmental and labor laws.

The World Bank compliments this by funding massive infrastructure projects that tend to enormously profit deep-pocketed international investors but ignore the effects on local people and the environment.

The World Bank employs a large contingent of scientists and technicians, which give it a veneer of authority as it pursues a policy of relentless corporate plunder. Noting that the bank possesses “an enormous research and knowledge generation capacity,” The environmental and social-justice organization ASEED Europe reports:

“The World Bank is the institution with one of the largest research budgets globally and has no rival in the field of development economics. … A number of researchers and scholars have questioned the reliability of the World Bank-commissioned research. Alice Amsdem, a top scholar on East Asian economies, argues that since the World Bank continually fails to scientifically prove its conclusions, its policy justifications are ‘quintessentially political and ideological.’ Regarding the World Development Report (WDR) series, for example, Nicholas Stern, an Oxford professor in economics and former World Bank chief economist says that many of the numbers used by the Bank come from highly dubious sources, or have been constructed in ways which leaves one sceptical as to whether they can be helpfully applied.” (citations omitted)

Capitalist ideology rests on the concept of “markets” being so efficient that they should be allowed to work without human intervention. But what is a market? Under capitalism, it is nothing more than the aggregate interests of the most powerful and largest financiers and industrialists. No wonder that “markets” “decide” that neoliberal austerity must be ruthlessly imposed — it is those at the top of vast corporate institutions who benefit from the decisions that the World Bank, and similar institutions, consistently make.

Markets do not sit in the clouds, beyond human control, as some perfect mechanism. They impose the will of those with the most who can not ever have enough. Markets are not ordained by some higher power — everything of human creation can be undone by human hands. Our current world system is no exception.

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Pennsylvania seeks Mumia Abu-Jamal’s execution via medical neglect

Having failed to have Mumia Abu-Jamal executed via the legal system, Pennsylvania authorities are intent on administering a “slow-motion execution” through medical neglect. His medical condition remains dire, and his supporters are asking activists to make calls so that he can receive proper health care.

The work of supporters does matter: Mumia would have been executed 20 years ago were it not for the grassroots movement that grew dramatically during that summer, in 1995. His execution was called off about 10 days before it was to be carried out and less than a week before a massive demonstration in Philadelphia (which went ahead anyway). That tensions were high would be understating the atmosphere as the movement built pressure from below. I remember being in the National People’s Campaign office in New York City one Monday that summer when police, or people close to them, phoned in a non-stop cascade of threats and vicious denunciations; as soon as one of us would hang up, the phone would immediately ring with another such call.

The Campaign was a target because it organized several carloads of people to go to Philadelphia every weekend to join with local organizers there; the Philadelphia organizers worked out of a church that always had several police cars parked across the street, which would then follow people as they went out into the neighborhoods. A few years later, when a December march in downtown Philadelphia drew fewer people than previous rallies and for the first time there was not a corporate-media presence, the police saw their opportunity, violently dispersing the march with swinging clubs and dragging people by their legs down streets in a 40-degree rain as frightened store clerks hurriedly brought down their gates with shoppers inside.

Mumia Abu-Jamal

Mumia Abu-Jamal

No, the authorities do not like Mumia Abu-Jamal. And haven’t for a long time. There is a video of a press conference from when Mumia was a working journalist at which he asked the then mayor of Philadelphia, Frank Rizzo (whom activists in New York liked to call the role model for Rudy Giuliani), a routine question. Mayor Rizzo glared at Mumia and, not bothering to address the question asked, snarled that he was going to “get you” one of these days. Sadly, he did.

The facts of Mumia’s show trial are well known, overseen by Judge Albert Sabo, a member of the Fraternal Order of Police and whose courtroom was so one-sided it was known as “vacation for prosecutors.” Judge Sabo was overheard telling a court worker that he would help prosecutors “fry” Mumia, referring to him with the N-word. Four witnesses reporting seeing someone flee the scene of Officer Daniel Faulkner’s murder; this was concealed from the defense. No check was done to see if there was gunpowder residue on Mumia’s hand. The fatal bullet is believed to have been a caliber too large to fit in the gun that Mumia kept in his cab’s glove compartment for self-defense. Every “witness” who testified against Mumia later recanted, saying they were coerced or given rewards to falsely testify. (One of the recanting witnesses, Veronica Jones, was actually arrested on the witness stand immediately after her recantation.) Police claimed Mumia bragged that he killed the officer, yet the report made at the time reported “The Negro male made no comment”; a doctor later said that Mumia was beaten so badly that he would not have been physically capable of speaking.

There are many more irregularities, but you get the idea. As a Black Panther, he was subject to spying and Cointelpro tactics, and his many years of tireless writing and speaking from prison on behalf of the downtrodden continues to infuriate Pennsylvania authorities.

They knew he was sick but didn’t tell him

The dire condition of Mumia, suffering from untreated hepatitis C and complications from that disease, was brought home by the speakers at a September 11 public meeting at New York’s All Souls Unitarian Church. Back in March, he went into a diabetic shock with life-threatening blood sugar levels and in renal failure. One of his lawyers, Robert Boyle, reports that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections knew from 2012 that Mumia had a hepatitis C infection, but did not do complete testing on him until this year and withheld results of tests done on him. After falling into shock, he was moved to a hospital for eight days, where he was kept shackled and incommunicado — nobody was notified that he had been transferred.

Mr. Boyle, in issuing a summary of Mumia’s medical condition, wrote:

“Tests performed over the last several months show that Mr. Abu-Jamal’s liver likely has ‘significant fibrosis’ (scarring) and deteriorated function. The disease has also manifested itself in other ways. He has a persistent, painful skin rash over most of his body. Our consulting physician, who visited Mr. Abu-Jamal, has concluded that it is likely a disease known as necrolytic acral erythma, a condition that is almost always associated with an untreated hepatitis C infection. Mr. Abu-Jamal has been diagnosed with ‘anemia of chronic disease,’ another common consequence of hepatitis C. He has sudden-onset adult diabetes, a complication that led to an episode of diabetic shock on March 30, 2015. Most recently, he has begun to lose weight again.

Mr. Abu Jamal’s hepatitis C can be cured — and the painful and dangerous consequences alleviated — if the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) would administer the direct acting anti-viral medication that has now become the standard for treatment for hepatitis C infections.”

That has not been forthcoming. Prison officials claim he is not in need of treatment, although he had lost 50 pounds earlier in the year, is losing weight again and his hair is said to have begun falling out. The speakers at the September 11 event noted that this is not simply a case of refusing necessary medical care, it is also a matter of a precedent: If Mumia is given proper medical care, then other prisoners would be expected to receive such care also. Mr. Boyle and another lawyer, Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center, have filed a lawsuit to get him medical care.

His medical condition has been so debilitating that it takes him a drastically longer time to produce his commentaries; it was only in recent weeks that he has been well enough to again read, Johanna Fernández said. Make no mistake that such a silencing is precisely what Pennsylvania authorities wish. He might have been left for dead when he went into shock — another prisoner, upon seeing Mumia’s condition, went to the head of the prison to demand he be taken to a hospital, asking “Are you going to let this man die?” For doing so, prison officials transferred him to another prison and threw him into solitary confinement.

More outrages may be on the way

A transfer to another prison may be imminent for Mumia, prompting his supporters to ask for the public’s help. On September 5, prison staff boxed up his materials, which is often a prelude to a transfer. The Free Mumia web site reports that Mumia was told he was not being transferred, but warns he might be, speculating it would be in retaliation for his lawyers’ filing the lawsuit seeking proper health care. Free Mumia reports:

“A retaliatory transfer to some other prison would be a new blow against Mumia’s health, and would steep him and his family in greater fear and uncertainty. … No transfer of Mumia should take place that does not take him to a quality medical center for cure of his very serious, but treatable, Hepatitis C condition.”

Suzanne Ross of the Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Coalition told the All Souls audience that when he was transferred from the prison where he had been on death row to a new location across the state, SCI Mahanoy, it was a very harrowing journey — he was heavily shackled with several guards continually pointing machine guns at him and an intentionally long route was taken to make it more difficult. This was done while he was already ill. Rough rides should be a concern; we need only remember what happened to Freddie Gray in Baltimore earlier this year.

Nor are political frame-ups without precedent. To provide just one example, the Black Panther Geronimo ji-Jaga Pratt spent 27 years in prison, convicted of a murder he did not commit, after the FBI specifically targeted him to be “neutralized.” Federal and local authorities in California knew he had not committed any such crime as he was in a Panther meeting hundreds of miles from the site of the murder at the time, a meeting that was spied on and documented by the FBI.

The death penalty is applied far more often to People of Color than it is to Whites, although it is also more likely to be applied when the murder victim is White than Black or Latino. Nearly 55 percent of death row inmates are People of Color and, since 1976, executions have been carried out 9 1/2 times more often with a Black defendant and White victim than when there is a White defendant and a Black victim.

Philadelphia is a particularly egregious case of this national pattern of racism. More than half of Pennsylvania’s death sentences are handed down in Philadelphia, and a study of patterns there found that Black defendants were four times more likely to receive death sentences than other similarly situated defendants. More than 2.2 million people are incarcerated in the U.S. — nearly 25 percent of the world’s total despite the U.S. having about four percent of the world’s population. The U.S. also has the highest rate of imprisonment of any country.

Political prisoners are among those, and not only Mumia Abu-Jamal. He is simply the best known. His fate does matter, and the least any of us can do is make a phone call or two on his behalf. The Free Mumia web site has that information at this link. Twenty years ago, activists saved his life. We can do it again, and then work to have him exonerated.

A bigger pie doesn’t mean you are getting a slice

The kerfuffle between executives and shareholders of The Coca-Cola Company seems to have been smoothed over, at least for now, but no matter how much the two sides wrangle over the pie, they do agree on one crucial detail: Employees deserve nothing.

Lest we dismiss the recent plan hatched by Coca-Cola’s management to transfer to itself at least US$13 billion as a fight in which we have no dog, it does provide a case study of the mindset of corporate and financial elites, and the power of Wall Street. This is a company accused of involvement in a string of human-rights violations in countries around the world and racial discrimination in the United States, and routinely lays off employees despite raking in billions of dollars per year in profits.

The $13 billion dispute is this: Coca-Cola management proposed earlier this year to issue hundreds of millions of stock and stock options to its higher-level executives. For 2014 alone, the stock grants would have been worth about $13 billion. Enter a money-management firm that owns a couple of million shares. Loudly complaining that those billions belonged to it and other shareholders, the money-management firm’s chief executive officer declared:

“In effect, the Board [of directors of Coca-Cola] is asking shareholders for approval to transfer approximately $13 billion from all of our pockets to the Company’s management over the next four years.”

Fire and ice on Colombia volcano Nevado del Huila (photo by Martin Roca)

Fire and ice on Colombia volcano Nevado del Huila (photo by Martin Roca)

Coca-Cola’s management blinked last week, but earlier defended its stock grant by saying that the stock grants “are within industry norms.” But we need not run out of tissues crying over this transfer of wealth away from needy financiers, because Coca-Cola announced that it is reducing its previous plan. Just what the company plans to give its executives is not clear from its October 1 press release, but it did have this to say:

“Consistent with our past practice, 100% of the proceeds from stock option exercises by employees will be used to repurchase shares, minimizing dilution. This is separate from, and in addition to, our normal share repurchase program.”

What that finance-speak means is that the profits of the company won’t be spread thinner because it will buy back stock in exchange for the stock it will issue its top executives. Wall Street won this round. Coca-Cola will be using some of its profits to buy back shares from existing shareholders. This is a common practice whereby a company offers to buy stock at a premium to the trading price, giving an extra payday to those who sell and leaving the profits to be divided by among a smaller group.

Money rains upon speculators

How much largesse is rained upon financiers? According to a report by Bloomberg, the companies of the S&P 500 Index will spend $914 billion on stock buybacks and dividends this year, or 95 percent of their earnings. (Those earnings are after the multimillion-dollar payouts executives pay themselves. Oops, sorry, after the payouts granted by their cronies on their hand-picked board of directors.) Bloomberg reports that S&P 500 companies are sitting on “$3.59 trillion in cash and marketable securities and they’ve raised almost $1.28 trillion in 2014 through bond sales.”

That represents quite a pile of profits. Coca-Cola has spent billions of dollars in recent years buying back its stock. The company has plenty of money, reporting almost $45 billion in net income during the past five years. A capitalist’s profits (including the large portion shared with financiers) are created through paying employees much less than the value of what they produce. So what did Coca-Cola’s employees get for producing this wealth enjoyed by executives and speculators? The back of the hand for the most part.

Having earned “only” $8.6 billion in net income for 2013, a slight drop from a year earlier, Coca-Cola announced it would cut its annual expenses by $1 billion by 2016. Undoubtedly, a savings of that size will have to include layoffs. Already, Italian workers struck last month over a plan to eliminate 12 percent of their jobs; workers at the company’s partially owned Australian affiliate have been handed a pay freeze for 2015 with new hires starting at 40 percent less; and 1,200 Spanish jobs were eliminated by closing four plants in defiance of a court order.

All this is before we get to the many human-rights abuses in which Coca-Cola is accused. In the past, the company made big profits operating in Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa.

More recently, the company and its business affiliates have been repeatedly accused of using paramilitary death squads to kidnap, torture and assassinate union leaders. The company denies any involvement. But being an organizer in Colombia is dangerous work — of the 213 union leaders murdered worldwide in 2002, 184 died in Colombia. In the previous 15 years, almost 4,000 Colombian trade unionists were murdered.

Child labor, violence and smuggling are it

Workers seeking to join unions in Colombia are routinely fired and threats against union activists continue on a steady basis. The activist group Killer Coke has compiled a country-by-country list of outrages in various countries, including thousands of children, as young as eight-years-old, used as labor on El Salvador sugar-cane farms that supply the company; multiple kidnappings and murders of union officials at a bottling plant in Guatemala; and, in the Philippines, the use of outsourced labor to avoid paying benefits and accusations of “smuggling” sugar into the country to avoid taxes and undercut local sugar producers.

The $13 billion that the executives and the financiers were fighting over did not fall out of the sky.

The point here isn’t that Coca-Cola is a uniquely evil company. Its arch-rival PepsiCo Inc. is spending $8.7 billion this year alone in stock buybacks and dividend payouts to make financiers happy. In the past, it was a major investor in Burma during the military régime that routinely used its citizens, particularly from ethnic minorities, as slave laborers. Pepsi exchanged its income there for Burmese agricultural products that could be sold at a profit outside the country — products often produced on the military junta’s slave-labor farms that were taken by force.

Finance capital is both whip and parasite, applying relentless market pressure to force companies to squeeze ever higher profits and extracting more wealth for itself. This is what the holy grail of “efficiency” actually means. Industrialists and financiers fight over which gets the bigger piece of the pie, but they agree they deserve the whole pie. The rest of us can shut up and get back to work. Did you vote for this?