All posts by Leif Wenar

Reply to Barry, Gooch, Le Billon, Okowa, Stewart, and Taylor

Leif Wenar is Chair of Philosophy and Law, King’s College, London. His most recent book, Beyond Blood Oil: Philosophy, Policy and the Future, combines five essays from field leaders in political theory, philosophy and energy politics.

I would like to give thanks to James Stewart for making Blood Oil part of his excellent symposium. I have admired Stewart since I first met him at the Peace Palace in The Hague in 2010, at a major conference centered on his work on pillage of natural resources.[1] His conference was full of luminaries of international law and politics (it is where I first met two outstanding judges of the International Court of Justice, Rosalyn Higgins and Abdul Koroma), and Stewart’s research was an ideal catalyst for intense discussions over the use of international law in the fight for justice.

I would also like to thank the other commentators sincerely for their generous attention and kind words. Perhaps I might just say how much I admire each of them. Phoebe Okowa is the author of important work on international environmental and criminal law, and also the author of fine articles on the laws governing natural resources in situations of armed conflict. Philippe Le Billon is among the world’s leading experts on natural resources and conflict; I have learned much from him, including from his books such as Fueling War and Wars of Plunder,and cite his work many times in Blood Oil. Christian Barry is one of the world’s top moral and political philosophers, an expert on justice in international trade and complicity, and the co-author of the much-anticipated Ethics for Consumers.

Very special thanks are due to Simon Taylor and Charmian Gooch, whose organization, Global Witness, has changed the way I see the world. I began working on the resource curse, in 2006, as a skeptic. Although I saw the terrible ‘paradox of plenty’ in so many countries, like some of the commentators (and perhaps some readers of this symposium), I was doubtful that much could be done about it. The interests opposing action were too strong, it seemed, and the status quo too entrenched. Global Witness helped to turn me into an optimist. Again and again Global Witness has won inspiring victories against the powerful, and Blood Oil tells many of the stories of their successes.

The Khmer Rouge, Charles Taylor the tyrant of Liberia, Sierra Leone’s blood-diamond funded militias, Robert Mugabe’s military thugs, Equatorial Guinea’s dictator Teodoro Obiang, Burma’s generals, Muamar Gaddafi—all of their injustices have been exposed by campaigns led by Global Witness. The bribes by the oil companies Shell and Eni that appear to have cost the Nigerian people over a billion dollars—and the corrupt deals of Dan Gertler, allegedly one of the worst in the Congo’s long history of foreign exploiters—are also now known because of Global Witness and other determined campaigners. Because of Global Witness and its partners, whole industries in the West have made their dealings with resource-rich foreign governments more transparent, and are also more diligent in keeping conflict minerals out of their supply chains.

Indeed whole continents have changed their legislation—the EU has now mandated public registers of beneficial owners of companies, which will help to crack down on abuse of the anonymously-owned companies that facilitate tax evasion, money laundering, and corruption. Global Witness has been a leader in this campaign (and—as their exposé on ‘60 Minutes’ showed—there is still much more to be done). And Global Witness is now increasingly turning attention to environmental and climate issues, as when it revealed the secret payments that an oil company made to armed Congolese rebels, to get drilling access to Africa’s oldest and most biodiverse national park.

Simon Taylor and Charmian Gooch have helped to build Global Witness into an effective, respected, and trusted international organization, a huge accomplishment. Global Witness has brought injustices to the world’s attention that had been under the radar, challenging ‘business as usual’ and inspiring others to launch their own campaigns. As I’ve gone around the world for the last dozen years giving talks on the resource curse, people have often asked me which organizations they can support—who is ‘fighting the good fight’ for change. I always say to support Global Witness. Global Witness has shown that a relentless focus, and an implacable sense of justice, can win.[2]

Summary of Blood Oil

Blood Oil is a big book. For those who are coming to this material for the first time, it may be helpful if I start by setting out its position quickly, without the nuances or qualifications, pulling together (and occasionally correcting) some points from the summaries of the contributors.[3]

The book is about power and natural resources. Violent, coercive, and corrupt men are today selling off their countries’ resources, gaining enormous unaccountable power from the money the world gives them in return. Some of these men use this unaccountable power to oppress their people, others to start brutal wars, others to maintain themselves in luxury while their populations endure grinding poverty.

To give a few suggestive correlations, most of the authoritarian regimes, most of the civil wars, most of the most corrupt governments, and most of the hunger crises in the world today are in resource-rich states. Most of the world’s refugees are today fleeing from these states. And, soon, most of the world’s extreme poverty will be in states that export oil, metals, or gems. Resources can indeed be a curse.

The unaccountable power that these men gain from selling natural resources spells disaster for the people that they torture, and attack, and neglect. And the power that the world gifts to these men is so enormous that it often spills across borders, and indeed around the world. Most of the West’s major foreign threats and crises for the past two generations have originated in resource-exporting states. The unaccountable power of resources is bad for ‘them’ there, and it’s bad for ‘us’ here in the West too. Because of this unaccountable power, we are all ‘resource cursed.’

What is the ultimate source of the unaccountable power of these violent, coercive, and corrupt men? Ultimately, it is the world’s consumers, paying every day for the products that are made from (and transported with) the natural resources that these men sell off from their countries. Ultimately, consumers are paying for the curses that fall back on them.

And why? Why are we consumers sending our money to men responsible for such suffering and injustice? The book’s answer is a surprise. The main culprit is a legal relic from the 17th century, that we all take for granted, embedded in the domestic law of every state. This is the rule that makes it legal to buy natural resources from whoever in a foreign country can control the extractive sites by force.

So, for example, years ago when Saddam Hussein’s junta took over Iraq in a coup, every state’s default law made it legal to buy Iraq’s oil from that junta. And then years later, when ISIS took over some of those same wells by force, it became legal to buy Iraq’s oil from ISIS. (That’s why sanctions had to be imposed—to make it illegal to buy oil from ISIS.) This legal rule is called ‘effectiveness’ for natural resources—essentially, effectiveness means that ‘might makes right.’

This archaic legal rule makes no common sense. If an armed gang takes over a Shell station in your country, should the gang get the legal right to sell off the gasoline and keep the money? It also violates a primary principle of any market order, to protect property against forceful seizure. In this way, ‘might makes right’ is a standing challenge to the rule of law.

As the book shows, the rule of effectiveness has been abolished in many other areas of law over the past 300 years—indeed, this progressive abolition of effectiveness has been a major part of the moral progress of humankind. The slave trade, colonial rule, apartheid, even ethnic cleansing and genocide: all of these violent practices used to be permitted under international law, which was often little more than the legitimation of power. Today, all of these things, when they happen, are violations of international law.

In fact, the world has even abolished effectiveness for a single natural resource: diamonds. Because of the campaigning of Global Witness and its allies, it is now illegal in most states to import diamonds that have been sold by armed groups. We’ve abolished the legal rule of ‘might makes right’ for diamonds, the question is whether we could do this for oil, for metals, and for other gems too.

What gives great hope for the abolition of effectiveness for all natural resources is that a better principle for trade in these resources is already widely accepted worldwide. This is the principle that every country belongs to its people. Under this principle, each country’s resources start out as the property of the people, and any government that wants to sell off (or privatize) those resources must be minimally accountable to its citizens when it does so.[4] That is, citizens must be able to find out the government is doing with their resources, and effectively to protest this if they don’t like it. Anyone who sells off a country’s resources without being minimally accountable to the owners—the citizens—is literally selling stolen goods.

This legal principle that ‘the resources belong to the people’ was first pressed by countries in the Global South in the 1950s, and it is now proclaimed in major treaties to which almost every state is party. Both of the main human rights treaties, for example, declare in their first article that ‘All peoples may, for their own ends, freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources.’[5] States with 98% of the world’s population are already party to one of these major treaties. More, politicians and popular majorities in every world region regularly endorse the principle that every country belongs to its people. At the level of ideas, ‘popular resource sovereignty’ has already won.

Popular resource sovereignty requires a government to be accountable to the people for the country’s resources. It is the best solution to the resource curse. The power that natural resources bring cannot be made accountable from outside the country. We know this from the West’s failed attempts to control the power of oil through alliances, invasions, and sanctions over the past 40 years, especially in the Middle East. The power of natural resources can only be held accountable from within the country, by governance that is accountable to citizens. We know that popular resource sovereignty is the solution to this problem, because countries that had minimally accountable governments when resource revenues began to flow (like Norway and Botswana) have not suffered the resource curse.

Today, every importing state is maintaining a legal rule that violates popular resource sovereignty: the rule of effectiveness. Every state’s default law says, ‘Whoever can control the extractive sites by force—we will make it legal to buy the resources from them.’ This is the rule that is driving repression, conflict, corruption and more in resource-cursed states. It is the rule that importing states can now change, to respect the human right that is popular resource sovereignty.

The book’s main policy proposal is that resource-importing states pass a Clean Trade Act, which would make it illegal to buy natural resources from anyone who is not minimally accountable to the people of their country. Progressively and responsibly, importing states can get their consumers out of business with violent, coercive, and corrupt men abroad. Ending today’s bad business will not end the resource curse overnight, but it is the most that states can do to stop the damage that their laws are doing to resource-exporting countries today. It is also the most that states can peacefully do to take a principled stand for the rights of all peoples, everywhere.

Readers may need reason to believe that this legislation is politically realistic. I’m happy to help with the optimism. Clean Trade is now a registered charity, with outreach to governments, investors, lawyers, and consumers.  And we’ve already gotten a Clean Trade Act onto the legislative agenda. Brazil, the world’s fifth largest country and a leader of the Global South, has a Clean Trade bill pending in its senate that would ban all imports of oil from unaccountable governments, and also prohibit its national oil company, Petrobras, from entering into new contracts with those governments. If Brazil can introduce a Clean Trade Act, such progress should be possible in other countries too.

Beneath the Status Quo

I’ve presented the ideas of Blood Oil hundreds of times now, on every continent except Antarctica, and I’ve found a curious thing. Even though much of the book is about the law—‘the rules that run the world’—it is often lawyers who have the hardest time seeing what it is saying. Having considered this for a while, I think I understand better why. This book challenges the status quo understanding of the global legal order, which is the domain that lawyers work within every day. The pull of the status quo is so strong that even lawyers who read the book seem to pass over sections, or whole chapters, when they describe what it says in their own terms. There is a great temptation to frame the whole thing within the familiar old debates, that lawyers know so well.

I have real sympathy for these lawyers: understanding the deeper ways that the world works was also difficult for me at first. And I believe that these lawyers (and indeed all the commentators in this symposium) share the same ultimate values and goals: as Okowa says in her essay, we all believe in peoples’ ‘dignity and integrity as sovereign peoples,’ and we all support ‘the bedrock principles on which our shared security rests… the sovereign equality of peoples and the overriding imperatives of maintaining peace and order.’

Yet since some readers may be coming to these ideas for the first time, it’s important that we take these debate out of their familiar tracks. So let me say a few things clearly at the outset. Blood Oil does not recommend sanctions. It doesn’t advocate coercing anyone, or intervening in the affairs of any state. It’s not about promoting a freestanding ‘right to democracy,’ and it doesn’t aim at spreading Western ideas to non-Western countries. It doesn’t recommend military invasions. It does not claim to speak for foreign peoples, or somehow to know what citizens of other countries want. And its policies have nothing to do with subordinating foreign peoples or managing the affairs of other countries from afar.

Those are all the old debates, within the terms of a familiar legal status quo. Our questions are deeper: what explains the status quo itself, and what can be done to change it. That’s what Blood Oil is about. Once we dig down to the subterranean channels of power in the global economy, we see things differently. In fact, those old debates look upside-down. The truth turns out to be that we are now intervening in the affairs of other countries—in very damaging ways—and that the world’s future would be better if we stopped intervening as we’re doing now every day.

Here’s the status quo. Authoritarians run oil states like Russia, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Given this, the West has tried to control such authoritarians in many (often unjust) ways—sanctions, invasions, alliances, and sending secret agents to undermine democratic movements. But why are these authoritarians there in the first place?

Massively corrupt officials fleece the citizens of resource-rich states from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe. Given that these corrupt officials are in power, Western corporations have unjustly bribed them to gain access to the resources. But why are these corrupt officials there in the first place?

Grueling conflicts have racked many resource-rich states. As Okowa wrote in 2013,

One of the defining features of the many recent conflicts of the past three decades, especially those in Angola, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Liberia, and more recently in the Great Lakes region of Africa, is the centrality of illegal exploitation of natural resources in causing and sustaining these conflicts. Many of these are not ideologically driven wars commanding popular support or addressing acknowledged grievances of the population. Instead they have as their focus access to the resources which, in addition to enriching the warring parties, also provides a continuous source of revenue for funding the war… Exploitation of natural resources by insurgents and governments alike has played a pivotal role in a number of protracted armed conflicts of the last two decades….They have all been financed, sustained, and exacerbated by illegally sourced minerals and other natural wealth of the territories affected.[6]

Given that these conflicts are occurring, foreign governments have tried to come up with ways to contain them and foreign corporations to exploit them. But why are the conflicts happening in the first place? Why is the status quo so oppressive, corrupt, and violent?

There are many reasons. Authoritarianism, corruption, and conflict are not only about resources, and of course these things occur in resource-poor states too. As Blood Oil says, ‘We live in a multivariate world. Many factors beyond the resource disorders have contributed to the disasters that end up in the headlines. Nothing explains everything; human affairs have more features than any one vantage can survey.’[7]

Still, one primary driver of these phenomena is the ancient rule of effectiveness. Because of effectiveness, resource-rich countries are much more likely to be authoritarian, highly corrupt, and at war with themselves. This rule explains much of the status quo—and it’s within this status quo that Western states and corporations then make their moves. The old debates are about those moves—and within these debates, I agree that what Western states and corporations have done has often been unwise and unjust. Yet we can go deeper than those old debates. The new debate is how to understand the status quo itself, and then to transform it. How can ‘might makes right’ be replaced with a better global rule, will stop driving authoritarianism, corruption, and conflict in the first place?

It’s Not about Political Recognition

Blood Oil challenges a major orthodoxy in global trade—the rule of effectiveness, by which every state makes it legal to buy natural resources from foreign authoritarians and armed groups. However, there is another part of today’s legal orthodoxy that the book does not challenge at all. These are the rules on state recognition: the rules about when states must recognize other states, and governments must recognize other governments, as legitimate. International law requires states to recognize each other’s ‘right to rule,’ and (contrary to what both Stewart and Okowa suggest) Blood Oil does not question these laws on political recognition at all. For ‘us’ in Western countries, for instance, who legitimately rules Russia or Iran or Angola is none of our business; the book doesn’t question the Russian, Iranian or Angolan governments’ ‘right to rule’ at all.

What Blood Oil does challenge is a different legal decision that states make: not political recognition, but commercial engagement. Given that international law requires states to give each other political recognition, there is a further question. Who in foreign countries will states make it legal to engage with commercially? Every state has to decide for itself from whom in other countries it will be legal to buy natural resources. These are the decisions that states should change.

This is the argument made at length in Blood Oil Chapter 7, ‘How Might Makes Right.’ Just because Charles Taylor of Liberia once forced a law through the parliament saying that it would only be legal to buy Liberia’s resources from him, that didn’t decide the matter for other states. Each sovereign state must set its own domestic laws on commercial engagement for natural resources. As the book says,

There’s a mental short circuit that can cause a blind spot here. The short-circuited reasoning goes like this: ‘Passing laws is what sovereign states do. And international law requires all states to recognize other states as sovereign. So international law requires all states to respect the laws of other states within their own laws.’

The protection against this short circuit is a crucial fact: political recognition does not require commercial engagement. Whoever rules in a foreign country and whatever laws they pass, the international law of recognition does not require any country to align its property laws with the laws of that country… Even during full political recognition, one state can refuse to align its property laws with those of another by forbidding its persons to buy what the foreign law says can be sold.[8]

This is clearest with sanctions. When a state imposes oil sanctions, for instance, it is changing its domestic laws so that it becomes illegal for its nationals to buy any oil from the sanctioned state. This is entirely a commercial matter, and has nothing to do with political recognition of the sanctioned state or government. Indeed, the book describes a case during the uprisings of 2011 when the United States changed its law to make it illegal for Americans to buy Libya’s oil from the government that it recognized politically—and even made it legal for Americans to buy Libya’s oil from rebels that no state recognized politically.

Whether or not this US policy was a wise one, the crucial legal point is that ‘who will it be legal for us to buy foreign resources from’ is a matter that each state must decide for itself. And again, this is entirely separate from the international law of recognition. Under the international laws of recognition, the United Kingdom must acknowledge, for example, the Russian government’s right to raise taxes, to defend its borders, and to issue postage stamps. Yet here is a separate, commercial question, which is not settled by any international law: will Britain make it legal for British persons to buy Russia’s oil from those who are now selling it? That’s a question for Britain’s own law to answer.

Blood Oil asks all states to stop answering this question with effectiveness, the rule of the slave trade, colonialism, and apartheid. It asks states instead to guide their commercial engagement by human rights.

Popular resource sovereignty is a human right. As above, this principle is affirmed in both of the major human rights treaties: the human rights Covenants of 1966. In fact, the rights of peoples to their resources is affirmed twice in both Covenants—these treaties affirm popular resource sovereignty more than they affirm any other human right. Popular resource sovereignty is also affirmed in major regional human rights instruments, like the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. As Okowa in 2007 eloquently explained one of the doctrines that helped to form this human right, it provides

An international standard against which the legality of natural resource exploitation by all parties to a conflict stands to be assessed.… If the terminology of peoples’ rights in the 1966 Covenants and in the African Charter is significant, then both must be regarded as imposing a set of justiciable precepts, in the form of limitations on what the government of a territory may do with resources of that territory. These instruments are clearly in force as binding treaties, creating obligations.[9]

By passing a Clean Trade Act, an importing state will be doing nothing more than to change its own domestic laws so that they respect human rights. As Blood Oil says,

a Clean Trade Act is less dramatic than more familiar foreign policy options. A country passing this Act will be changing its own laws, enforced on its own soil, regarding its own terms of trade. Not a single bomber or soldier need be sent abroad to implement these policies.

Moreover, a Clean Trade Act does not challenge the right of any regime to rule its country. An enacting state need say nothing about the legitimacy of foreign leaders, and need make no changes in the list of states receiving its diplomatic recognition…. Political recognition and commercial relations are distinct, and passing a Clean Trade Act only alters commercial relations. Leaders of a Clean Trade country can say that who holds the presidency of a resource-exporting country is ‘none of our business,’ while also saying that today its president qualifies for ‘none of our business.’[10]

As I hope this make clear, Clean Trade policy is not about ‘promoting democracy’ by challenging the right to rule of non-democratic regimes. Indeed, even within the domain of natural resources, Kuwait (for instance) is currently just ‘above the line’ in terms of minimal accountability to its citizens for resource decisions—and few would call Kuwait a democracy. Clean Trade is about power: about states ending their own contributions to the empowerment of unaccountable actors abroad.

Not Sanctions, Not Interference, the Opposite of Intervention

Stewart and Okowa worry about the effects of sanctions, and also raise concerns that a Clean Trade Act would amount to interfering with, or even neo-colonial intervention in, in the domestic affairs of other states. I share their concerns about sanctions, and I share their dismay at neo-colonial policies. Yet those worries are within the familiar old debates that accept the status quo—debates about foreign ‘state-building,’ and about Western military intervention to ‘build democracy’ abroad. Once we see what happens when states choose effectiveness, those old worries get turned on their heads. As Blood Oil says,

Determined action to reform the global resource trade must choose its tools wisely. The sharp-edged tool of military action to force democratic change is, as we’ve seen, not fit for this work. Even putting aside the efficacy of bombing for democracy, this is too much like the colonizing campaigns of the past to build the trust that the West now needs. Western nations should instead work to align their policies to fit their own principles— first by powering down their own destructive laws like effectiveness for resources. The first tools the West needs are not those for state-building; first turn off the West’s machines that are now state-razing.[11]

Let’s start with sanctions. Stewart and Okowa are right to be concerned about sanctions; but a Clean Trade Act is not sanctions. Sanctions aim to punish a specific enemy. A Clean Trade Act does not aim to punish anyone. Rather, it takes a principled stand for all people’s rights, across the board, for allies and adversaries alike.[12] The leadership of a country enacting a Clean Trade Act can say to foreign leaders,

‘We do not challenge any of you, as always we continue to recognize your right to rule your land. On matters beyond resource trade, our relations can go on as before. All we are saying is that we believe that we have no right to buy resources from you—no right, because by the principles that you and we both endorse, the owners of those resources cannot be authorizing their sale. By passing this Clean Trade Act we are building respect for the human rights of all peoples into our laws—the rights of the Saudi people, of the Russian people, of the Iranian people, of the Angolan people—the rights of all peoples, worldwide.’

Nor would a Clean Trade Act be an intervention, or an interference in the internal affairs of other states (much less would it be, as in Okowa’s more pungent descriptions, ‘coercive and intrusive,’ ‘subordination,’ ‘degrading tutelage,’ or ‘vigilante justice.’) In fact, the situation is exactly the reverse: it is our countries today who are doing the meddling. As Blood Oil explains, ‘It would be dark humor for any country with an effectiveness-based trade policy to charge a Clean Trade country with ‘political meddling.’’ To make such a charge, a leader of an effectiveness-based importing country would have to make a speech like this one:

‘Today, we choose to take Equatorial Guinea’s oil. In exchange, we choose to give hundreds of millions of dollars to a brutal dictator, knowing that the money will help him to keep power by paying for soldiers and secret police and torture chambers for political prisoners. However, if mercenaries are tempted by our money and can assassinate Obiang tomorrow, we will buy oil from whoever hired the mercenaries and assumes the presidency. We are not meddling in the politics of Equatorial Guinea. It is those who buy no oil who are meddling.’

This is not compelling… It is countries that send large sums to ‘whoever can be most coercive’ that are interfering in the internal affairs of other nations and meddling in their politics. Countries that refuse to send large sums to authoritarians and militias are the ones that are not interfering, not meddling.[13]

This is an important point, so let’s do a thought experiment to idea the point home.[14]

Saudi Arabia banned slavery in 1962—but imagine that it hadn’t. Imagine that Saudi domestic law today says that the Saudi state has the legal right to sell Saudi slaves to foreigners. In this case, should the United States set its domestic law so that Saudi slaves could be bought and owned within its own borders? That’s the equivalent of today’s rule of effectiveness for natural resources.

Now let’s imagine that the US has long had a law allowing Saudi slaves to be bought and owned within its own borders. And imagine that, after determined activism, the US then enacts a law banning the importation of Saudi slaves, and the sale of Saudi slaves on American territory. Would this new law be interfering in Saudi internal affairs? Would this law be a coercive and intrusive foreign policy, a neo-colonial intervention that manages Saudi Arabia from afar? Would it be an act of vigilante justice, subordinating Saudi Arabia to a degrading foreign tutelage?

I can’t believe that the commentators, or anyone today, would believe so. Nothing in international law (of recognition, or anything else) requires any state to change its laws to align with the laws of a state that sells slaves. Any country that has banned the importation of foreign slaves has merely aligned its own laws with human rights—with the human rights of all people to be free. And this is all that a country that passed a Clean Trade Act would be doing. Nothing in international law requires any country to align its own laws with the Saudi laws that say that the Saudi state has the right to sell off Saudi oil without accountability to the people. And in fact, the human rights treaties that nearly all states (including Saudi Arabia) have ratified affirm the rights of the people over their resources.[15]

It is true that the crime of slavery is worse than the theft of a nation’s resources. Yet there is a difference in the other direction too. Britain’s campaign to ban the Atlantic slave trade in the 19th century was a one in which the most economically advanced Western country imposed ‘its’ values on other countries. By contrast, the campaign for the legal recognition of popular resource sovereignty was a campaign of the Global South. Starting with Chile in 1952, it was ‘Third World’ states—against strong opposition from the West—that insisted on the legal principle that a country’s resources belong to its people.[16] The campaign for popular resource sovereignty was an anti-imperialist campaign waged by developing countries trying to resist the exploitation of their natural resources by Western corporations. The historic success of this campaign by the Global South can now be leveraged to advance the rights of all peoples today.

Both Stewart and Okowa rightly condemn neo-colonialism. Yet it is the status quo—which Okowa in particular defends so passionately—that is more vulnerable to this charge. It has often been noted that in the end the Western imperial powers were not so unhappy about ‘losing’ their resource-rich colonies, which had become troublesome and expensive to govern from afar.[17] The imperialists saw that after independence, they could still extract the natural resources that they wanted from the colonies, without having to bear the costs of rule them. They would just need their corporations to bribe the post-independence strongmen to get the resources—or their corporations might need to pay off armed groups when civil wars broke out.

In this history, Western imperialists were happy enough to see their colonial rule replaced by authoritarians, corrupt officials, and civil conflict—because their countries still got the resources out. ‘Independence’ merely reduced their expenses. Those who defend today’s status quo by endorsing the law of ‘might makes right’ must defend its interference in the internal affairs of resource-rich states, partly for the benefit of the former colonial powers.

Principles and Consequences

Passing a Clean Trade Act is a dramatic thing for states to do. Though implementation could be gradual, and good diplomacy will be essential, passing an Act will be a major change in international trade. Running through all the commentators’ remarks is an understandable concern about the consequences of making such reforms. Will it be worth it for states to make a stand on principle? Are there unintended consequences that might cancel out the benefits of making these reforms?

These are crucial questions. Blood Oil carefully considers the consequences of the policies it recommends, using the empirical literature to project those consequences as responsibly as possible. Yet the book also raises on one point. When we wake up tomorrow, our country will have a law in place saying who it’s is legal to buy natural resources from. Our choice is not ‘Clean Trade or not Clean Trade.’ Our choice is ‘Clean Trade or effectiveness.’ And those who choose effectiveness for tomorrow must also take responsibility for the consequences of their choice.

Here is a summary passage from Blood Oil, based on research by Michael Ross, that highlights a few of the consequences of the choice of effectiveness over the past forty years.

For forty years, oil states have been noisy distractions to the quiet successes of the developing world. While non-oil states have generally been getting richer, freer, and more peaceful, the oil states are no richer, no more free, and no more peaceful than they were in 1980. Many oil states have even gotten worse—Gabon’s average income fell by almost half over the quarter century from 1980; Iraq’s fell by a full 85 percent. Long internal conflicts have ravaged countries like Algeria, Angola, Colombia, and Nigeria. Two headline figures are that these oil states are 50 percent more likely to be ruled by an authoritarian government, and poorer ones are twice as likely to experience civil war, as non-oil states. The oil states are also more financially opaque and volatile on average than non-oil states, and… they allow women fewer opportunities to enter politics or to work outside the home.[18]

These are just some dimensions of the resource curse on exporting states. Those who endorse effectiveness for tomorrow must accept the consequences of their choice for the people of these states tomorrow. Indeed, we can expect these consequences now to get worse. Because of climate change, the oil-exporting states around the equator will be getting hotter, and hungrier, and thirstier, just as they go through a youth bulge and these regions fill up with more powerful explosive and drones. Those who choose effectiveness tomorrow must consider that their choice may bring a future that is even worse than the past.

More than this, it is vital to understand the range of reasons there are to abolish effectiveness for natural resources. When I speak to people in government in Washington and London, we mostly don’t talk about human rights. These conversations are all about national security. Effectiveness is not only bad for ‘them there.’ It also seriously threatens ‘us here.’ (This is the argument of Chapter 6 of Blood Oil, ‘Curses on Us.’)

Let’s head backward in time through the last forty years, and look for common factors in the West’s major foreign threats and crises. Recently we have seen Putin meddling in Western elections and invading a European country, Ukraine. From 2014, the Syrian conflict swelled a refugee crisis that fired nationalist populism in Europe. Next, think of ISIS, with its beheadings and its sexual slavery. Then Gaddafi, who sponsored terrorists from the Munich Olypics attackers to the Lockerbie bombers. Think of the terrorist attacks in London on 7/7/05, and in America on 9/11/01, which were planned by Al Qaeda. Before Al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein destabilized the Middle East  in 1990 by invading Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Since 1979, the Iranian regime has funded militant groups from Hezbollah to Islamic Jihad. And going back to the 1970’s and 80’s, the Soviet Union posed the West with its greatest existential threat when it raced ahead in the nuclear arms race.

A lifetime of foreign threats and crises, with one common factor. All of these threats and crises came from states that export a lot of oil. Let’s agree right off that the West’s responses to the authoritarians and armed groups listed were often ill-advised and immoral. Yet, again, we also need to ask why the authoritarians and armed groups were there in the first place. (And, for Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups, where they derived their extreme, fundamentalist version of Islam.) Again, oil does not explain everything—it’s a complex world, and each threat and crisis has several causes. And yet, again and again, the foreign threats and crises in our headlines have emerged from oil states, and have been driven by unaccountable men empowered by the money that we as consumers have sent them.

The past forty years have shown that the West cannot contain the unaccountable power of oil from outside exporting countries, through alliances or invasions or sanctions. There is only one source of accountability over the power of oil and other resources, which is the people of the country, who live right there, on the ground, every day. Respecting popular resource sovereignty is the political solution for lifting the resource curse, on ‘them’ and on ‘us.’ When we wake up tomorrow, our countries will have a choice: Clean Trade or effectiveness. I accept the consequences of the law that I recommend.[19] Those who endorse continuing with effectiveness must also own the consequences of the law that they support. Tomorrow’s threats and crises will be on them.

While pressing for the abolition of effectiveness, reformers should be determined but never utopian. Stewart imagines campaigners who think, ‘once consumers refuse to purchase natural resources that are stolen from peoples, authoritarian governments will fall, resource wars will dissipate, poverty will decline and human beings will prosper.’ But that kind of thinking is unrealistic. As Blood Oil says,

Abolishing effectiveness for resources can start today, but it won’t be finished tomorrow. This won’t take sixty years, like abolishing the slave trade—yet resistance will be significant, and setbacks will happen.

And once more, the world is not monocausal or even oligocausal. Resources are something, but not everything… Even the best policies will fall far short of magic. The resource-diseased countries that we’ve studied, such as Saudi Arabia and Equatorial Guinea, have many weaknesses beyond resources; they may not become stable constitutional democracies even in the medium term. We should also remember that in many resource-disordered countries, corruption is not a fault in the system, it is the system—so changing the basic structure of governance will take time. More, there are many important global challenges—such as nuclear proliferation and banking secrecy— that resource reforms by themselves will not meet. The finale of our journey is not an earthly Paradiso; we press on.

Strategies for Progress

The campaign for abolishing ‘might makes right’ for natural resources faces significant challenges. This is not the work of a single day or year. Because the opposing forces are so entrenched, any successful campaign must move on several fronts at once. Which strategies will be best for reforming ‘the rules that run the world’?

Barry is a leading authority on supply chains and on consumer complicity in injustices abroad. He sets out the challenges of individual action for change, before going on to consider some alternatives. Barry says,

The natural approach would be to work together to bring about legal reform in our own countries so as to delink ourselves from non-clean trade.  As a claim about what we ought to do, this seems unobjectionable. However, the path from what we ought to do, to what I and other individuals reading his book ought to do, is an uneasy one. I cannot count on others doing what we ought together do in deciding how to act.  Indeed, the unwillingness of others to do what we ought to do may change what I ought to do.

Barry is here raising the familiar problem of the connection between individual action and collective action. Twenty years ago, your deciding to recycle would not, by itself, have changed anything about how your community dealt with trash. Today, your deciding to eat free-range or vegan food will not, by itself, change anything about how your country regulates factory farming. No individual’s action is decisive—and sometimes it seems as though no individual’s action can have an impact at all. And yet, when one looks at examples like these, individual actions have made (and we hope will make) all the difference.

The most compelling story of individual action turning into major reform is the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, which I sketch in Blood Oil and which is told at length in Adam Hochschild’s magnificent book, Bury the Chains.[20] When individuals began to boycott ‘blood sugar’ harvested by slaves on British plantations in the Caribbean, the forces set against the end of the slave trade were much more powerful than the forces that might oppose Clean Trade today. And yet, they did it—individual by individual, the anti-slavery boycott, combined with campaigns on several other fronts, made the slave trade illegal, first in the British colonies, and then across all of the slave-trading empires.

It may seem that individual action cannot be efficacious against the forces set against it. Yet as these and many other examples show, reform efforts based on individual action have often succeeded. We can hope that climate change will be another case like this—that individual action to reduce emissions will be part of a global campaign that turns the world away from the dangerous trajectory that it is currently on. Individual action is never sufficient for success, but as history shows it is often necessary. We should not give up on individual action before the campaigns begin.

Barry considers some individual actions that seem less promising. For example, he wonders whether individuals could impose a tax on themselves for the proportion of their spending that is on natural resources from resource-cursed countries. As he says, this would be difficult to do. The world’s supply chains are elaborate and ever-shifting, and for oil in particular they are opaque. Oil and oil products are used in many links in the supply chain for any particular good. For consumers to work out for themselves what their tax should be is currently well-nigh impossible.[21] As Barry says, consumers could demand more transparency from companies. Yet for companies constantly to update the proportion of ‘clean’ oil used to make their products would require quite expensive changes in global business practices. There is also the question of how this information could be conveyed to consumers in a way that would be useful to them.[22]

Clean Trade takes a different approach. Instead of trying to follow the oil, it follows the money. For our campaign, we asked: where are the big oil companies making their profits from extracting oil? Clean Trade has done the numbers, and compiled them into a ranking that shows which companies are doing more business with authoritarian regimes. This ranking is now available on the Clean Trade website, as part of its ‘Weekend Freedom’ campaign. This campaign says, for drivers who fill up on the weekends and have a choice of branded stations, ‘Why not do business with a company that does less business with dictators?’ This will send a message to the oil companies that consumers notice when they make deals with regimes that keep their people from being free. (For drivers who are even more committed, the website notes that the index can be used to decide where to fill up, all week long.)

Ultimately, Clean Trade does aim at coordinated legislation among states, to make the legal transition from international resource trade based on effectiveness to trade based on popular resource sovereignty. Legislation is the ultimate goal for reasons that Le Billon spells out in his discussion of voluntary initiatives at the company level. There needs to be a legally-enforced ‘level playing field’ for companies, to keep defectors from gaining competitive advantage. Yet while legislation is the ultimate goal, it is a goal that often requires consumer and citizen pressure to achieve. This is why Barry’s discussion of individual action is so important.

One point on which Barry and I are in furious agreement is that, as he says, ‘We can surely limit significantly the degree to which we consume it and products composed of it. And it seems we should take on such costs, if that is really what it takes to refrain from putting lots of money in the hands of repressive regimes.’ I agree—and as I’m certain that Barry would also say, we should reduce our consumption of oil not only for the sake of human rights, but for the sake of the climate as well.

It is urgent that humanity reduces its use of oil—indeed, its use of all fossil fuels—as quickly as possible. The best way to end blood oil is to end the use of oil entirely. These two crucial campaigns can reinforce each other—we can have ‘win-wins’ for both.

The first step for devising such strategies is to make an honest assessment of where we are with fossils. Humanity must reduce its use of fossil fuels as quickly as possible—and this will take concerted action, because humanity today depends on fossil fuels for its energy. In fact, the reality is that humanity today is highly dependent. One doesn’t get a good sense of this from the news, where many stories are about the rapid advance of renewable energy sources. Renewables are indeed rapidly advancing—yet from a very low baseline. The sober fact is that today humanity gets 85% of its energy from fossil fuels. And, for all of the progress, all renewables combined today provide around 4%.[23] (For an analogy, add up some foods that you eat now that provide 85% of your calories, and also foods that provide 4% of your calories. It’s certainly possible for you to make a ‘food transition’ that would bring those percentages closer to even, yet this would take determined effort.)

Oil, and so blood oil, will still be used for some time. This is why we need reinforcing campaigns to limit emissions, and—as the 2015 Paris Agreement says—to limit them through a ‘just transition’ that respects human rights. Reducing the use of oil will reduce the unaccountable power in the hands of violent, corrupt, and coercive men in resource-cursed states—and reducing the power of those men will reduce the global instability that hinders further international coordination on climate. The climate and Clean Trade campaigns should offer each other significant arguments and initiatives that support each other.

In the ‘Green Trade’ section of Blood Oil, the following argument, based on the principle that ‘the oil belongs to the people,’ is offered to push faster action on climate:

Over half of the world’s oil production, and over half of the world’s oil reserves, cannot be exported without violating property rights. This oil is ‘stranded’ in the sense that no one can rightly sell it: it is stranded because it cannot be sold without passing stolen goods. On strict market principles, more than half the world’s oil is right now not available to be exported at all.[24]

This argument should be especially potent when directed at powerful international actors (such as corporations and Western governments) that have always taken the protection of property rights as a top priority. We now show them that respect for property rights requires that we not buy stolen goods, based on a principle of ownership affirmed in treaties that they have long pledged to respect. For those who valorize capitalism and the roles as ‘market actors,’ this argument shows that oil use must be reduced quite significantly, right away.

One argument will never be enough, so we should look for more ‘win-wins’ on climate and on human rights. As mentioned above, a Clean Trade Act in a country like the United States would lead to a modest increase in the price of gasoline, which would help to speed the transition to renewable energies.

And, as Barry suggests, consumers can do much too.[25] One current Clean Trade initiative is a campaign against ‘Blood Plastic.’ If something is plastic, then it’s oil—so purchasing it may be spending money that entrenches the worldwide resource curse. And especially destructive are single-use plastics, which stimulate continuous demand for oil and which often end up damaging marine environments. Consumers can take positive action on all of these fronts by saying, ‘Don’t use single-use.’ Skip the straw, bring your bag, steel your bottle—it’s not unrealistically demanding to avoid single-use Blood Plastic, and by doing this consumers can take a first step after which further steps will seem easier. (More campaigns, such as ‘Washed Clean’ and the ‘Toycott,’ are described in Blood Oil.[26])

And Clean Trade has more, reinforcing campaigns as well. As Le Billon suggests, legal strategies are promising. Clean Trade is currently pursuing legal complaints against international corporations that buy fossil fuels from the world’s most oppressive regimes. We are also hopeful for action in international litigation, where a democratic successor to an authoritarian regime could dispute an unfavorable resource contract by showing that the previous regime could not have been authorized by the owner of the resource (the citizens) to enter into the contract. We will also be pressing for investors and businesses to respect the human right of popular resource sovereignty, declared in treaties that they have already pledged to honor.

There’s so much that we can do, individually and together, on many fronts, to lift the world’s resource curse. Stewart, Okowa, Barry and I may have local disagreements about this issue or that, but I admire each of them, and in the end I take issue mostly with the strain of pessimism that sometimes creeps into their remarks. This is a tough time in politics, as we all know. But those who have come before us have endured worse, and have kept going, and eventually they have won over challenges larger than those we now face. As Blood Oil says, we have to see the world with both eyes at once. The world is much worse than it should be, but in many ways it’s much better than it was—because determined individuals took resolute action for positive change.

Which brings us back again to Simon Taylor, Charmian Gooch, and Global Witness. Whenever pessimism about the world and its future takes hold, one might remind oneself what Global Witness has accomplished already, against what seemed to be impossible odds. Progress is possible, tomorrow’s heroes are acting right now. The sober lesson is that progress does not come by itself—it does take a great deal of hard work, by individuals coming together and making common cause. Yet progress can come. There is much we can do today to make the world a better home for humanity tomorrow.


BP. 2018. BP Statistical Review of World Energy. 67th edition.

Adam Hoschchild. 1995. Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

ICCPR. 1966. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. 999 UNTS 171.

ICESCR. 1966. International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. 993.

Phoebe Okowa. 2013. ‘Sovereignty Contests and the Exploitation of Natural Resources in Conflict Zones’, in Current Legal Problems 66.1: 33-73.

Phoebe Okowa. 2007. ‘Natural Resources in Situations of Armed Conflict: Is there a Coherent Framework for Protection?’ International Community Law Review 9.3: 237-62.

James Stewart. 2011. Corporate War Crimes: Prosecuting the Pillage of Natural Resources. New York: Open Society Institute.

Leif Wenar. 2017. Blood Oil: Tyrants, Violence, and the Rules that Run the World. Updated edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Leif Wenar.


. The Right of Peoples over Natural Resources. (available on request,

Leif Wenar, Michael Blake, Aaron James, Christopher Kutz, Nazrin Mehdiyeva, and Anna Stilz. 2018. Beyond Blood Oil. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

[1] Stewart 2011.


[3] For readers interested in more details and footnotes, shorter summaries of the book are now available. An open-access, policy-oriented summary is in the Progressive Review at A fuller summary is in the first chapter of the author-meets-critics volume, Beyond Blood Oil. Wenar et. al., 2018.

[4] In the US, sub-soil resources are often privately owned. This is compatible with the principle, insofar as the relevant authorities were minimally accountable when they passed the laws that allowed private acquisition of what were, up until then, publicly-owned resources.

[5] ICCPR, ICESCR, common Article 1(2). Stewart raises the important point that international law has also affirmed the rights of indigenous peoples to the natural resources of their traditional lands. These legal rights of national peoples and indigenous peoples are compatible. I say a little about this in Wenar 2017, pp. 198-200, and much more in Wenar [forthcoming].

[6] Okowa 2013, pp. 37-39.

[7] Wenar 2017, p. 81.

[8] Wenar 2017, p. 111.

[9] Okowa 2007, pp. 246, 257, discussing the doctrine of ‘permanent sovereignty over natural resources.’ I survey the current status of popular resource sovereignty in international law in a working paper, available on request (

[10] Wenar 2017, p. 285.

[11] Wenar 2017, pp. 276-77.

[12] Okowa worries that a Clean Trade Act would be a ‘witch-hunt’ that would ‘be a rallying point for political Islam.’ Currently, passing a Clean Trade Act would disqualify resource imports from, for example, Russia, Burma, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Angola—countries of different world regions, with quite different histories, religious and ethnic compositions, and relations to the West. Okowa might need to spell out in more detail how her concerns might eventuate.

[13] Wenar 2017, pp. 296-97.

[14] This case is based on a parallel example inWenar 2017, pp. 119-20.

[15] Saudi Arabia is party to the Arab Charter of Human Rights, which affirms all peoples’ rights over their resources.

[16] Wenar [forthcoming].

[17] See Wenar 2017, p. 115.

[18] Wenar 2017, p. xv.

[19] The best question I’ve ever gotten when speaking on the reforms I advocate is whether I would still press for them were it my own life that would be sacrificed in the transition to a better world. My answer was, ‘of course yes.’

[20] Hochschild 1995.

[21] These problems with supply chains would not affect a Clean Hands Trust, as Barry suggests. To set up such a trust, an enacting state only has to know how much stolen oil is going into a target country. (This is easy to find out, as most internationally-traded oil is transported on huge tankers, already tracked by satellites.) The enacting state then simply collects the value of that stolen oil from duties on imports from the target country, and holds that money in trust. See Wenar 2017, pp. 289-91.

[22] There has been an attempt at a certification scheme to generate something like ‘Fair Trade Oil,’ but it seems not to have gotten traction so far. See Equitable Origins, EO100 Site Certification scheme

[23] BP (2018).

[24] Wenar 2017, p. 304.

[25] As Barry says, for instance, consumers can purchase a conflict-free Fairphone; gems guaranteed not to be taken from combat zones are also available at retailers like Brilliant Earth.

[26] Wenar 2017, p. 292.