New Symposium: Leif Wenar’s Blood Oil: Tyrants, Violence and the Rules that Run the World

I’m very pleased to host this new symposium on Leif Wenar’s book Blood Oil: Tyrants, Violence, and the Rules That Run the World (OUP, 2015). This major new text takes up the problem of the resource curse and its discontents, offering a politically ambitious, substantively provocative, beautifully written, and highly accessible treatment of a major global problem. I was especially excited to see a leading political philosopher address the relationship between natural resources and global justice, and to pick up on our overlapping concern for the widespread theft of natural resources globally. Wenar not only explains the problem with great clarity, he also offers a bold prescriptive way out of the predicament. In this symposium, he submits to respectful scrutiny from a range of scholars from diverse disciplinary backgrounds who contest different aspects of his argument. Before I introduce the commentators, I add to a longer summary he himself has written by presenting some brief background about the central arguments in the book.

Wenar’s major claim is that most natural resources are stolen. He takes this view for a variety of reasons, but predominantly because the international legal order allows any armed group, no matter their how weak their democratic credentials, to enjoy legal title over a state’s natural resource endowments. In Wenar’s language, the international order’s deference to “effectiveness” is morally perverse in that it embraces “might makes right.”[1] According to Wenar, this perversity engulfs the entire global resource sector: “‘Might makes right’ is as much true for an autocrat in coercive control of an oil-rich country as it is for a band of militants who seize a mine by force. In both cases, the alchemy of effectiveness transmutes the iron of coercion into the gold of legal title.”[2] And yet, if peoples own natural resources, international law’s deference to effectiveness as part of this dark alchemy enables theft.

The implications of Wenar’s thesis are sweeping. As he argues, international law’s overly-permissive stance towards violent resource predation “violates rights on a massive scale, and it causes enormous suffering.”[3] Deontologically speaking, Wenar argues that “[r]ewarding violence with rights makes a nonsense of property.”[4] Consequentially, he draws on the resource curse literature to show how resource endowment is negatively correlated with rates of armed violence, severe poverty and all other measures of social dysfunction. Perhaps his farthest-reaching argument, however, is that international law’s perverse embrace of “might makes right” undermines democracy: “[t]he money that goes to these men wins them unaccountable power: power unchecked by law or custom or conscience.”[5] Thus, Wenar sees redressing this dynamic in global resource governance as crucial in promoting democracy.

Wenar finds the norms necessary to achieve the political transformation to global democracy via resource governance in pre-existing international law,[6] echoing the international law scholars who discovered an emerging right to democracy at the close of the Cold War.[7] In particular, he relies on self-determination in human rights instruments and the notion of permanent sovereignty over natural resources to conclude that peoples own natural resources. For the bulk of the remainder of the book, he seeks to establish the circumstances under which state officials cannot act as agents of the people in resource transactions, negatively delineating the circumstances wherein the purported alienation of people’s resources is incapable of passing good title.

On this score, Wenar argues that a people’s consent over the alienation of their natural resources implies four basic principles, namely: (a) information (citizens must be able to find out about the management of their resources); (b) independence (citizens’ approval must not be forced); (c) deliberation (citizens must be able to discuss the management of their resources with each other; and (d) dissent (citizens must be able to dissent from management of their natural resources without risking severe costs).[8] The political ramifications are substantial. As Wenar explains, “[i]n concrete political terms, these conditions require that citizens must have at least bare-bones civil liberties and basic political rights.”[9] Consequently, for Wenar, popular sovereignty over natural resources guarantees some semblance of democracy: “[t]he people cannot possibly control their resources under a highly authoritarian regime: a military junta or a personalistic dictatorship, an autocratic theocracy or a single-party state.”[10]

The book addresses itself to a public audience, presumably because its overall conclusion is that we Western consumers are inextricably bound up in this violence and can do something politically transformative in response to it. To illustrate, at the beginning of the book, Wenar promises to “probe how consumers come to be legally chained to distant warlords. For surely those warlords had no legal right to their plunder?”[11] He goes on to argue that these problems are so ubiquitous that we consumers are all implicated, concluding that “[o]ur moral taint is a certainty… we all own stolen goods.”[12] In calling on us to address this moral taint, Wenar places the issue alongside some of the most infamous historical manifestations of “might makes right” — such as the slave trade, colonialism, apartheid, and territorial conquest[13] — insisting that addressing the theft of natural resources is the boldest yet still realistic global political project our generation might undertake to further this emancipatory moral trajectory.[14]

As will be apparent from my recitation of the argument, a project of this breadth and ambition will attract a broad variety of opinion. To foster critical debate on this topic, I am pleased to have brought together a group of scholars and practitioners from diverse backgrounds to offer reflections, criticisms and new vantage points on these issues. As is my normal practice, I have placed the names and affiliations of commentators on an accompanying page that lists all of the current and past contributions to this blog (see here). Nevertheless, let me explicitly showcase the disciplinary diversity they offer. This symposium hosts a leading scholar in the philosophy of global justice, a prominent international lawyer from Africa, arguably the leading scholar on resource wars globally and the founders of the NGO Global Witness. I also contribute a series of reactions based on the difficulties that have arisen in the theory and practice of attempts to promote democracy in international law, before inviting Wenar to respond to criticisms. I hope that the resulting body of thought is stimulating to all those concerned by the egregious underlying problem.

[1] Leif Wenar, Blood Oil: Tyrants, Violence, and the Rules that Run the World xlv (1 edition ed. 2015).

[2] Id. at xiv.

[3] Id. at 334.

[4] Id. at 73.

[5] Id. at xlviii.

[6] Wenar, supra note 1 at See Chapter 11 Popular Resource Sovereignty and Chapter 12 The State of the Law.

[7] Thomas M. Franck, The Emerging Right to Democratic Governance, 86 Am. J. Int. Law 46–91 (1992); Gregory H. Fox & Georg Nolte, Intolerant Democracies, 36 Harv. Int. Law J. 1–70 (1995); Anne-Marie Burley (Slaughter), Toward an Age of Liberal Nations Symposium: Nationalism and Internationalism: Shifting World Spheres, 33 Harv. Int. Law J. 393–406 (1992).

[8] Id. at 227–228.

[9] Id. at 228.

[10] Id. at 229.

[11] Id. at xlv.

[12] Id. at xx.

[13] Id. at 311.

[14] Id. at 358. Like “the abolition of the slave trade, the liberation of the colonies, the end of white rule, and the many campaigns for human rights,” “[t]he reform of ‘might makes right’ for natural resources will be the next of these movements.”