In the third part of our state crime mini-carnival, Human Rights in Ireland is in conversation with Thomas MacManus. Thomas is an Attorney-at-Law of the New York Bar. He is a Fellow of the International State Crime Initiative and a doctoral candidate at the School of Law at King’s College London. Here, he discusses his work and that of the Initiative.
Human Rights in Ireland: Tom, you’re an ISCI Fellow – what does that entail?
Thomas MacManus: I’m an ISCI Fellow, which means that I am one of the researchers taking responsibility for one of the states that ISCI investigates: Ivory Coast. I chose Ivory Coast because I’m doing a case study on Trafigura – a company that dumped toxic waste in the Ivory Coast in 1996. The Ivory Coast government signed an agreement with Trafigura not to sue in return for 140 mn dollars. The specific focus of my research is civil society’s reaction and role in the control of corporations. NGOs hired lawyers in London to sue Trafigura in London courts: an example of civil society using legal mechanisms to control corporations in the absence of local state control. Trafigura took an injunction out in London against The Guardian reporting on Members of Parliament’s questions – known as a super injunction because not only were they not allowed to report the questions in Parliament but they were also not allowed to report that there was an injunction. That super injunction was beaten by, amongst other factors, Twitter. So it’s an example of civil society – international civil society and local civil society – of having a new role in controlling corporations. I’m looking at that in particular in Ivory Coast.
HRinI: Can you elaborate on the link between the corporate actions of Trafigura and the Ivory Coast as a state? At what time does this example become state-corporate crime?
TMM: Corporate crime becomes state-corporate crime when you have – as Kraemer and Michalowski call it – an interplay or interdependency between the two entities in the commission of the crime. So, the question you have to ask is could Trafigura have done this if there was a stronger state or more critical state? Did the state assist afterwards in the cover-up of the incident and the harm that resulted from the incident? Green and Ward point to the cover-up as a real indication of government involvement – that points to deviance: a cover-up after the fact.
HRinI: So we could say that even if a state is not involved in wrong-doing, by omission or by active cover-up it can trigger a sort of moral culpability?
TMM: Absolutely. It can also create an atmosphere by which companies know that a government is a soft touch and this kind of behaviour is accepted – it can be done with impunity in that state. On an international level it’s different for these corporations if international civil society starts kicking in and using legal systems – forum-shopping basically – to try and act. Civil society is literally the only way of trying to control some state-corporate crime. States won’t control it because they’re involved, they are the criminals. Corporations won’t try to control themselves. Civil society seems to be the only viable option where you have international corporations sitting above all countries and weak states that are easy touches for these companies as they want the money.
HRinI: You refer to the case here and the action taken by civil society here. As a lawyer, you could argue that what actually happened wasn’t resistance by civil society acting outside the legal system but they were merely looking for a functional legal system in which to act.
TMM: It’s true but the only reason I say civil society did it was because while the victims did get together it was NGOs that came in and helped organise them and helped get them legal representation. While they didn’t know where they were going to run this case they chose London – they realised it was their best chance with a lawyer in place. We’re dealing with criminal action – so traditionally we would expect the government to take responsibility for dealing with criminals. So that’s why I’d say that civil society dealt with it in this case.
HRinI: So a sort of public interest private prosecution?
TMM: Yes. There’s a bit of a problem as to whether civil or criminal action is the best way to go. Civil is best for the victims because they get compensation. But most cases – as in this case – are settled before they get to court because companies don’t want the sort of disclosure that comes with civil cases. And in settling it would now be dangerous to claim that Trafigura harmed anyone in the Ivory Coast.
HRinI: It would be dangerous even if you have nothing to do with the settlement itself?
TMM: Definitely. And you will see apologies for such stories on news websites. But because we have a settlement now – which is obviously best for the victims – it’s unsatisfactory from a criminology point of view. In the interests of justice for the greater humanity and not just the victims of this incident – civil law has its problems.
HRinI: To move more broadly: you mentioned Twitter as a forum for civil society – how do you see Web 2.0 media helping civil society and the victims civil society seek to help?
TMM: The best thing about the emerging ways of using the internet is how everybody can get involved. First, we can get the information out there. We propose to have NGOs based in areas that are prone to state crime actually recording first-hand – whether through video interviews or stories – and getting the information to a central point that can be accessed by anybody else in the world. The first point is to get the information out there and after that everything else will follow. The next point is that academics, students and researchers can use this first-hand information in their studies of state criminality and all the other disciplines that move around us. It’s also a source for the public to find about things that are going on around the world: direct information from people on the ground about state crimes.
HRinI: And when you say regions that are prone to state crime – you’ve selected certain countries – Ivory Coast is one, where else is the Initiative going to be active?
TMM: Within the next 12 months: Ivory Coast, Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, Turkey and Iraq and the Kurdish peoples on the Turkey-Iraq border. We also have Friends of ISCI who are world-renowned researchers in this field looking at different crimes or taking different perspectives or different geographic regions such at East Timor, Australia and Colombia.
HRinI: When much of what you’re gathering is stories and testimony and presenting it through the website or through photography such as the exhibition at the launch – how can we as the public in countries like Britain and Ireland react – when in this year alone there’s been an earthquake in Haiti, the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico – what can we do?
TMM: I think what we’re trying to do is to shed light on the state crimes that are happening around the world. The reason light isn’t shed on them already is because they’re not couched in these terms – as crime by the state. There are a lot of people suffering in a lot of places because of wrongs. One of the main aims of the website is to shed light on these crimes and do what Green & Ward do in their book – to apply the criminal label to governments. What happens beyond that is outside of our control. The point is to recognise regimes and governments as criminal and worthy of criminological study.
HRinI: Taking the example of the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico: we have too little information at the moment on what caused it. What should we expect of the US government, BP and US civil society from this point forward?
TMM: We will have to look at the matter as a whole – what went before and what comes after. But we can’t know that now as you say. But now what we need is to find out. So the US government need to be very transparent about systems, communication networks, regulatory authorities and any pressure from lobbying groups on behalf of the industry. BP needs to be open about internal communications and procedures and documents that they might have on this issue. It needs to be brought out in the open so that civil society can examine the facts and make a determination.
HRinI: So transparency first and foremost is what is needed?
TMM: Exactly. Let the information out and let people decide – civil society – not corporations and not the government.
HRinI: Finally – if I am a person that works on government accountability or human rights or corporate governance and what you’re saying makes sense to me, what do I do?
TMM: You go to statecrime.org, have a look at the material there and get in contact and get involved.
HRinI: Thank you.