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Iraq: Whose Human Rights Is The Occupation Defending?

by David BaconUS Labor Against The War
April 15th, 2004

The disaster that is the occupation of Iraq is much more than the war that plays nightly across U.S. television screens. The violence of grinding poverty, exacerbated by economic sanctions after the first Gulf War, has been deepened by the US invasion. Every day the economic policies of the occupying authorities create more hunger among Iraq's working people, transforming them into a pool of low-wage, semi-employed labor, desperate for jobs at almost any price.

While the effects of U.S. policy on daily life go largely unseen in the U.S. media, anyone walking the streets of Baghdad cannot miss them. Children sleep on the sidewalks. Buildings that once housed many of the city's four million residents, or the infrastructure that makes life in a modern city possible, remain burned-out ruins a year after the occupation started. Rubble fills the broad boulevards that were once the pride of a wealthy country, while the air turns gritty and brown as thousands of vehicles kick up the resulting dust. Sewage still pours into the Tigris River, and those who must depend on it for drinking or cooking continue to get sick.

The violence of poverty is not held to be a violation of human rights in the United States - just one manifestation of the great division in the world between the wealthy, industrialized north, and the developing south. The US does not recognize that human rights include economic and social rights, in part because they are collective rights of groups, social classes, or even nations.

Therefore, the accusations made by the US against the regime of Saddam Hussein focus on his violation of the human rights of individuals - the assassination of the regime's enemies, and the prohibition on political activity by individuals who dissented from its policies. Most popular organizations in Iraq, whether on the left or the right, religious or secular, make the same accusations. But they don't confine the discussion of human rights within those limits. For them, the occupation and the social conditions it imposes are human rights abuses as well.

For the Bush administration and the Coalition Provisional Authority, limiting the discussion of human rights to those of individuals persecuted by the former regime provides a convenient distinction. It allows them to enforce in Iraq an economic model of their own choosing, with drastic effects on the lives of millions of people, and yet refuse to discuss these consequences as potential violations of their human rights. As a result of the occupation, U.S. contractors get rich from the billions of taxpayer dollars supposedly appropriated for Iraq's reconstruction. At the same time, the country's national wealth -- factories, refineries, mines, docks, and other industrial facilities -- are being readied for sale to foreign companies by the occupation bureaucracy, who treat democracy and the unrestrained free market as the same thing.

Iraqis have lost control of their own economy and country. This is far more than a symbolic loss. Yet symbols are an important element in the way in which any people react to this basic economic reality, and nothing could have been more symbolic than the way in which the occupation authorities have treated the legacy of Iraq's nationalist, progressive and anti-colonial past.

Since 1958, July 14 has been Iraq's national day. Last year, under the occupation, it was declared a "Saddam-era holiday," and its celebration banned. Instead, occupation authorities declared, the people of Iraq should celebrate the day of the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, which is also the day the occupation began. While most Iraqis were glad to see Saddam go, prohibiting the celebration of national day is not just an insult, but a sign of the occupation's true intentions.

For progressive Iraqis, June 14 recalls their anti-colonial history. 1958 was the year nationalists and radicals threw out the monarchy imposed by the British after World War One. Over the next five years of relative freedom and democracy, Iraq began building a nationalized, planned economy, based on its oil wealth. Hundreds of factories were eventually built, making it the most industrialized country in the Middle East. The Iraqi government organized a national healthcare system, and treated education as a right. Women were represented in professions in percentages larger than any other Middle Eastern country. Even after that government was overthrown in 1963 (a coup in which the Central Intelligence Agency played an important role), those reforms were so popular that they were continued under the Baathist regime that took over.

A new deepwater port was constructed on the Persian Gulf, Umm Qasr, which became a lynchpin in that plan. From its piers Iraq began to ship the goods from those factories to buyers in other countries throughout the region. The port became a symbol of progress and independence.

Today Umm Qasr has become war booty. It was the first Iraqi enterprise to be turned over, not just to a private owner, but to a foreign one. Even before US troops reached Baghdad, in Washington DC the Bush administration gave the concession for operating the port to Stevedoring Services of America, a politically-connected firm handling cargo around the world. Privatizing Umm Qasr began the transformation of the Iraqi economy -- from one based on nationalization and production for an internal, domestic market, to one based on ownership by transnational corporations, sending their profits out of the country. To Iraqis, instead of a symbol of national pride, Umm Qasr now represents a new era of foreign domination.

Following the revolution of 1958, a thousand longshore workers labored on Umm Qasr's docks. Even in the heady days of Arab nationalism, however, they still had no guarantees for

their rights and jobs. At first, subcontracting companies were allowed to hire dockers in a daily shapeup. Finally, workers rebelled. After winning recognition for their union, they demanded and won a hiring system under their control, and a daily guaranteed wage, whether or not there was a boat at the dock to load or unload.

Today, those achievements seem like a distant dream. Umm Qasr is an object lesson in the privatization of Iraq. Its fate will have a profound effect on the degree to which any future Iraqi government will be able to control the country's economy. By the same token, the jobs, the standard of living, and the labor rights of the port's dockworkers are a bellwether for the fate of hundreds of thousands of other workers in formerly state-owned enterprises throughout Iraq's economy.

The free trade ideologues of the Bush administration see the occupation of Iraq as a beachhead into the Middle East and south Asia. Their first objective is the transformation of the state-dominated economy of what was once one of the region's wealthiest countries. A free-market Iraq will then set new ground rules for the rest of the area, much as the North American Free Trade Agreement first helped to transform Mexico's economy, and then became a prototype for the Free Trade Area of the Americas.

On September 19, the CPA published Order No. 39, which permits 100% foreign ownership of businesses, except for the oil industry, and allows repatriation of profits. Order No. 37, issued the same day, suspended income and property taxes for the year, and imposes a 15% flat tax on individuals and corporations from 2004 onward. Rightwing ideologues haven't been able to get the US Congress to pass a flat tax proposal despite years of trying, but Iraq has become their playground.

Iraqi workers look at the prospect of privatization with dread. Dathar Al-Kashab, manager of Baghdad's Al Daura oil refinery, predicted that privatization would have an enormous effect. "A worker starting here today has a job for life, under the old system," he explains, "and there's no law which permits me to lay him off. But if I put on the hat of privatization, I'll have to fire 1500 [of the refinery's 3000] workers. In America when a company lays people off, there's unemployment insurance, and they won't die from hunger. If I dismiss employees now, I'm killing them and their families."

Unemployment in Iraq hovers around 70%, according to the country's new unions. There is no unemployment benefit or welfare system. There is a Union of the Unemployed, which has held marches and demonstrations demanding jobs and benefits. It's leader, Qasim Hadi, has been repeatedly arrested by the occupation troops. Meanwhile, the CPA set a new salary schedule for Iraqi workers in September - Order 30 on Reform of Salaries and Employment Conditions of State Employees. This lowered the bottom wage rate from $60 a month to $40, and eliminated all previous house, food, family, risk and location subsidies.

In 1987, Saddam Hussein issued a law declaring that workers in state-owned enterprises (which includes most Iraqi workers) had no right to organize unions or bargain. On the Umm Qasr docks and in factories and refineries throughout the country, unions were effectively banned. Today the US occupation authority is still enforcing that 1987 law. This is another gift to prospective new private owners of Iraqi enterprises. If workers there have no legal union, no right to bargain, and no contracts, then privatization and the huge job losses coming with it will face much less organized resistance.

On June 5 CPA head Paul Bremer put another weapon into the anti-union arsenal -- Public Notice Number One, prohibiting "pronouncements and material that incite civil disorder, rioting or damage to property." The phrase can easily be interpreted to mean strikes or other organized labor protest. Anyone who violates the decree "will be subject to immediate detention by Coalition security forces and held as a security internee under the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949" (in other words, as a prisoner of war.)

On December 6, US occupation forces then arrested eight members of the executive committee of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, and took them into detention. Although they were released the following day, the organization was expelled from the building where they had their offices.

Jassim Mashkoul, director for internal communications for the IFTU, says that "at the beginning, we thought our situation might be better after we got rid of Saddam Hussein. But it hasn't been." Many factory workers are less diplomatic. One worker at the state leather goods factory in Baghdad explained that "we must change this law that says we don't have to right to a union. If the law doesn't change, we'll change it anyway, like it or not. We are the people."

"Life has gotten much worse," said another, pointing emphatically into the air. "Everything is controlled by the coalition. We don't control anything."

Most of these specific CPA decrees are unarguably violations of international human rights standards. Conventions 87 and 98 of the International Labor Organization, guaranteeing freedom of association, makes the continued enforcement of the 1987 ban on unions illegal. Convention 135, preventing retaliation against workers for union activity, makes the arrests of union leaders, and their expulsion from their offices, illegal as well. The CPA refuses to comment on these violations. Yet in an especially Orwellian moment, George Bush declared in his January State of the Union speech that US intervention in Iraq would promote the formation of free trade unions in the Middle East.

Denying union rights are not the only way in which the economic rights of Iraqi people have come into question. Protecting free universal health care and education, even if they were guaranteed only on paper for the last 20 years, is a critical human rights question to most workers. By pulling apart this system, and insisting on a free-market system in its place, the occupation is demonstrating clearly that these collective rights, held by Iraqis as a people, are not human rights as they define them.

But beyond the question of social benefits looms the even larger one of the nature of the Iraqi economy itself - who controls it, and who will benefit from it. When the port of Um Qasr was turned over to Stevedoring Services of America, it did not seem like a human rights question in the US. Contracting out public services for the enrichment of private businesses, while bitterly opposed by US public workers and those dependent on them, has only recently been defined in human rights terms.

In Iraq, where Um Qasr was the nation's pride and a source of its wealth for decades, its conversion into a business for the benefit of a Seattle firm and its stockholders was a fundamental human rights violation. By extension, so was the occupation itself, which enforced privatization at gunpoint.

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