About Erica Razook

Erica Razook is the associate legal officer on anticorruption with the Open Society Justice Initiative. Based in the New York office, Razook previously spent four years in Amnesty International’s Business and Human Rights program and as Economic Relations Policy Director where she developed corporate accountability strategies and represented Amnesty before national and inter-national bodies, civil society, and the media. Previously, Razook was a consultant with Arthur Andersen, where she conducted compliance reviews of anti money-laundering and anti-terrorism regulation within the financial services industry. She received her Juris Doctor from Brooklyn Law School and her Bachelor of Science in Finance and Information Systems from New York University.
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A Shell Game: Kiobel vs Royal Dutch Petroleum

Kiobel vs Shell

Esther Kiobel stands alongside human rights activists outside of the US Supreme Court on Oct 1, 2012. © Erica Razook

Outside the United States Supreme Court on Monday, a staff member from Earthrights handed Esther Kiobel a page to read. “It’s her story,” he said to a small crowd of dedicated activists holding “#shameonshell” signs. Ms. Kiobel began to read, but soon put the paper down and started talking.

“In an executive meeting, they were trying to get my husband to help get rid of Ken,” she said, speaking of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the environmental activist who led a campaign against Shell’s operations in the Niger Delta, and who was executed by the Abacha government in 1995, together with Esther’s husband Barinem and seven others.

“I was myself charged. I was locked up twice. At night sometimes I go to sleep but then wake up and write what comes out of my head. I was stripped naked. Locked up twice.”

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Why Microsoft, Google and Yahoo! need to be reined in

(Originally posted on Daily Kos)

Reporters without Borders (RWB) today issued its “Enemies of the Internet” report, exposing state censorship of free speech and expression around the world. Topping the group’s list were Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

While the United States is not on the list, RWB and Amnesty International earlier in the week highlighted the role of U.S. companies in internet censorship by calling on Microsoft, Yahoo! and Google to uncensor their search engines and blogging portals, even if just for a day, on the World Day Against Cyber Censorship (today March 12th).

The call on the companies is a reminder that censorship does not just happen by states acting alone. The very companies that provide access to information on-line are actively participating in the restriction of such access.

So, what happens when U.S. companies adopt the censorship practices of other countries rather than export the ideals of free speech that are largely granted to users in their homeland?

There is a clear need for regulation. While the industry has begun attempts at self-regulation, they have made far too little progress in far too much time. Rep. Chris Smith has been vigilant in trying to pass the Global Online Freedom Act, which would bring about transparency in state requests of U.S. firms to censor protected speech, and help the companies to refuse such requests, with the backing of the U.S. government.

To date, the companies have opposed the bill’s chances of becoming law.

If RWB and Amnesty’s call for one day of freedom from online censorship goes unheeded by the companies, it in itself will speak volumes — how can we expect them to make meaningful strides in their ongoing operations if they can’t even commit to a one-day, mostly a symbolic gesture?

If the U.S. doesn’t want to find itself on the “enemies” list one day, it needs to step in and regulate companies based in its soil that are essentially partners in the crackdown on free expression occurring across the world.

Internet Co's: How about one day without censorship?

Reporters Without Borders (RWB) and Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) yesterday called on U.S. Internet companies Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! to give the world a day of censorship-free Internet search and blogging, in recognition of World Day Against Cyber Censorship, March 12.

In other words, we’re seeing if Internet companies are willing to give the world a free trial of freedom of expression. 

Like free trials of software downloads, the hope is that if these Internet mammoths can find it within themselves to stand up to censorship requests for just one day, they, we, the world, might like it enough to buy into the full version.

RWB and AI participated for months in an initiative, now known as the Global Network Initiative (GNI), with the companies to try to develop voluntary standards for the Internet and telecommunications industry on the rights to freedom of expression and privacy. 

Both groups, to date, have refused to endorse the GNI, pointing to loopholes that could allow for continued abuses of privacy and free expression rights, such as what occurred with Chinese journalist Shi Tao. (Yahoo! handed over account information to Chinese authorities who used it to sentence Shi to a 10 year prison term for sending an email to a U.S.-based pro-democracy website.) 

If any of the companies take up the RWB-AIUSA challenge, much could be discovered about the true nature of the online censorship beast. The power of the symbolism, let alone bringing transparency to the problem could be just enough to change the lives of millions. It would be a sad state if none of the three can find a way to respect freedom of expression for one day.

Much Ado About Blackwater Part II: Xe (the next generation?)

Just as it seemed everyone knew about Blackwater and its laundry list of scandals, the company pulled an all-too-common move of ducking a public-relations battering and organization-level accountability by changing it’s name. Poof. No more “Blackwater”, no more problem. Now, there’s just Xe (the company’s new name) and the “U.S. Training Center”.

I, for one, think we should instead refer to the firm as the “company formerly known as Blackwater”, at least until there’s evidence of real changes in its way of operating. And, by real changes, I don’t just mean that Erik Prince isn’t CEO anymore. Will the company formerly known as Blackwater, for example, adopt a human rights policy? Will it introduce stricter (any) guidelines on training and vetting of employees/contractors? Will it do anything to give the world any kind of assurance that it can be trusted  — particularly to train African military troops and/or in peacekeeping missions — areas of work it has been seeking agressively, perhaps in an attempt to stay more behind the scenes than their U.S. Diplomatic Security contract allowed.

Mr. Prince, the former CEO of the company fomerly known as Blackwater, told the Wall Street Journal that he was “a little worn out by the whole thing, the politics of it all”. Frankly, I’m a little worn out of companies getting away with murder and then doing a quick costume change and thinking that solves the problem.

Prince also told the Journal that the company’s new name, Xe, is an abbreviation for Xenon, ”an inert, non-combustible gas.” But nations and private sector clients already know that the company formerly known as Blackwater is not inert — it’s moving quickly to soak up new contracts, and if history repeats itself and the company does not make real changes to its modus operandi, it will prove combustible once again.

Condi's former professor argues she should be tried as war criminal tonight

Tonight just after 10 pm EST, Condoleeza Rice’s former history professor will argue in a debate with Colorado State Senator Shawn Mitchell that the former Secretary of State should be tried as a war criminal.

The webcast debate will follow a showing of the documentary film Courting Condi, which follows Ms. Rice’s path from a childhood in segregated Birmingham, Alabama to her former post as U.S. Secretary of State.

The film depicts Rice’s defense of Guantanamo and the invasion of Iraq, and her apparent approval of the use of torture of detainees, but also revisits a host of other debacles including her role on the board of Chevron during the company’s extraction of oil in Nigeria amidst extreme violence and shareholder action for the company to engage with the Nigerian government, helping to bring down affirmative action at Stanford, and turning the other cheek in the face of hundreds of thousands of victims of Katrina in the Gulf Coast.

Importantly, the film tackles the issue of impunity of private security contractors (Blackwater) who shot and killed civilians in Baghdad in 2007. While an update to my interview in the film on this topic should note that now there has been an indictment brought against the guards, and at least arguably, contractors in Iraq no longer enjoy the immunity from Iraqi prosecution they did at the time of filming, the need for oversight and adequate regulation, also highlighted by Rep. David Price, still persists.

You can watch a q-and-a with the film’s producer at 10:15 pm EST, and the debate at 10:30 EST, here:

Human rights advocate faces trial in China on eve of UN review

The New York Times reported yesterday that human rights activist Huang Qi was charged with illegal possession of state secrets. Huang was detained by plainclothes police last June after assisting the families of five primary school students who died in the earthquake in Sichuan, China last May. (The families believe local authorities are responsible for the poor construction of public buildings that collapsed and Huang was going to help them to bring a lawsuit.)

Huang Qi is considered the first webmaster in China to be sent to prison. In 1998, he set up the website www.64tianwang.com to help family members locate missing relatives who disappeared after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest. The website later included content about the plights of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang and the Falun Gong spiritual movement. Huang was detained, charged with “incitement of subversion”, tried in secret in August 2001 and imprisoned until June 2005. According to the court verdict, the prosecution’s evidence included reference to Huang’s posting of the Amnesty International report, The People’s Republic of China: Tiananmen – Eleven Years on (May 2000).

Huang Qi was not deterred by his time in prison – he returned to human rights advocacy after his release in 2005. But, this time around, his freedom was taken away before he could bring justice to the families who lost their children in the earthquake.

Internet censorship has become an all-too-common tool for government authorities to stop dissent and punish dissenters. China is about to face its first Universal Periodic Review by the United Nations Human Rights Council next Monday. The Council should be diligent in clearly documenting cases of suppression of dissent, like that of Huang Qi, in assessing China’s record on freedom of expression.

Much Ado about Blackwater: Part I – What were they (we) doing in Iraq anyway?

In a series of blog posts, I will humbly try to contribute clarity to the plethora of news coverage recently devoted to Blackwater Worldwide, a company which, among other things, provides military and security services to the US government in Iraq. Together, we will sift through the criminal prosecution of the Blackwater contractors involved in the Nisour Square killings of 2007, the Iraqi license denial, the contract with the State Department, the US-Iraq Security Agreement and what this all means for corporate accountability on the battlefield.

Today, let’s start with the yesterday’s coverage of the letter signed by Defense Department Deputy Secretary Gordon England, stating that companies, including Blackwater, working on State Department Diplomatic Security contracts were not engaged in “employment in support of the DOD mission”.

Though it seems Mr. England is quite clear on this point, others are not, and have been debating it literally for years. (It’s an important point because it’s the part of the law that gives the DOJ jurisdiction over the contractors.)

What happens next in court might explain why there has been such a delay in getting to this brink of accountability in the first place – someone has to finally figure out what “the mission” in Iraq is. Maybe there were/are many missions. Once the court gets that sorted out, I suppose the next step will be to interpret the now famous (infamous?) Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act to decipher what is meant by “supporting a DOD mission,” and finally to decide whether Blackwater was doing that.

These decisions could have sweeping implications not only for the state of US law and foreign policy, but also in interpreting the recently enacted US-Iraq Security Agreement, and possibly setting the State and Defense Departments on a trajectory of cooperative regulation of companies they contract – something, despite all the hoopla over Blackwater these days, that has yet to happen.

Historic presidential race, but slavery persists in US

Surrounding the election of the first black President of the United States, much was made of the country overcoming its legacy of slavery, leading a reasonable person to conclude that slavery is actually history in the U.S.

But, from the agricultural fields of Florida flows a steady stream of reports of migrant workers being subjected to modern-day slavery – forced labor, beatings and withholding of pay included. (According to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), in the last 10 years, 7 federal trials on farm labor slavery were prosecuted in Florida, involving 1,000 workers.) 

CIW, with the help of The Alliance for Fair Food, the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative and other allies in the human rights movement, has been battling not only the State of Florida to take a more pro-active role in labor rights protections, but also has been taking on some of the biggest fast food chains in the world, including Subway, McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Burger King, which buy the tomatoes and other products they harvest, for better wages and working conditions.

CIW signed agreements with some of the companies on wage and conditions issues, but a statement from a Florida Department of Agriculture spokesperson in December again set off alarms that the state was underplaying the significance of the ongoing abuses in the field.

The Coalition is now asking Florida Governor Charlie Crist to step up his involvement, and have a letter-writing action on their site.

Dear Gov. Crist, didn’t you get the election night memo? Slavery is out.

There's nothing backwards about accountability.

What’s all this talk about not wanting to look backward?

Inquiries from the ACLU to the U.S. Senate produce more and more evidence that the U.S. government not only violated the human rights of freedom from torture and indefinite detention, but that such violations came from directives from the highest levels of the administration. Yet the sentiment from some of our representatives in Washington seems to find criminal accountability politically inconvenient.

If a person shot and killed another in the streets of Anytown, USA, would we say, oh, just let ‘em go, we wouldn’t want to look backward? Not in a million years. But somehow when criminals occupy fancy offices wearing fresh-pressed suits, we start to believe that bringing them to justice isn’t quite appropriate.

Smells like American exceptionalism. When leaders of “repressive regimes” do bad things, we not only call for their prosecution, we invade their country, put them to death and kill a couple thousand civilians while we’re at it.

At least the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture hasn’t lost sight of the big picture. Last week he reminded the world of our obligation to prosecute Bush, Rumsfeld and all those responsible for torture.

It’s very nice that outgoing Bush gave incoming Obama a tour of the White House and that they shook hands. The niceties should stop there. Any other form of protection of human rights violators only disgraces us. Some, like Reps. Conyers (MI) and Price (NC), have been real leaders on these issues – their colleagues in the House, White House and Senate need to follow suit.

See: AI Dec 2008 paper, “USA: Investigation, prosecution, remedy

Exec Orders – Did you see the part about contractors?

One positive piece of President Obama’s much heralded executive orders that seems to be overlooked in all the excitement is the unambiguous statement that contractor abuses fall within the scope of inquiry and review and that that work will be done by government employees, not contractors.

Companies hired by Defense, State and other agencies of the US government have been involved in almost every stage of the ‘war on terror’, from escorting convoys to building and maintaining facilities to interrogating detainees and providing security to US officials, and all too often with no accountability when implicated in a range of human rights abuses. As Senator Feingold brought to light, contractors were also hired to oversee other contractors at the State Department.

In his executive orders, President Obama (a champion of regulation of security contractors while in the Senate) made clear that only full-time or permanent employees or officers of the United States would be able to:
- Serve on the special task force to identify lawful options for the disposition of detainees
- Review status of individual detainee cases
- Serve on the special task force on interrogation and transfer policies

At the same time, the orders are comprehensive in covering facilities run by, or acts committed by, “agents” of the United States, ie, contractors, to be reviewed.

In a way, the President has proffered crucial first steps on a number of issues. We wanted Guantanamo closed, he’s set a timeline; we’re calling for investigation and accountability, he gave us a nod to transparency in the face of executive privilege; we documented abuses not only by US government officials, but also by the corporate sector, he’s got them covered and ruled them out of oversight functions.

Now it’s time to keep pushing to ensure that doors that are cracked open don’t swing back and slam shut the hope for an end to torture, indefinite detention and attacks against civilians.