Richard Oppel’s view (Austin American-Statesman, 2.4.96) that charges against Freeport McMoRan for human rights violations in West Papua* “appear to be no longer an issue” seems to be based on an argument which is subject to several objections and a troubling, unstated assumption whose explicit consideration may lead our thoughtful editor to revise his judgment.
The argument is that the issue has faded away because: 1) the Australian Council for Overseas Aid based its charges on reports by “unidentified purported witnesses”, 2) the US Embassy says it has found ‘no credible evidence'”, 3) reports by a Catholic Bishop and the National Human Rights Commission of Indonesia blamed the Indonesian military for human rights violations and 4) Bishop Munninghoff “said Freeport employees did not participate in such abuses.”
The problems with the argument parallel its elements. First, charges of human rights violations in countries dominated by repressive dictatorial regimes are often anonymous because of fear of violent reprisals against those who make the charges and their families. Such reprisals have been documented in West Papua. Without the kinds of protection which no entity capable of providing them h as offered, it would be foolhardy for witnesses to such violations to come for ward and identify themselves. Second, given the US role in the bloody coming to power of the current Indonesian government and the support it has provided over the last 30 years, I’m afraid it is the Embassy’s statements which lack credibility. Third, Catholic and Indonesian Human Rights reports identifying the culpability of the Indonesian military do not let Freeport off the hook –for reasons spelled out below. Fourth, the good Bishop’s carefully worded statement does NOT say that “Freeport employees did not participate in human rights abuses.” He only says that the military DID engage in such abuses. Here a gain, this in no way constitutes an exoneration of Freeport (see below).
The troubling unstated assumption is that Freeport and its subsidiary Freeport Indonesia can be disassociated from the Indonesian military whom everyone (including Freeport) recognizes as having grossly violated the human rights of the West Papuan people, including those living in proximity to Freeport’s mining operation. What is bothersome about this assumption is its failure to recognize the strong and multiple ties between the company and the military . They are by no means two entities operating independently of each other. Their ties can be sketched in a number of points.
First, according to all reports the Indonesian government owns some 10 percent of Freeport Indonesia. The American owners, such as Jim Bob Moffett, and the Indonesian government are thus business partners. In consequence of this partnership, the Indonesian government receives as its share of the profits hundreds of millions of dollars from Freeport. It is hardly surprising, under the circumstances, that it is the governmental partner in this business arrangement which provides the military force necessary to defend their joint investment from elements of the local population who challenge the legitimacy of both Indonesian rule and Freeport’s operations.
Second, the Indonesian government was brought to power by the military in one of the most horrifying bloodbaths of the 20th Century and continues to depend on its armed might and violence to maintain its grip on power. You can either look at the Indonesian military as the mailed fist of the government, or view the government as the civil facade of the military. In either case, Freeport ‘s deep association with the government links it, in turn, so closely to the military that no assumption of “disassociation” can be tenable.
Third, it may be that within some legal framework, say that of the Indonesian government, the one business partner (Freeport) can not be held legally accountable for the criminal actions of the other (the Indonesian military). But such a legalistic argument is hardly persuasive under the circumstances. Not only do many reject the legitimacy of Indonesian law in what they consider to be a colony acquired through highly questionable means, but it is obviously in the interests of the one partner (the Indonesian government) to exonerate the other (Freeport) who has proven to be such a lucrative source of enrichment. We might, of course, look for some other legal framework but that would certainly raise objections from the other side. If we appealed to the traditional laws and customs of the indigenous people of West Papua, both business partners would surely object. If we appealed to the World Court, they would hardly be more enthusiastic. Despite the impossibility of reaching any kind of agreement over legal frameworks, we could choose one and argue its merits. But we can also look elsewhere for a basis of judgment about Freeport’s actions in West Papua.
Fourth, economic history teaches that it has long been common practice for corporations to avoid legal responsibility for acts of violence against those who challenge their power and their profits by hiring others to do the job. American labor history is replete with examples of such manoeuvers. Where they had the local government in their pocket, so to speak, American companies often used the police, sheriff deputies, state militias or national troops to crack down on rebellious workers. But often corporations preferred letting the hired goons of notorious “security services” such as Baldwin-Felts or Pinkerton’s do their dirty work for them. Public or private, either arrangement allowed the company to deny any responsibility for the violence used to break strikes or smash unions. But while they may have been legally absolved of any crime, history has judged them to be very much responsible.
Let us examine one notorious example: a mining company much like Freeport that operated in a remote area, owned the entire community that worked for it, employed its own guards but had recourse to outside force when needed. The company was the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel and Mining Company that operated coal mines near Ludlow, Colorado. In September 1913 miners struck the mines in the whole area. The miners and their families were evicted from company housing but continued to struggle throughout a cold and hungry winter while living in a union constructed tent city on the edge of the coal fields.
The company, acting through the Baldwin-Felts Agency, hired several hundred gunmen most of whom were deputized or mustered into the state militia by complaisant local public officials. The company footed the bill for their wages and arms as they escalated their violence against the striking miners. On the night of April 20, 1914 those hired guns attacked the miners encampment with machine guns and coal oil, burning tents and murdering miners, women and children. Although the US Attorney General subsequently dismissed all indictments against the company’s management and local politicians, history has judged the company Superintendent Lamont M. Bowers and its owner John D. Rockefeller, Jr. ethically and morally guilty of the murders.
This history would seem to provide a better framework of reference for thinking about Freeport’s responsibility for human rights violations in West Papua than any legal argument. Neither Mr. Bowers nor Mr. Rockefeller pulled a trigger in Colorado, no more than Jim Bob Moffett or William Cunningham in West Papua. But just as Rockefeller money paid for the gun thugs that did the killing in Colorado, so has Freeport money financed the Indonesian government and its military which has done the torturing and killing in West Papua. In both cases violence was used and rights were violated to protect the power of the owners of the company being challenged –in one case by its workers, in the other by marginalized indigenous people. Under the circumstances does it really matter whether the violations were committed by the Indonesian soldiers who serve as Freeport’s security guards or by employees on its immediate payroll?
Fifth, it is not at all obvious that the environmental crimes with which Freeport has been charged should be treated as an issue separable from that of human rights. If the corporation has damaged or ruined through massive pollution (tailings runoff) either the health of the indigenous people of the area or their ability to live on their own lands, then one might well judge that their human rights have been violated as surely as if they had been unjustly incarcerated and tortured in one of Freeport’s facilities by the Indonesian military.
Therefore, I conclude, there are many reasons why we should question any disassociation of Freeport and its responsibilities from those of its business partner and protector. The issue of Freeport’s responsibility for the violations of human rights in West Papua is very much alive. It continues to trouble those who are afraid that the reputation of the University of Texas will be permanently damaged by honoring a man and a corporation all too intimately linked to behavior that deserves condemnation rather than praise.
Harry Cleaver Associate Professor of Economics Department of Economics University of Texas at Austin
* When it took over West Papua the Indonesian government renamed the country Irian Jaya (West Papua) and now considers it a province of Indonesia.