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Presiding over a murderous kleptocracy: Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, dictator of Equatorial Guinea (Amanda Lucidon/US Govt)


Some years ago a British friend of mine commanded the UN forces in Kosovo. I asked him what his mission was. “To instil respect for the rule of law!” he barked. And how far did he get with that in his year there? “At least one quarter of one per cent,” he returned with a grin. “Merely another four centuries to go.”

A similar air of unreality pervades Leif Wenar’s Blood Oil, a good-hearted programme for weaning the West off reliance on oil and other resources sold by dictators, tyrants and hereditary monarchs, in the process turning these benighted nations into models of democracy and fair wealth distribution. However, unlike my friend the soldier’s appreciation of Balkan brigandage, Professor Wenar appears not to recognise the realkommerz of global resource trade.

Wenar is Professor of Philosophy and Law at King’s College London. He argues that the norms of international trade rely on an imperfectly upgraded version of the Westphalian rules which ended the Thirty Years War in 1648. These rules recognised absolute national sovereignty and the legal doctrine of effectiveness: that within a country’s borders, might makes right. This means that the default position in international trade recognises the right of whoever rules in any particular country to sell that country’s resources on the international market and spend the proceeds as they wish.

This leads to the uncomfortable realisation that the oil in your tank may come from Equatorial Guinea, further enriching its president, the murderous kleptocrat Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. Or that your smartphone only works because of the tantalum capacitors derived from coltan ore mined by oppressed villagers in the anarchic Democratic Republic of Congo. Wenar often returns in the course of his dialectic to these two particularly appalling examples. Equatorial Guinea actually accounted for only 0.3 per cent of global crude oil production in 2015, though of course that doesn’t excuse the president. The DRC, on the other hand, produced nearly a fifth of the world’s newly-mined coltan in 2013. Here are two particularly horrible examples of the Resource Curse, where strategic resources from undeveloped countries enrich only corrupt elites who then spend their money on luxuries and properties in the West, where they know they will be safe.

Wenar extends his condemnation to many more “resource-cursed” countries, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, some of whose citizens fund global jihad via IS and al-Qaeda. But while these countries are ruled by hereditary despots, they do spend much of their wealth on their own populations, including (absurdly) subsidising petrol prices. And while the fact may disturb decent Western liberals, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are genuine strategic allies of the West.

In international trade, the law of effectiveness means that once a commodity has been sold, even by a really beastly government, it belongs entirely to the purchaser and is legally the same as a commodity which has been ethically sourced. The only exceptions are where, usually for strategic reasons, the US and/or the UN applies sanctions to particular producers: Iran for instance, or Sudan.

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