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The Pitfalls of Privatising War
Published on Tuesday, April 12, 2005 by Online Opinion
The Pitfalls of Privatising War
by Madeleine Byrne

Licking combs, practicing their lines, the opening salvo of Michael Moore's anti-war film Fahrenheit 9/11 lines them up like witnesses for the prosecution: Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and George W. Bush. If there were a corporate version of this axis of evil for many Iraq-war sceptics, it would be the energy firm once run by US Vice-President Dick Cheney: Halliburton.

A recent report claiming that the Halliburton unit Kellogg Brown Root (KBR) failed to disclose records of its fuel transportation in Iraq will reinforce these views. The October audit report, never released to Congress or the public, found more than US$108 million ($137 million) in questionable delivery costs. In one instance, KBR charged US$27.5 million ($34.8 million) to ship just over $100,000 worth of liquefied petroleum gas, according to The Wall Street Journal.

KBR is the US military's biggest contractor in Iraq and this is the latest in a series of corruption allegations that have hounded the Bush administration's post-war reconstruction (an impression reinforced by its decision that only member states from the coalition of the willing would gain from the spoils).

But the real issue is not so much profiteering - an impulse that has been around since Homer - but the way the private sector evades scrutiny.

The creeping privatisation of war has created a situation where some are more equal than others. See here the fall-out from the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. When photos of cowering Iraqi prisoners appeared on Australian TV screens and newspapers, the public response was one of almost universal outrage.

Two contractors - CACI International and Titan Corporation - were singled out for their role in the abuse in Major General Taguba's report. Three employees were accused of abusive behaviour, including the alleged rape of a young Iraqi detainee. Moreover, it was claimed that civilian contractors interrogated detainees, despite one third of CACI's staff never receiving any training in the area.

What then to make of an Observer report from January that both companies have been rewarded with multi-million contracts to continue their work in Iraq?

Something is obviously wrong here.  Either the allegations were “baseless” and the result of “a malicious recitation of false statements and intentional distortions” as the companies claim; or, despite extensive media coverage and public outrage, both got off scot-free.

While ordinary US soldiers, such as Specialist Charles Graner were jailed, no set rules covered the contractors. Indeed, one of the civilians was released after the US military found that it had no jurisdiction over him.

When the Indian novelist and activist, Arundhati Roy received the Sydney Peace Prize last year, she urged anti-war campaigners to name and shame companies profiting from the invasion of Iraq. But this is not enough. More important is the establishment of appropriate legal controls that can, if needed, hold contractors to account.

As Australians we understand this situation perhaps better than others. The Commonwealth's privatisation of immigration detention facilities both on the mainland and offshore has been marred by ongoing crises.

And yet international governments are increasingly looking towards Australia as a model. The UK and other EU states, such as Germany and Italy, have mooted the possibility of setting up “transit camps” where asylum seekers might be detained in third countries. British politicians have called Australia's "Pacific Solution" the model solution.

Rather than shaming private corporations for their profit motive, we should ensure that there are legal safeguards and scrutiny to ensure that abuses such as those at Abu Ghraib do not occur in the first place.

In the rush to condemn companies for their involvement in war spoils, more attention needs to be directed towards what is happening locally. This is important following a  recent report that claimed funding cuts to the National Audit Office could threaten its ability to do its job.

"It would be somewhat ironic that, at the same time as we are being asked to do more work, for example, in relation to defence, we would have to cut a longstanding audit program that has been continually endorsed," said the letter from the Auditor quoted in The Australian.

Too much of the anti-war critique is driven by personality politics, where the US administration's bogeymen become the target of ridicule; or tired criticism of the economics of war. More important, in this era of late-night flights of unnamed suspects to unknown locations, is scrutiny of contractors and companies outside the rule of law.

Madeleine Byrne is a fellow at OzProspect - a non-partisan public policy think tank - and former SBS and ABC journalist.

© 2005 The National Forum


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