Sanctions-lusting US gets free ride - so far
By John Helmer
MOSCOW - If the US government and Congress believe they have the right to impose sanctions on Russian individuals and companies for conduct that is legal in Russian and international law, what would happen if the boot were on the other foot - if the Russian government imposed sanctions on US individuals and corporations for violating Russian law?
The question arises often, very often. Two weeks ago, for instance, a group of US senators told the US Treasury that three banks - VTB, Vnesheconombank and Gazprombank -should be penalized for violating "international sanctions by enabling Syria to pay for imports and receive funds for exports. This assistance eases much of the financial burden on the [Bahsar al-]Assad
regime, allowing it to continue military purchases and pay the soldiers that sustain the war in Syria." For background on Russiaís legal position toward the Syrian conflict, read this.
Two months earlier, in July, the US Senate began voting measures to impose trade sanctions on Russia for granting asylum to Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency (NSA) defector who has been providing evidence of global, as well as domestic, law-breaking by the NSA. (For background on what Snowden has revealed about US invasion of Russian communications, start here.)
The US companies that allow the interception and data-mining have been identified in reports from Snowden or his collaborators as including Facebook, Apple, YouTube, Microsoft and Google. The specialized US software manufacturers whose products may be sold outside the US with clandestine backdoors for US operations include Intel, Cisco, and Symantec.
An industry report last month calculate that if formal or informal sanctions were to be applied, US cloud-computing services face losses on non-US sales of between US$21 billion and $35 billion.
A US producer of encryption software has warned that the US law-breaking is so pervasive he has suspended his companyís operations and is warning "against anyone trusting their private data to a company with physical ties to the United States". Given what is now known about the backdoor penetration methods used by the NSA, there isnít anywhere in the world without physical ties to the US.
On September 9, Google filed suit in the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court - the organ that has allowed the NSA law-breaking until Snowdenís disclosures began - for the right to disclose the extent of the disclosure orders to which it has been subject. Google is trying to defend itself against published charges that far more disclosure has occurred.
Googleís legal ground for its claim is the US Constitutionís First Amendment right against the government "abridging the freedom of speech". Yahoo has tried the same legal tactic.
By penetrating fixed- and mobile-telephone records, and combining these data with emails, bank codes, insurance information, Facebook profiles, passenger manifests, voter registration rolls, GPS location information, as well as property records and tax data, the NSA can assemble vast social network maps for individuals.
The mapping has not been disclosed officially because it appears to be illegal if carried out against US citizens. Everyone else is fair game.
Privacy is a constitutional right in the US - freedom of beliefs, security of the home from unreasonable search, and protection against self-incrimination. Itís also a human right everywhere else, including Russia. So what should be done to the US companies and individuals who regularly violate these rights; do it in secret; and on such a massive scale that these violations of human rights are now among the most numerous and flagrant in the world?
If Russians donít have a privacy right, according to the US, there is also hardly a line of Russian business that isnít being threatened or targeted by US sanctions on grounds of human rights violations, as these are defined in the US.
A fresh threat of sanctions will come up in November for Russiaís diamond mining operations and for Alrosa, the state diamond monopoly. If that sticks, sanctions threats will follow against Russian mining companies like Norilsk Nickel. For the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) action on minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo, read this and this. A US court challenge to the SEC rule by importers and manufacturers of the regulated minerals - tantalum, tin, gold and tungsten - was dismissed and the rule upheld in July.
From November 19 to 22, the 54 member states and industry participants in the Kimberley Process will meet in South Africa. The group supervises the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, a 13-year-old international effort to verify the origins of mined diamonds, and deter or prevent diamonds produced in areas of violent conflict to be traded and thereby serve to fund the continuing violence.
Until now the certification scheme has been focused on diamonds originating in central Africa. Attempts to extend the scheme to Israel, in an Irish-sponsored campaign to support the Palestinians, has failed to gain significant support - next to none in the US.
With little publicity, however, the US delegation to the Kimberley Process has been proposing to expand the concept of "blood diamonds" or "conflict diamonds" to a broad range of what the US calls human rights violations. At the same time, the US idea is to expand the geographical targets for diamond industry sanctions from areas of civil war and other violent conflicts in central Africa to the territories of other diamond producers, excepting Israel but including the Sakha republic, where most of Russiaís diamonds are mined.
The Russian government reaction to this has so far been as low key in opposition as the American has been in promotion. Officially, Alrosa will say nothing directly: "The Kimberley Process is administered by the state, not by the company. So that these issues need to be addressed to the Ministry of Finance of the Russian Federation." The Finance Ministry is also not commenting. Sources in Moscow willing to discuss the issue have requested anonymity.
They say that Russia accepts and favors the current "narrow" definition. This identifies as conflict diamonds those stones mined and traded by named groups using the sale proceeds to finance armed groups in African countries that have been identified in the Kimberley Process deliberations to date.
It is the Russian view that the US wants to have the certification scheme expanded to target a broader definition of conflict diamonds to cover what the US government or congressional legislation terms human rights abuses, and extend this broader definition to all diamond-producing countries, African and non-African.
Russia is categorically opposed to these attempts to broaden the definition because it is suspected that the consequence will be an attack on the Russian trade in diamonds on purported human rights grounds.
Short of attacking Russian diamonds directly, if the American campaign succeeds in broadening the geography of attack in Africa, the effect is likely to be a curtailment of global supply, and that in turn would support a rise in rough diamond prices, and thus benefit Alrosa by adding to its flagging profits.
John Helmer is a Moscow-based journalist. For his website, see here.