Sixty years ago, on Aug. 8, 1945, the United States, the provisional government of the French Republic, the United Kingdom and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics signed the Charter of the International Military Tribunal. This agreement — signed between the dropping of the two atomic bombs on Japan — created the framework for what was to become the Nuremberg trials, the effort to hold German leaders responsible for their barbarous acts over the previous 12 years.
The Charter hoped to achieve more than just bringing to justice a few dozen Nazis. It was hoped the trials would not just deter national leaders and generals who commit crimes against humanity, but would hold individuals who were simply “following orders” accountable for their actions as well. By doing so, a nation’s entire population would have an investment in sticking to a peaceful path.
The history of the last half of the 20th century and the first five years of the 21st century demonstrates how far from that ideal we have strayed. Every signatory nation has since committed crimes for which they could be prosecuted under the Charter, the United States unquestionably holding the lead thanks in no small way to the present administration.
But this failure does not suggest that the concept was wrong. Being civilized is more than just refraining from barbarous acts — it’s speaking out when you are ordered to take part, or they take place in your presence.
Nor should we reserve such concepts for war and its aftermath. In the world of 21st century capitalism, decisions are being made behind boardroom doors that are killing and maiming hundreds of thousands of people in the name of profit.
Simply because the consequences of such acts may take years before they surface and are committed in the pursuit of profit rather than national glory is no reason to say they do not warrant the most severe punishments we can, in good conscience, impose.
Take asbestos, for example. The fact that asbestos is a deadly substance has been known for decades. Hundreds of thousands of workers — and their families — have been poisoned by exposure to the material. Yet this enormous public health crisis has been successfully hidden for decades by asbestos manufacturers and their insurers so as to avoid the cost of the thousands of claims that would be filed as a result of discovery.
At this point someone usually jumps up to say, the people running these companies were just trying to fulfill their responsibilities as corporate officers. They intended no harm.
If such is true, then why are we facing something like SB852, an industry-backed bill that would prevent redress by those who are victims of asbestos?
SB852 is a nasty piece of work. It would largely replace redress through the courts with an inadequate and underfunded federal trust fund that operates at a pace that insures most claimants will not live to see justice.
The bill also caps liability for the asbestos companies and ignores medical consensus on the interplay between asbestosis and lung cancer, but is silent on reducing the amount of asbestos used in this country every year (more than 164,000 tons of asbestos is shipped into Oregon every year).
Groups like Oregon Action are working overtime persuading people to contact federal lawmakers about this unsavory legislation. But it isn’t just the asbestos industry at fault here. Portland Harbor continues to simmer with contaminants while those responsible throw up obstacles. Asthma rates continue to creep upwards — especially around certain neighborhoods and highways — and at least some of those responsible have been identified. Some of those have spent thousands resisting pressure to change their ways and by so doing possibly suffer a loss of profits.
So, is there any value in resisting attacks like SB852 or the corporate practices the bill is meant to protect? As I’ve said before in these pages, transformation comes through struggle. Taking on SB852 provides opportunities to educate and organize people. At the most fundamental level, action means possibly saving one or more lives. If we are to make our movement grow, we have little choice but to fight.
The same applies to corporate culpability. I don't believe we need more Americans locked up, but we could be more judicious in who we jail. although the state cannot be the mechanism for overturning itself, having more guilty CEOs spend more time in lock up can open up cracks in the edifice upon which grassroots activism can work.
P.S. For more information on SB852 contact Oregon Action at 503.282.6588.
The Portland Alliance
2807 SE Stark Portland,OR 97214
Last Updated: September 6, 2005