More than 70 students and faculty members gathered Monday night in Weiser Hall to hear Leif Wenar’s lecture titled “Blood Oil: Tyrants, Violence, and the Rules that Run the World.” The lecture, based on Wenar’s book, explored the history of conflict in nations that carry rich oil deposits and the “blood oil curse” — an idea that mandates if a country is present at the time of oil discovery and mining, it will be involved in political and economic decisions involving the resource.
Wenar is the chair of Philosophy and Law at King’s College London School of Law, in addition to working as a visiting professor at Stanford University, Princeton University and the Australian National University.
Wenar began his lecture by outlining the current state of global affairs, tracing both national security threats and human rights abuses from war to failed states with rich oil deposits. He explained the paradox that arises when considering these states hold abundant natural resources while also suffering from issues of widespread poverty, hunger, lack of human rights, armed conflict and refugees.
“Our governments have engaged in unjust actions for the sake of oil, all over the world, for many years, especially in the Middle East,” Wenar said. “The oil curse is behind the news we see all the time.”
Wenar described a law by which the United States and other countries buy oil: the law of effectiveness. The law stipulates that whoever controls the oil by force has the right to sell the product, leading to authoritarian regimes and armed groups taking advantage of these regions and profiting from production.
“Our money goes back to these militias,” Wenar said. “We are in legal business relationships with these coercive and corrupt actors overseas, and for many years they’ve been causing a lot of trouble with our money. This archaic law insights oppression and violence. Oil is absolute power, and we know what happens when people get absolute power”
Citing some of the most significant foreign policy threats and crises in last 40 years, Wenar concluded oil interests have always been at the root of these issues, and U.S policy strategies, such as military actions and sanctions, have been insufficient in preserving peace. He affirmed the problem will only get worse without reform, especially for nations close to the equator that will be the first victims of the earth’s slow increase in temperature from climate change.
Wenar said positive change is plausible if the U.S abolishes the law of effectiveness and instead institutes public accountability of resources and U.S divestment from companies that buy oil from organizations that abuse human rights.
One initiative, developed by Wenar himself, is called Clean Trade — a charity that advocates with governments, investors, firms and NGOs to implement standards for the purchasing of crude oil.
Wenar explained how the law of effectiveness has justified various atrocities in the past, such as slavery and apartheid, but he said these issues were eventually outlawed through advocacy. Though oil profits have not been accounted for by citizens of these countries, Wenar concluded with an optimistic note, claiming it is possible to create positive change.
“Insofar as humanity has heroes, it’s men like Ghandi and Mandela, who fought and won the battle for a country that belongs to its citizens,” Wenar said.
LSA junior Charles Zinn expressed his excitement for the topic, as well as the ways he learned he could advocate for global change on an individual level.
“I came to this lecture to learn more about how authoritarian regimes benefit off of oil and how liberal democracies could work to combat this issue,” Zinn said. “I was satisfied with the speaker and his assessment of the issue, as well as the potential solutions and how we can help.”
This lecture, the first event of the Donia Human Rights Center Distinguished Lecture series, was co-sponsored by the African Studies Center, the Department of Philosophy and other University departments. Kiyoteru Tsutsui, director of the Donia Human Rights Center Director, explained how this series highlights both University professors and guest speakers.
“Last year we had Carol Anderson come in, talking about her book ‘White Rage,’” Tsutsui said. ”So those distinguished lectures are held a few times a year, we also have more younger, up and coming scholars and practitioners, all while hosting conferences and panels.”