Argument

White Whale

Why the black helicopter crowd goes crazy over the Law of the Sea Treaty.

The military wants it. Business wants it. But to get it, they have to get past conservatives who simply don't trust the United Nations -- or, more specifically, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The treaty has spooked them ever since 1982, when it opened for signature, even though it has been widely supported by their more moderate Republican brethren. Whatever specific qualms its opponents raise, the treaty's real problem is that in the last 30 years, compulsive U.N. skepticism has moved from the fringes of the GOP into its mainstream.

The right's fear that the United States might somehow give up its sovereignty to the one-worlders at Turtle Bay has driven the treaty's supporters to distraction. At a Senate hearing held Wednesday to explore the possibility of American ratification, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has largely shed her negative 90s-era image, slipped into the lingo of the Janet Reno/Ruby Ridge era. "[I've] heard we should not join this convention because, quote, 'It's a U.N. treaty,'" said Clinton, "and of course that means the black helicopters are on their way." Opposition to the treaty, she said, is "unfortunate because it's opposition based in ideology and mythology, not in facts."

Republicans were unconvinced. "Most wars we've fought have been fought over ideology and philosophy," said Idaho's Sen. Jim Risch, who's been winning elections in his state since 1970. "If we give up one scintilla of sovereignty that this country has fought, has bled for, and have given up our treasure and the best that America has, I can't vote for it."

The Law of the Sea Treaty, as the convention is commonly known, was written to standardize maritime law (which is why the Navy supports it) and create some authority for the use of resources found in or at the bottom of international waters (which is why the Chamber of Commerce supports it). And even though it was negotiated at the United Nations, the U.N. doesn't actually have any control over the treaty's implementation -- there's a distinct organization to handle that.

But the treaty spooked conservatives straightaway. Before it was even finalized, President Reagan worried that "the deep seabed mining part of the convention does not meet United States objectives." Ultimately, he refused to sign the treaty for that very reason, but even that rejection wasn't enough for the right wing of his party -- probably because Reagan said he would nevertheless abide by the rest of the treaty's terms, which he found sensible. In 1983, around six months after the treaty was completed, Sen. Jesse Helms put a hold on Reagan's nominee for ambassador to El Salvador. Thomas Pickering, said Helms, had raised disturbing questions just by participating in the Law of the Sea Conference.

From there, the treaty got stuck in U.N.-skeptic limbo. George H.W. Bush began renegotiating its mining provisions so the U.S. could sign on, a process that Bill Clinton's foreign-policy team continued. "There are still parts that need to be resolved," said incoming U.N. ambassador Madeline Albright at her 1993 Senate confirmation hearing, "but I think we should pursue it." One year later -- after fixing the provisions that had irritated Reagan (with a little advice from the business community) -- Albright signed it. In 1996, even Helms had started to soften, admitting at one hearing that "ratification of this treaty does not in any way place the United States in any way under the jurisdiction of the Law of the Sea Treaty."

But it was impossible to get the Senate to approve it. The mining issue had been replaced by a fear of communist nukes. In 1998, when the president made a real push, the boldest "hell no" case came from a Reagan DOD vet named Frank Gaffney. The Chinese, he warned the Senate, had the capability to "discover undersea bastions in which to conceal and operate their ballistic missile submarines." Ratify the Law of the Sea and you'd give them "legal cover for further transfers of this sort of equipment." Whatever that meant.

The George W. Bush administration came in fully intending to ratify the treaty. But a new era -- we could call it the "Gaffney/Inhofe era" -- had begun. Gaffney materialized whenever treaty opponents needed intellectual ballast. His Center for Security Policy was an armory for pro-sovereignty, pro-defense buildup arguments. Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe got to the Senate in 2002, the year Helms retired. The torch was passed. In 2004, when the Foreign Relations Committee took up the treaty, Inhofe pushed against it, questioning the "implications of this convention on our national security."

He rang the alarm about article 207 of the treaty, which says that "states shall adopt laws and regulations for pollution from land-based sources." That sounded a lot like the U.N. making environmental law for Americans. And Inhofe wouldn't stand for it. He pounded that theme relentlessly as Gaffney lined up more support from the conservative movement's grassroots. The treaty passed out of committee, but thanks to conservative efforts it never came up for a full Senate vote. A year later, with the Senate GOP's numbers swelled to 55, Gaffney was writing that the treaty was favored by "actual or potential adversaries," and would "prevent us from performing vital intelligence-collection activities."

In Gaffney's corner: Everything from Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum to Jeane Kirkpatrick to the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute to the columns of Pat Buchanan. ("Should the U.N. be lord of the oceans?") In Inhofe's corner: A new team of conservatives like Jim DeMint, who only needed to hear the letters "U" and "N" to know what they were against. So, in 2007, when the committee took up the treaty again -- and passed it again -- the full Senate still refused to act. And by 2009, when a self-proclaimed "citizen of the world" became president, it hardly mattered that he had 59 Democrats in the Senate. If Obama was for the treaty, conservatives had to be against it. By Obama's first summer, Republicans had put together a brand-new "House Sovereignty Caucus." Gaffney spoke at its first meeting.

This week, when Clinton testified, she was looking right at the conservatives' latest victim. Sen. Richard Lugar, ranking member of the committee, had just been demolished -- a 20-point loss -- in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate. Next year, instead of sending a gravelly supporter of the treaty to Washington, Indiana will probably send the reliably right-wing Richard Mourdock.

Greg Fettig, an Indiana conservative activist, helped lead Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate -- a group that aided Mourdock's campaign. "The treaty was one of the real strikes against Lugar," explains Fettig. "I heard him talking about it ... and either he's misrepresenting reality or he's clueless. He's talking about the melting polar ice caps, shipping lanes. In reality, what the treaty means is the loss of our sovereignty, our mineral rights in territorial waters."

That belief is just too widespread to snuff out. Clinton tried mockery. At other points in her testimony, she tried another tactic. "While we sit on the sidelines," said Clinton, "Russia and other countries are carving up the Arctic and laying claims to the oil and gas riches in that region." If the "black helicopter" crowd won't trust the U.N., maybe it can be spooked into beating the Russians.

U.S. Navy

Democracy Lab

The Godfathers of Tunis

Tunisia’s new government has declared war on sleaze -- but that’s much easier said than done.

Belhassen Trabelsi is not your typical immigrant seeking refugee status in Canada. For starters, he arrived in Canada on a private jet. His family owned a $2.5 million mansion in Montreal -- at least until the Canadian government confiscated it. And unlike many people escaping their home countries, Trabelsi is fleeing a democratically elected government, one that came to power after the Tunisian people revolted against the rule of Trabelsi's brother-in-law, longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Trabelsi -- a balding, baby-faced 49-year-old with sunken eyes and a large double chin -- is the brother of Leila Trabelsi, Ben Ali's wife. According to U.S. Embassy cables leaked by the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks, Belhassen Trabelsi is "the most notorious family member" in Ben Ali's extended family. The cables refer to the entire family as a "quasi-mafia," noting that "the Trabelsis' strong-arm tactics and flagrant abuse of the system make them easy to hate." Described in the French press as a "hoodlum," Trabelsi profited from his sister's 1992 marriage, using public institutions and resources to create a Tunisian business empire that included luxury hotels, an airline, a radio station, a newspaper and two banks.

Trabelsi fled for Montreal when Tunisians took to the streets in the winter of 2011 to bring down the Ben Ali regime. Despite a request from the Tunisian government to extradite Trabelsi so that he may face justice, the Canadian authorities, by holding fast to legal procedures designed to protect the rights of legitimate asylum seekers, have allowed him to remain. Earlier this month, Trabelsi lost his bid to have his Canadian permanent residency reinstated, but it is likely he will remain in Canada for years while he appeals for refugee status.

In many ways, Tunisia's so-called Jasmine Revolution was a rejection of the corrupt system led by a small oligarchic clan in which Trabelsi figured so prominently. Yet even today, corruption remains one of Tunisia's major challenges in creating a democratic system. Tunisia has made some headway on the domestic front by confiscating local Ben Ali assets, bringing some of the old oligarchs into custody, and setting up anti-corruption mechanisms. Yet the new government is still struggling to fully reckon with the abuses of the past. One of the biggest challenges: Bringing all ex-regime figures to justice and recovering Tunisian financial assets -- over $15 billion by some estimates -- that were spirited away and hidden around the world.

"This is a fight between two groups: The Tunisian state and an international mafia," says Abderrahmane Ladgham, referring to the Trabelsi and Ben Ali family and those who continue to support them. Ladgham, a member of the coalition government's center-left Ettakatol party, is a deputy prime minister in charge of governance and the fight against corruption.

"The old regime had a face, a façade that it presented to the West, as a developed country, the good little boy of the World Bank, the good little boy of the IMF, a country open to tourism, to culture, and a second face which was repressive, intolerant, opaque, corrupted," says Ladgham. He insists that today's Tunisia, by contrast, is ready to face up to the abuses of the past, saying that the government is committed to transparency, "even if the dossiers or the reports are made against us [members of the government]."

So far, however, the job of retrieving foreign assets and bringing those old regime figures to justice has been hindered by a lack of full cooperation by countries that had good relations with the Ben Ali family. These include Canada, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar -- all still home to members of the family -- as well as Switzerland and France. Some of these countries have made gestures in the right direction. Canada seized a Ben Ali family mansion and $100,000 in bank accounts, while Switzerland, Qatar, and the European Union have frozen bank accounts that were directly owned by Ben Ali and his wife. But Tunisian officials say these steps account for only a tiny portion of the former regime's assets. They believe that much of the rest was either transferred to other family members, or moved from bank accounts to more complex financial instruments. Ladgham adds that some countries don't want to help in an active way, using their internal legislation as pretexts.

When it comes to dealing with internal assets, the Tunisian government has managed to confiscate hundreds of businesses, banks, insurance companies and several pieces of real estate that were controlled by the previous regime. Many of these are in the form of conglomerates, such as Princesse Holding -- a group controlled by Ben Ali's son-in-law, Sakher el-Materi -- that encompasses businesses in all major sectors of the Tunisian economy, ranging from car importers to publishing companies and banks. The broad scale of the confiscations attests to just how widespread corruption was under the old regime. Nearly all major businesses were either owned outright by the former ruling family or had arrangements with them. Government ministries were often used as tools for furthering the same interests.

The politics of managing the newly confiscated assets has proven difficult. Full accounts of the assets, now under the control of the central bank, were only just being compiled in September. As of this March, Tunisia's elected government had still not decided which assets to sell and how they will be sold. Beyond that, Ladgham says that the government may confiscate more assets, because it is "discovering more and more people who are related to the ruling family."

While many of these assets have been seized, Tunisia's new government is finding it difficult to bring to justice those who were in charge. "Our main difficulty lies with those people who profited in the old system," says Samir Annabi, the new chief of Tunisia's National Commission against Corruption and the Misappropriation of Funds. "They will try to defend themselves. It's a continuation of the old system."

The commission is one of the few tools at the disposal of the Tunisian government as it begins cleaning house within the government. Annabi was appointed only recently, four months after the previous chief died in office. Ladgham says that the period of the commission's inactivity amounts to "wasted time" in the fight against corruption. Annabi has over 6,000 files to work through. The files document corruption complaints that were collected under the previous transitional government from citizens and officials alike, although the full extent of their contents is unclear. "Behind each file is at least one person seeking justice," says Annabi, explaining that cases documented in the files will be investigated and referred to the as-yet-unreformed court system.

Annabi's task is made harder, according to Ladgham, by the fact that unspecified parties, both inside and outside the government, object to giving the commission too much power, on the grounds that the body might abuse its authority by selectively choosing which cases to investigate.

Samir Dilou, the Minister of Human Rights and Transitional Justice, also faces an uphill battle. The primary task of his ministry is to design a new justice system in consultation with civil society groups, legal bodies, and political parties. Yet even this relatively focused mission is meeting with considerable resistance. "A regime does not die a sudden death," says Dilou. "It always has that unfortunate habit of perpetuating itself. It's not a question of individual agency, but of a well-entrenched system."

His job has its contradictions. Shortly after the elections, in his role as Minister of Human Rights, he visited the dozens of ex-regime figures jailed at the Al-Aouina military base, in response to complaints about uncomfortable imprisonment conditions. That the minister even felt compelled to make such a visit may come as a shock to the hundreds of thousands of Tunisians -- many of them instrumental in the uprisings that led to the overthrow of the old regime -- who find themselves without jobs today. University graduates in the interior of Tunisia, among whom unemployment runs between 30 and 40 percent, have continued to hold regular demonstrations since the revolution, calling for jobs, justice, and a more accountable government. (Unemployed university graduates are seen demonstrating in the image above.) A recent report by the International Crisis Group notes that the Tunisian authorities' "gradualist" approach to coming to terms with the past has its drawbacks, leaving unanswered wide-scale demands for both justice and accountability,

"We want more transparency and disclosure of information," says Mouheb Garoui, 24, president of I-Watch, a nongovernmental transparency and corruption organization formed in the wake of the revolution. The urgency of dealing with corruption was made clear when Transparency International released its 2011 Corruption Perception Index. Tunisia's global rank fell 14 places since the revolution, though this may be partly due to better reporting about the previous regime's crimes. "Asking for the end of a corrupt regime and succeeding in changing the ruler don't necessarily mean that the rules, or the structure, have changed," says Sion Assidon, the head of Transparency's regional office.

According to one poll published in April, 75 percent of Tunisians do not believe that the new government succeeded in fighting corruption and bribery in its first 100 days. (Gauging public opinion on the issue is tricky, since Tunisia still lacks independent polling organizations.) For his part, Ladgham believes that measuring corruption by public perception is not necessarily useful.

Still, despite the myriad challenges, Ladgham believes that Tunisia is on the right path: "We have nothing to be ashamed of, because we are beginning to learn and we have the will to do something about it."

FETHI BELAID/AFP/GettyImages