China

Blackwater's Erik Prince on Human Rights - China Bad; Azerbaijan Good?

| Tue Jul. 15, 2008 5:22 PM EDT

Blackwater founder and CEO Erik Prince granted an interview July 7 to editors and reporters at the Military Times. An excerpt, printed in this week's issue of the Army Times:

Do you work for other countries, or just for the U.S.?
We do some training work for other countries, some helicopter support and training and maintenance and that kind of stuff. In Azerbaijan, we were hired by DoD to build for them a naval special warfare capability to defend the oil platforms and interdict weapons and drugs and whatever else in the southern Caspian [Sea]...
Have you turned down any countries?
Sure. We had a lot of inquiries from China a couple years ago wanting police training before the Olympics, and that's just not something we wanted to do.
What's the difference between working for the Azeris and working for the Chinese?
Well, China has plenty of human rights challenges and we didn't want any of our training to be used in another Tiananmen Square-type faceoff. Simple.
Another difference is also the U.S. government said they wanted you to go to Azerbaijan. They didn't ask you to go to China.
Correct. They hired us to do that [in Azerbaijan].
Because Azerbaijan doesn't have the best human rights record, either.
In this case, they're trying to build a small, focused capability to do maritime protection. But it was something that was in the U.S. foreign policy interest, and our training has to align with that.

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Let's dig into this a little... The U.S. government has a cozy relationship with Azerbaijan because the central Asian nation borders on the Caspian Sea, which is thought to hold more than 100 billion barrels of oil. Russia and Iran would love to have a piece of it, so the U.S. (joined by every major oil company you can think of) has bolstered ties with an unsavory regime to suit its energy interests. A Blackwater team deployed there in 2004, and like Mr. Prince described, helped train an Azerbaijani martime strike force to protect oil platforms.

Fine. But does anyone believe that Blackwater won't work in China simply out of disdain for the human rights record of its government? If so, it's worth considering the eagerness with which Blackwater accepted the Azerbaijan contract, even in spite of the regime's well-documented violations of human rights.

In 2004, the same year that Blackwater won the contract (it was the only bidder), Human Rights Watch made the following observation:

The Azerbaijani government has a long-standing record of pressuring civil society groups and arbitrarily limiting critical expression and political activism. It has done so with a new intensity following the October 2003 presidential elections, which international and domestic observers said were marred by widespread fraud. Trials of opposition reporters, accused of the 2003 post-election violence, did not comply with fair trail standards and showed once again how the authorities use the criminal justice system to discourage government critics. An environment of impunity for government officials implicated in acts of torture, excessive use of force, and election fraud, shows that the government did not seriously attempt the reconciliation that the international community was urging after the political and human rights crisis surrounding the presidential elections. Freedom of assembly for groups seen to be associated with the political opposition remains severely curtailed and independent and opposition press face major barriers to their work.

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