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Obama's Visit to Caterpillar Shows Insensitivity to Human Rights Concerns

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Over the objections of church groups, peace organizations and human rights activists, President Barack Obama decided to return to Illinois to visit the headquarters of the Caterpillar company, which for years has violated international law, U.S. law and its own code of conduct by selling its D9 and D10 bulldozers to Israel.

In his speech on Thursday, Obama praised Caterpillar, saying, "Your machines plow the farms that feed our families; build the towers that shape our skylines; lay the roads that connect our communities; power the trucks that deliver our goods." He failed to mention that Caterpillar machines have been used to level Palestinian homes, uproot olive orchards, build the illegal separation wall and, in some cases, kill innocent civilians, including a 23-year old American peace activist.

Given the slump in sales that forced Caterpillar to lay off thousands of workers, the company is emblematic of the problems facing industrial towns of the Midwest in the face of the worse recession in decades and was therefore seen as an appropriate place for Obama to make an appearance. Yet surely there were other heavy equipment manufacturers, or other industries, he could have chosen to visit -- one which doesn't provide its wares for what have been widely recognized as crimes against humanity and is not the subject of an international boycott by the human rights community.

The Caterpillar boycott has been endorsed by scores of church groups, peace organizations, and human rights groups. Following enormous pressure from both clergy and laity, the Church of England announced three days prior to Obama's visit that it had sold off $3.3 million in stockholdings in the company. And, two days earlier, Hampshire College became the first American college or university to divest from Caterpillar. Some have interpreted Obama's visit as a rebuke to these recent gains in the international campaign against the Peoria-based corporation.

Supplying Repression

More than 15,000 Palestinian homes in the occupied territories have been destroyed by Israeli occupation forces, the majority with Caterpillar bulldozers. Most of these have been for clearance operations to make way for Israeli and related occupation infrastructure, not for security reasons. An estimated 50,000 Palestinians have been made homeless by Caterpillar bulldozers.

Meanwhile, more than one million olive trees -- many centuries old and in the hands of a single family for many generations -- have been destroyed, mostly with caterpillar's heavy equipment. UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Jean Ziegler, in a letter to Caterpillar 's chief executive officer James Owens, argued that the Israeli occupying forces' destruction of Palestinian agricultural resources "further limit[s] the sustainable means for the Palestinian people to enjoy physical and economic access to food" and constituted a clear violation of international law.

Caterpillar bulldozers and other equipment have also been used in the construction of Israel's separation wall in the West Bank. Caterpillar has not just been responsible for the destruction of Palestinian property and Israel's land grabs, however, but also for the deaths of nearly a dozen people, including an 85-year-old man, several children, and American peace activist Rachel Corrie.

The Case of Rachel Corrie

In December 2001, as violent Palestinian protests against the then 34-year Israeli occupation increased -- the United States vetoed a UN Security Council resolution calling for the placement of unarmed human rights monitors in the occupied territories. In response, a number of pacifist groups from the United States and Europe began to send their own representatives to play the role of human rights monitors, even to the point of physically placing their bodies between the antagonists.

Among these volunteers was Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old student at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Of particular concern for her and her colleagues was the use of Caterpillar bulldozers destroying Palestinian homes and orchards.

On March 16, in the Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, Israeli forces were preparing to destroy a series of homes, including that of a Palestinian pharmacist and his family. Rachel was among a group of international observers who stood in front of the bulldozer as a form of nonviolent resistance against this illegal act by Israeli occupation forces. According to both Palestinian and American eyewitnesses, Rachel was standing in plain site of the bulldozer's driver. She was wearing a bright fluorescent orange jacket and had engaged the driver in conversation to try to convince him not to destroy the house. Nevertheless, after an initial pause, the Caterpillar bulldozer surged forward despite cries from Rachel's colleagues, trapping her feet under the dirt so she could not get out of the way before being run over. The Caterpillar bulldozer then backed up, running Rachel over a second time, mortally wounding her. She died in a nearby hospital a short time later.

Efforts by Rachel's parents to sue Caterpillar were thrown out by a federal appeals court, where a panel of three judges argued that their suit could not have gone to trial "without implicitly questioning, and even condemning, United States foreign policy towards Israel."

The Israeli government claimed that it was an accident. Not only did the Bush administration accepted this interpretation and refused to call for an independent investigation, Rachel's home state senators -- Democrats Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell -- backed the Bush administration in denying that she was murdered, and refused to call for Congressional hearings. Soon thereafter, both threw their support behind an additional $1 billion in military aid to Israel.

Four months earlier, the United States had vetoed a UN Security Council resolution criticizing Israel for the murder of three United Nations workers in two separate incidents in the occupied territories in December, 2002. Among those killed was British relief worker Iain Hook, who was assisting in the reconstruction of Palestinian homes destroyed during an Israeli military offensive the previous spring, also using Caterpillar bulldozers.

Now, in making his highly-public appearance at the Caterpillar headquarters, President Obama, taking after President Bush, appears to have also decided to come to the defense of these kinds of war crimes in the face of international criticism.

Breaking the Law

Caterpillar sells its bulldozers to Israeli occupation forces through the United States Foreign Military Sales Program. Though originally designed for agricultural and construction purposes, the Israeli military modifies the Caterpillar bulldozers to include machine gun mounts, smoke projectors, and grenade launchers. Caterpillar CEO Owens, praised by President Obama during his Thursday appearance, insists that his company has "neither the legal right nor the ability to monitor and police individual use of that equipment." When confronted by human rights groups about the use of their equipment in violation of international humanitarian law, Caterpillar insists that "any comments on the political conflict in the region are best left to our governmental leaders who have the ability to impact action and advance the peace process."

Despite this claim by Owens and other Caterpillar executives that the company bears no responsibility for its equipment's end uses, the United Nations Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with Regard to Human Rights explicitly states that companies should not "engage in or benefit from" violations of international human rights or humanitarian law and that companies "shall further seek to ensure that the goods and services they provide will not be used to abuse human rights."

Human Rights Watch has referred to Caterpillar's denial of responsibility as the "head in the sand approach."

Article 53 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, to which the United States is a signatory and is therefore legally bound to uphold, states that "Any destruction by the Occupying Power of real or personal property belonging individually or collectively to private persons or to the State, or to other public authorities, or to social or cooperative organizations, is prohibited, except where such destruction is rendered absolutely necessary by military operations." Obama, apparently has little concern for such legal obligations, however, and has thus far refused to limit the transfer of American-made equipment to Israel, even when used in such overt violations of international humanitarian law.

The U.S. Arms Export Control Act limits the use of U.S. military aid, under which the sale of Caterpillar bulldozers is covered, to "internal security" and "legitimate self-defense" and explicitly prohibits its use against civilians.

Unfortunately, Obama - like Bush before him - has indicated little interest in upholding such federal law, much less international law, and seems to have underscored his contempt for such legality in making his appearance at Caterpillar in the face of growing international opposition to that company's policies.