This Tuesday, I attended an excellent seminar on lawfare at the offices of Mayer Brown in New York City. “Lawfare” is a relatively recent term used for the manipulation of human rights law for purposes contrary to those for which it was created. Typical examples are libel lawsuits initiated by Saudi billionaires in British courts against American reporters writing about terror financing, or lawsuits brought by the Council on American-Islamic Relations against law enforcement agencies charging discrimination against Muslims, as well as human rights lawsuits aimed at Israel. It seems that Mayer Brown is one of the few marquee law firms interested in defending victims of lawfare, as opposed to defending Guantánamo inmates (see here for a list of the large number of prominent firms doing pro bono work for these prisoners).
But interesting as the fight against lawfare is, I found it more interesting still to consider ways of using the law to achieve righteous objectives in foreign policy. Looking back on the Arab Spring, and what has emerged about the relationships between despotic regimes and their Western enablers, it is clear that activists could have struck against the Qaddafi regime’s foreign financial involvements long ago. Much of the necessary information was a matter of public record in the UK’s Companies House and various free databases. Simply look up a regime figure and find his directorships and often his real estate holdings. I gather that the situation is similar regarding Tunisia and French investments. (The US can mainly hold its head up in this context; it’s Britain that has been the Western money laundering capital of choice for the former Libyan regime and the current Syrian regime.)
In the aftermath of the Houla massacre, those who care about evicting Assad from Syria might think about what they can do with company records, as well as weapons. This should have started a year ago, with naming and shaming those who have helped Assad and his cronies steal the money of the Syrian people, but it is by no means too late. (And those who look optimistically to an Assad-free future might think about compiling dossiers now on where the money of the Syrian people has been invested overseas.) Why has there been relatively little of this kind of activism? My guess is that there are few journalists covering the Middle East, or Syrian activists, who are comfortable with corporate record analysis and financial statements.
There’s a lot that has been easy to uncover. Take the British Syrian Society—please. Assad’s father-in-law, Fawaz Akhras, a cardiologist, started the society in 2003. For reasons I hope they will explain, many of the great and the good signed on to the board of directors. At one point or another, this included Lord Steel, the leader of the Liberal Party; Richard Spring, a Conservative MP; Sir Gavyn Arthur, a former lord mayor of London; and Labor MP Roger Godsiff. The bloodletting of 2011 only gradually disturbed directors enough to quit. According to Companies House records, Spring and Godsiff resigned on July 12, 2011. Arthur quit on April 12, 2012, and one James Felton Somers Hervey-Bathurst, a lawyer who runs his family’s Eastnor Castle, left on April 16, 2012. (There is a time lag, of course, between reporting a change to Companies House and the change being reflected in online documents.)
Akhras himself was under pressure to resign from the society in March of this year, when e-mails between him and his father in law, leaked to the Guardian, showed him advising Assad on how to handle the crisis, and his daughter Asma—the president’s wife—shopping for luxury goods while violence raged.
Now, if I were aiming at bringing down the Syrian regime, as soon as the revolution began I would have taken out ads in the British press asking the directors of the society how they could justify their involvement in this Assad family-linked group. I would have looked into the business dealings that the directors had with Syrian companies, if any existed. I also would have noted that the BSS was registered, in 2003, care of a British firm of solicitors, Thomas Eggar, and probed the relationships between this firm and Assad’s regime. Perhaps I would have asked Eggar clients such as IBM, Allied Irish Bank, the Chichester Diocesan Board of Finance, and Natures Way Foods Limited, how they felt about sharing Eggar’s services with the BSS. (The BSS was listed in Companies House care of an Eggar office until February 20th of this year; according to a former board member, there was a delay in changing the listing because it had to be done by the BSS’s new company secretary after Eggar resigned from his role.)
Rogue regimes’ Western supporters and enablers, active and passive, can be pressured and shamed, investigated and—if they have engaged in money laundering or other crimes—taken to court, to help speed the fall of men like Bashar Assad.