Friday, May 30, 2008

100+ countries agree to ban cluster bombs; what does your money have to do with it?

More than 100 countries have just come to provisional agreement on an international treaty to ban cluster bombs-- a particularly egregious type of weapon whose casualties are mostly felt by civilians, often young children.  The United States is not among them, but the United Kingdom (the 3rd largest user in recent years) has gotten on board for the first time; and although other big users of cluster bombs, like China, Russia, Israel, India, and Pakistan, aren't signing, it's still a sign of a growing international consensus against their use. 
What does this have to do with you and your money?  Well, since some countries continue to buy and use cluster bombs, companies are continuing to manufacture them.  And those companies may use money from your bank account or pension fund to produce the weapons; your returns may be partially due to the profitability of selling such weapons.  Clearly the ultimate solution is to address the demand for these weapons politically-- but in the meantime, do you have moral qualms about supporting the supply of such cruel weapons?  (For me, it's less about the practical impact of denying them my money, and more about a very emotional sort of revulsion.)
If you don't know much about cluster bombs, here's the short version: tiny "bomblets" are released in midair, falling more or less indiscriminately over their target area.  Not only does this cause civilian casulties on initial impact, but estimates are that 5%-25% of the bomblets land without exploding, often causing injury or death when they're later handled by civilians days, months, or years later.  Handicap International studied over 11,000 cluster bomb casulties and found that 98% of the victims were civilians, about a third of them children (like 5-year-old Ahmad, who died after handling a bomblet in a public park in Lebanon; read his and other stories here.) 
If you use a major bank, your bank is probably financing the production of these weapons.  The report Explosive Investments (PDF) documented financing for cluster bomb manufacturers by banks like Bank of America, Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, Wachovia, HSBC, ING, and dozens of others.  (ING has a policy on cluster bombs and other "controversial weapons," but it has some big loopholes.) Many pension funds are invested in cluster bomb manufacturers as well.
So if this bothers you, what can you do?
  • Move your money to an ethical/community development bank or credit union.  Most of these banks, like ShoreBank (in the U.S.) and Triodos (in the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain) have policies that avoid investing in cluster munitions manufacturers (and other unsavory/unethical ventures.)  And you don't even have to sacrifice returns; ShoreBank has a competitive high-yield savings account, currently offering 3.30% APY. (Read more about community development banking.)
  • Make your feelings known to your bank.  If you're not willing to switch, you can still send e-mails or make calls letting your bank know how you feel about this issue.  And if you are switching you should definitely contact the bank and tell them why you're taking your money elsewhere.
  • Work on getting your pension fund divested from cluster bomb producers.  The government pension funds in Ireland, Norway, and New Zealand have recently ended their investments in companies that produce cluster bombs; if you get involved, maybe yours'll be next. Even if you're not personally participating in the pension fund, if it's controlled by your city, state, or country then you can still make your opinions known as a citizen.
If you're looking for non-financial options, you can get involved with organizations like the Cluster Munitions Coalition; sign their international petition here.  Here in the U.S., check out the United States Campaign to Ban Landmines.  Even though our country won't work internationally on the ban, progress is still being made.  In fall 2007 Congress passed a one-year ban on exporting cluster munitions with failure rates above 1%; work is needed to make the export ban permament and to ban the actual use of cluster bombs. 
What's your take on issues like this? Like I said before, I don't have high hopes that keeping my own tiny pile of money out of the reach of cluster bomb producers makes much practical difference.  But I just have a gut negative reaction to the idea that my deposits fund more of these weapons being made-- I feel almost dirty thinking about it.  I've always used socially responsible options for my savings account, but this has got me thinking about alternatives to my Citi checking account-- even though it only ever has a small balance, it'd be nice to be free of that connection.  On the other hand, it's definitely true that you could drive yourself crazy thinking about how many unpleasant things you're supporting financially in one way or another... What do you think?


plonkee said...

Well, I'm grateful that my taxes will no longer support cluster bombs. One of the problems with trying to be ethical with your finances like this is that it's so un-mainstream and to make a difference it needs to be as mainstream as possible. I'm not as ethical as I could be with my money, but I'm working on it.

Anonymous said...

Good post, Penney Nickle. As for the issue of ethical investment being "so un-mainstream" - I don't understand that one.

I have been working on the un-mainstream cluster munitions campaign for 5 years or so, and all of a sudden it blows up in the face of the US State Department, with a world-wide bang. What's mainstream got to do with results?

When lots and lots of non-mainstream people (read ordinary, mostly invisible folks) investigate their retirement funds and bank investment decisions, then start demanding change, then will the money start drying up for exploitative, oppressive and non-sustainable plans and projects, along with criminal weapons like cluster bombs.