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Corporations Must Step Up to Protect Human Rights

Words: Kendyl Salcito
Pictures: Tomas Munita/New York Times

Holding companies, both in the United States and abroad, accountable for human rights abuses has long been a challenge. In Nazi Germany and then in apartheid South Africa, IBM provided software that enabled the regimes to repress, imprison, and exterminate their opponents. Likewise, the Nazis commissioned Volkswagen to produce war vehicles, and VW, in turn, set up manufacturing facilities in concentration camps and use forced labor to build the Nazi fleet. It wasn’t until 1998 that victims came forward with a lawsuit and VW set up a restitution fund. More recently, in Myanmar, Unocal and Total allegedly helped the government repress ethnic separatist movements, and in Indonesia, Exxon helped finance and arm a counterinsurgency of Acehnese rebels. Both cases were settled with no admission of wrongdoing.

Criticism of corporations’ human rights abuses has come not only from international organizations, but also from within the corporations themselves. In fact, shareholder activism has been used to press companies to implement their human rights policies at an increasing rate over the past decade. Between 2014 and 2016, shareholders filed nearly 150 human rights resolutions. Employee pressure is a factor, as well: Skilled, educated workers are increasingly expressing a desire to work for socially responsible businesses.

This has not, of course, halted the human rights abuses — but it has subjected companies to higher levels of accountability, both to the public and to their shareholders. In August, a CNN investigation found that Lockheed Martin supplied a 500-pound, laser-guided explosive that was used to kill 40 children in Yemen. The company faced public outcry, and the Department of State and Pentagon called for an investigation. In Congress, Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy brought forth legislation — which was later quashed — to halt US support for the war in Yemen until human rights were safeguarded.


On September 20, The Wall Street Journal reported that, despite clear evidence of human rights abuses, the US government opted to maintain weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for the war in Yemen—all because a former Raytheon lobbyist now working at the US Department of State pointed out that Raytheon would lose $2 billion if a weapons ban passed.

If the report is accurate, it represents a clear abdication of the State Department’s mission to safeguard human rights around the world and establish them as a cornerstone of US foreign policy. The US government requires US companies operating in rights-averse contexts proactively take on the responsibility of respecting human rights in an effort to promote both economic development and peace in conflict-affected countries. The mandate also enables US courts to prosecute companies when their actions make them complicit in human rights violations.

There is a risk that private businesses will, in the absence of protections, implement state policies that overtly violate human rights.

Unfortunately, these requirements have recently fallen to the wayside.


A coalition of companies, states, nonprofit groups, and scholars have attempted to address this problem through the unanimous endorsement of “guiding principles” for human rights and business, formalized at the United Nations in 2011. Codified into domestic law and a national action plan, these principles have prompted scrutiny concerning human rights in more than 24,000 overseas operations of hundreds of US companies. Consequently, major companies have systems in place for flagging risks and navigating relationships to ensure they do not contribute to gross human rights violations.

Yet, this international accountability does not apply domestically. The National Action Plan cited above explicitly excludes domestic business from its purview, citing executive orders and “good jobs” principles designed to eliminate human trafficking from government procurement processes and labor abuses from American workplaces. However, the executive orders are limited to labor conditions and have already been partially rolled back, and the National Action Plan’s refusal to include domestic business operations has left a gaping hole in rights protections for all the non-employees affected by corporate activity—including consumers and neighboring communities.


There is a risk that private businesses will, in the absence of protections, implement state policies that overtly violate human rights.

In fiscal year 2017, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spent nearly a third of its $51 billion budget on corporate contracts. Contractors work alongside federal employees to build and maintain systems, dashboards, and protocols that both inform and drive decision-making; they also provide strategy and advice on the implementation of those products. After surveying 60 of the largest private contractors to DHS, my US-based nonprofit research group, NomoGaia, found that although the majority had a human rights policy, exactly none of them said that policy was being put into effect with regard to its government contracts.

Some of these companies already have concerning track records internationally. IBM, for example, is a prime contractor to the US government, including DHS. It is among several key contractors providing software for facial recognition, data aggregation, and networking that draws links between lawful immigrants and those whose immigration status can be questioned. This technology helped to implement President Trump’s initial travel ban in January 2017, which, as the United Nations High Commissioner and several US district courts ruled, violated human rights and the US constitution before its revision earlier this year. In addition, in the midst of global outcry for its creation of the bomb that slaughtered Yemeni children, Lockheed Martin was also carrying out its $66 million “Administration of Justice” contracts with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which involved helping the US government separate children from their immigrant families at the border under the “zero tolerance” policy. While the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights has since flagged this policy as a human rights violation (like the travel ban), Lockheed has received no other criticism for this activity.

DHS also has Enterprise License Agreements with Symantec and NetApp, two companies whose hardware and software have been used by the Syrian regime to track, jail, and torture dissidents. Symantec faced a lawsuit for providing this software to the Assad regime last year in violation of a trade embargo against the Syrian government for gross human rights violations against civilians. Symantec has also faced scrutiny for providing censorship and surveillance systems to the governments of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. Nevertheless, Symantec’s Social Responsibility page announces: “Symantec seeks to protect and advance human rights in our global business practices.”

Whether these human rights policies are window dressing is irrelevant. Ultimately, they are corporate policy, and a violation of them is a violation of corporate governance. Consequently, we as citizens and consumers must do better to hold them to account by demanding that these companies uphold human rights both abroad and here at home. As the Executive Director of NomoGaia, I have worked on five continents researching corporate impacts on human rights, seeing firsthand the necessity for the United States to defend human rights abroad. The same drivers of that policy are now present at home.

Needless to say, the US government has committed human rights violations in the past. What has created urgency now is that the current administration has actively set aside commitments to human rights protections. This is apparent in everything from the administration’s withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council and defunding of the UN Human Rights Office, to its repeated praise for violent authoritarians and the very DHS policies described above. This cannot stand: Just as they aim to do in Myanmar, Syria, Iran, and other countries where governments scoff at human rights, US-based companies must implement policies developed for operations in rights-averse contexts here at home.


There are tools available to the public now to hold companies accountable for their good governance. Companies can use these same tools to pressure the governments with which they do business, including our own.

The irony of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights is that if states upheld the human rights they committed to protect through treaty ratifications, the legal system would hold companies accountable for violations. Once states shirk their human rights duties, however, companies and their contractors must step in to fill the void. When companies make a strong, public, case for respecting rights — leveraging the corporate policies, National Action Plan, and UN Guiding Principles mentioned above to drive decision making and guide interactions with states — governments are hard-pressed to push back.

We have seen this in action. Many government contractors have codified the language of the UN Guiding Principles in human rights policies, making it a matter of corporate governance to respect rights; in other countries, companies have leaned on these requirements to improve outcomes for rights-holders. Here at home, employees themselves have leaned on their employers to improve conditions. For example, DHS prime contractor Microsoft saw its employees revolt this summer when they discovered that ICE used Microsoft’s cloud services potentially in association with its implementation of the zero tolerance policy. Employees issued a letter to the CEO calling on Microsoft to vet its contracts for human rights risks and reject contracts that would make the company complicit in violations. Interestingly, Microsoft actually already had such a policy in place, though it appears that it was not fully implemented.

As administration officials at the Departments of Justice, State, and Homeland Security jointly work to undermine liberties for Americans and American residents, the moment has come for contractors to implement their human rights standards domestically. The US government expects US businesses to respect human rights when they operate globally, even in contexts where governments fail to respect human rights—and the expectation should be no lower here on our own shores.

Kendyl Salcito is the Executive Director of human rights nonprofit NomoGaia and a Security Fellow with Truman National Security Project. Views expressed are her own.

Kendyl Salcito

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