Monday, July 2, 2012
Wednesday, March 21, 2012
PPPs have been booming since the ‘90s. Under constant pressure from the UNs most powerful member states, and in a precarious financial situation, the UN increasingly invited corporations from the private sector. At the same time, changes in the business environment encouraged Transnational Corporations (TNCs) to find ways to boost their company and brand reputation, with a particular emphasis on their social and environmental performance. The ‘90s saw high-profile world citizen campaigns, which highlighted the activities of TNCs and demanded socially and environmentally just behavior. Fearing consumer boycotts, corporations sought to project an image of social and environmental responsibility to the world. “A good public image is a key political resource and […] legitimacy and credibility is ‘capital’ in modern societies”. PPPs enable corporations to project such an image of public service while at the same time negatively influencing the polices of governments and other public institutions like the UN.
As former UNICEF Director Carol Bellamy pointed out, however, “it is dangerous to assume that the goals of the private sector are somehow synonymous with those of the United Nations, because they most emphatically are not.” While the UN’s raison d’être is to promote development and human rights, corporations’ efforts to “uphold ethical standards” are a means to improve their brand reputation so as to maximize profit. The implications of this difference are vast. Companies can pursue pro-environment and human right rhetoric, while engaging in deeply destructive practices.
KPMG International, the main organizer of last month’s Summit, clearly illustrates the extent to which corporations are able to deflect criticism and boost their image while not fundamentally changing their way of doing business. KPMG joined the Global Compact when former Secretary General Kofi Annan first established it in 2000. Its commitment to the Compacts’ ten principles, however, did not keep the company from setting up fake tax shelters for its wealthiest clients. In 2003, an investigation by US attorneys found that, by actively creating tax heavens, KPGM had deprived citizens from $2.5 billion in tax dollars . Clearly, signing the Compact’s 10th principle to “work against corruption in all its forms" did not prevent KPMG from being accused of accounting fraud and of obstruction of justice for hampering investigation. Adding to the irony, KPMG became part of the 10th principle’s working group, which “is to provide strategic input on anti-corruption and to define the needs of the business community in implementing the 10th principle.”
As the divide between KPMGs rhetoric and practices suggests, the UN urgently needs to move beyond the immensely naïve or intentionally deceitful position that PPPs are “win-win” relationships in which both, the UN and TNCs, work towards the fulfillment of the UN’s founding ethical principles. While for the former the rightful implementation of socio-environmental principles is an end in itself, for the latter it is a means at best.
Picture Credit: un.org
Monday, March 19, 2012
The Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) was signed into law by President Washington in 1789. It states, “The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.” The US Supreme Court is currently reviewing this jurisdiction in the case of Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum (Shell), and the ruling will have serious implications on both the status of corporations and the reaches of US’ jurisdiction.
Lawyers have interpreted ATCA to give non-US citizens the right to sue non-US offenders of international law in a US federal court. ATCA was hardly acknowledged for 190 years, until human rights lawyer Peter Weiss used it to try a Paraguayan police official residing in Brooklyn for torturing the son of the dissident. Since then, lawyers have used ATCA to sue transnational corporations, such as Chevron and General Motors, for violations against international law in countries with weak judicial systems. Many human Rights lawyers have cited ATCA as an important civil law to hold corporations accountable for their actions.
The plaintiffs in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum are members of the Ogoni people in Nigeria’s Niger Delta. In the 1990s, Shell allegedly assisted the Nigerian government in executing Ogoni activists who threatened to disrupt Shell’s environmentally harmful drilling practices. A US appellate court initially ruled in favor of Shell, a decision that led to the Supreme Court’s review. The ruling stated that corporations were not accountable under international law, which binds only “nations and people.”
But the appellate court’s decision holds corporations to a serious double standard. In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court recognized corporations’ political rights under the first amendment, letting corporations make unlimited political contributions as if they were people. Then, the appellate court’s decision in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum gave corporations immunity from international law, a status that exceeds the rights of people.
On March 5, 2012, Justice Samuel A. Alito made another statement to weaken the case of the Ogoni victims. He asked, “What business does a case like this have in the courts of the United States?” Giving US Courts jurisdiction over such matters may encourage other nations to try breaches of international law by US companies, such as illegal US drone operations. That is, however, the point of international laws and doctrines, such as universal jurisdiction: to hold actors accountable for the gravest crimes against humanity. London, for example, has a history of exercising universal jurisdiction to try offenders, such as Nazi collaborator Anthony Sawoniuk, Afghan warlord Faryadi Sarwar Zardad, and Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Amicus briefs filed in support of Ogoni victims were made by human rights activists, top law scholars and professors, economist Joseph Stiglitz, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the US government. Supporters of Shell include other large corporations, as well as British, Dutch, and German governments.
The US’ Alien Tort Claims Act is a rare legal tool to maintain TNC accountability across the world. Its examination under Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum has made transparent unaddressed issues concerning both the nation-states role in maintaining international law, and the corporation’s status within that law.
If international law does not hold TNCs accountable, and if US courts refuse to monitor TNC violations, then TNCs will be free to exploit and profit off human rights violations in vulnerable nations.
Picture Credit: unop.org
Wednesday, February 29, 2012
War and/or peace: How the private military and security industry is trying to rebrand itself as a humanitarian actor
In a concerted public relations campaign, these companies are repositioning themselves as “humanitarian actors.” This rebranding process is part of a larger effort that includes the creation of “codes of conduct” and “ethical guidelines” for the industry, all aimed at improving these companies' public image.
The private military and security industry is keen to adopt humanitarian imagery and language to win over a skeptical public. The lobby group for PMSCs in the US is called “the International Stability Operations Association” (ISOA), and used to be named the “International Peace Operations Association.” Such feel-good description obscures the fact that many of the ISOA’s members produce military equipment and provide military services that include the operation of weapons systems, intelligence collection and analysis, special operations and interrogation of detainees. Regardless of this background, the ISOA asserts that its members provide “humanitarian aid” and “disaster relief.” This discourse signals a dangerous trend, where the military-security industry is in effect merging with a nascent humanitarian industry.
Take the example of International Relief and Development (IRD), one of the ISOA’s members. The company defines its mission goal in the following terms: “to reduce the suffering of the world’s most vulnerable groups and provide tools and resources needed to increase their self-sufficiency.” IRD is a major implementer of US foreign assistance, and claims that it has “provided over $1.75 billion in humanitarian assistance to vulnerable populations around the world” since it was created in 1998. Despite these philanthropic claims, IRD is part of a group that also comprises BAE Systems and L-3 MPRI, two big providers of military equipment and services to the US and UK militaries.
Military and “humanitarian” activities are sometimes combined within the same firm. DynCorp International, a notorious military contractor, has also invested in the development field. DynCorp is one of the US military’s biggest military contractors and is well-known for its controversial role in many conflict areas. In Colombia, DynCorp is officially in charge of the US’ drug eradication program but has allegedly engaged in direct combat with rebel groups. DynCorp was also involved in a sex trafficking and rape scandal in Bosnia in the late 90s, a case that was recently brought to the screen in the movie “The Whistleblower.” In spite of this checkered record, in early 2010 DynCorp entered the aid market by acquiring Casals & Associates, a company which had supported US development programs for two decades. On its website, DynCorp describes the three pillars of its new activities as “justice and governance”, “stabilization and reconstruction” and “humanitarian assistance.” These words could be taken from a description of the UN’s mission. This is not an accident.
PMSCs’ claims to humanitarian ideals not only ring hollow, they also represent a dangerous trend. These companies’ growing interest in the humanitarian sector is adding to an already complicated situation on the ground. In many conflict zones, soldiers and relief workers are difficult to tell apart. In Afghanistan, NATO’s controversial “winning hearts and minds” campaign has made humanitarian action an appendix of military strategy. Some NGOs, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, have denounced this “militarization of humanitarian aid,” arguing that it puts aid workers at risk. As the lines between military aims and humanitarian work blur, employees of aid organizations have increasingly become the target of attacks by insurgents who see them as tools of Western militaries. The problem is particularly acute in Afghanistan, but also exists in other countries, including Somalia and Iraq.
The growing confusion between military action and humanitarian work is worsened when aid is delivered by for-profit organizations, especially if these companies also happen to offer military services to states involved in the conflict. Can a company operate the US’ drone program in Pakistan in the morning and distribute food in Afghanistan in the evening? The takeover of the humanitarian realm by PMSCs seriously threatens two key humanitarian principles, the concepts of independence and impartiality. By blurring the lines between military, political and humanitarian aims, these companies’ interest in the aid sector seriously threatens the reputation and security of traditional nonprofit aid groups.
The use of PMSCs by the UN and NGOs is also a worrying trend. By hiring PMSCs to support their activities, these organizations legitimize companies’ claims to humanitarianism and jeopardize their own legitimacy. Serious scrutiny is needed to hold these organizations to account and ensure that humanitarian aid does not become a for-profit activity used to further political and military goals.
GPF is currently working on a major report on the use of PMSCs by the UN
Picture credit: treehugger.com