What Companies Should Know and Do About the Risks of Contributing to the World’s Worst Crimes
A company risks enabling mass atrocities when it provides resources, goods, services, or other forms of practical support that help sustain crimes against humanity or genocide
These crimes may take place far from the company’s headquarters, and the company may not have direct contact with the perpetrators of the atrocities themselves. But where support from the private sector helps to sustain such a campaign of violence against civilians, companies should exercise extreme caution to avoid acting as enablers.
There are particular circumstances in which the risk of such crimes is highest. Mass atrocities typically occur during ongoing violent conflict or in areas where human rights abuses are widespread and severe. In situations like Darfur, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, mass atrocities have attracted sustained media attention and have led to the imposition of U.S. and international sanctions. In these and other cases, companies both large and small operate at various points along the supply chains on which the perpetrators of atrocities rely for access to critical resources, goods, and services.
The potential legal liabilities of companies for “complicity” or other charges for their role in the commission of crimes against humanity or genocide are significant. But short of legal complicity, companies also bear serious reputational and other risks for enabling mass atrocities. And whether or not they are sensitive to potential reputational damage, they are increasingly likely to face regulation from policy makers determined to halt the world’s worst crimes. Companies that operate in, or engage in activities connected to, places where mass atrocities against civilians are taking place should, therefore, carefully assess and take steps to mitigate the risks that they may help to sustain the atrocities by providing resources to the perpetrators of these crimes.
The perpetrators of mass atrocities may be enabled by a range of commercial actors, including:
- manufacturers or suppliers of arms, ammunition, or other military equipment used in attacks on civilians
- manufacturers or distributors of trucks or other forms of dual-use transportation used in the commission of widespread attacks
- air cargo carriers and shipping companies that facilitate the flow of weapons, spare parts, and dual-use equipment, as well as fuel and other consumables that sustain the perpetrators
- telecommunications providers whose hardware or software may be used to track target populations, coordinate acts of violence, or raise money for armed groups
- companies involved in the extraction, refinement, or trade of minerals and other natural resources used to generate profits for armed groups and build or maintain their capacity to commit atrocities
- companies that make payments directly to armed groups, or companies whose investment in any government perpetrating mass atrocities helps increase the capacity of that government to commit those crimes
- banks and other financial service institutions that participate in transactions that sustain atrocities, such as by managing or holding the assets of the perpetrators
If companies are aware of the risks that their behavior and activities may enable mass atrocities, they can take steps to mitigate those risks. Such action on the part of the private sector can help to limit the access of perpetrators of mass atrocities to goods, services, and funding, thereby contributing to efforts to halt violence against civilians.
In order to avoid or mitigate the risks of enabling mass atrocities, companies should consider the following basic guidelines:
- Companies should publicly acknowledge and act on their broad responsibility to respect internationally recognized human rights in all contexts under the U.N. Framework on Business and Human Rights. As clarified by the U.N. Special Representative on business and human rights, John Ruggie, this means acting with due diligence to avoid infringing on the rights of others in companies’ own business activities and through their relationships with other parties and entities in their value chains.
- Companies committed to respecting human rights should make a stated commitment to avoid or mitigate the risks of enabling mass atrocities by providing goods, services, or resources—directly or indirectly—to the perpetrators of those crimes. Companies should ensure adequate procedures, safeguards, and operational guidance are in place to realize this commitment, and should make public as much of this information as possible in order to instill public confidence in their efforts.
- Companies should conduct thorough and ongoing risk analyses in countries where they operate or have business activities, including analyzing their own role and relationships in those environments, with a particular view to identifying actual, potential, or perceived risks of enabling mass atrocities against civilians.
- Whether companies participate in the supply chain that flows in to atrocity situations or buy minerals or other natural resources that flow out, companies should exercise due diligence in managing the full length of their value chains, including their relationships with both suppliers and customers, to avoid directly or indirectly enabling the perpetrators.
- Where specific and immediate risks of enabling atrocities are identified, companies should take every available step to mitigate those risks. This may include steps to impose stricter controls on their sales and distribution divisions, or to re-assess, alter, or discontinue engagement with particular suppliers or customers to ensure the companies are not helping to sustain the capacity of the perpetrators of atrocities.
- Where international sanctions are placed on individuals or entities to inhibit the flow of resources to the perpetrators of atrocities, companies should ensure that they comply with all sanctions and should respond promptly to requests for information from U.N. Panels of Experts and governments investigating sanctions violations. Companies should audit their activities and transactions to ensure that they are not making products and services available to sanctions violators.
- In the case of dual-use items—such as trucks or satellite phones—companies should be aware of the context in which these products will be used, particularly when sanctions are in place. Companies should take every available step to ensure that these goods do not enter the supply chain of those committing mass atrocities, and should in all cases ensure their own compliance with international sanctions.
- Companies should heed the recommendations provided by international initiatives such as the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, as well as the guidance of the U.N. Special Representative on business and human rights and the U.N. Global Compact Office with regard to business risks and responsibilities in high-risk areas.