Countries wage war and corporations profit: time for robust international treaty

Companies have long stood to profit from war, in some cases fueling the violence. A binding treaty is urgently needed to hold them accountable, write Ayushi Kalyan, corporate accountability coordinator at FIAN International, and Heather Elaydi, Palestinian-Canadian researcher and human rights advocate in Geneva Solutions, ahead of key talks in Geneva.

Last week, in response to a shocking armed attack by Hamas, Israel doubled down on its 16-year military closure and blockade of the Gaza Strip, halting humanitarian essentials including all food, water and fuel from reaching the population of 2.3 million. This decision, in violation of international humanitarian law, was taken by the Israeli state, but is being enforced with high-tech weapons supplied by corporations in the United States, Europe and Israel.

Despite a formal recognition in 2014 that companies have a responsibility to respect human rights, there is still no international legal framework binding them to do so. Next week, an  intergovernmental working group, mandated by the UN Human Rights Council, will reconvene in Geneva. It will be the ninth year of grinding talks toward a legally binding instrument to regulate activities of business enterprises, including transnational corporations, within international human rights law.

The problem of business impacts on human rights and the environment is nothing new. But recent trends – such as growing corporate influence over governments, corporate capture of international institutions and the expansion of extractivist economies – have amplified those impacts and urgently need to be addressed. Harmful effects are particularly intensified during conflicts, occupations, wars and other crises where the rule of law is already disrupted and business activities may end up fuelling or sustaining the turmoil.

Complicity in confict

Corporate and other private actors engage in business in conflict-affected areas for financial gain. But their involvement can also help maintain, worsen or prolong a conflict, prop up repressive regimes, or delegitimise sovereignty movements. Arms manufacturers, businesses operating in illegal settlements or purchasing raw materials from conflict zones and often those who merely continue business-as-usual are complicit in human rights and humanitarian law violations committed amid the conflict.

The activities of those businesses may impact food systems and food sovereignty by destroying agricultural and fisheries infrastructure, disrupting access to farmland and water, financing conflicts through crop trade or altering laws governing local food systems.

Beyond its military closure of Gaza, Israel has used its vast weapons arsenal, supplied by manufacturers including Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Elbit Systems – (which is in turn supported by UK-based Barclays bank –to launch five major military assaults on the narrow strip of land since 2008. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), those attacks repeatedly targeted agricultural and fishery areas. Meanwhile, in the occupied West Bank, agricultural enterprises established in illegal Israeli settlements profit by using Palestinian land and resources to sell produce abroad.

Unfortunately, these companies are far from alone in supporting states that use food as a weapon of war or illegal occupation.

Since 2015, the Saudi- and UAE-led coalition fighting against Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen has intentionally and systematically attacked farmland, agricultural and irrigation infrastructure, mills, farm animals, markets and fishing ports. The weapons used to perpetrate these attacks were largely acquired from arms manufacturers based in several European countries, as well as Canada, Turkey and China.

In Western Sahara, Moroccan businesses illegally operate in agriculture and fisheries in the occupied territory. In 2019, €434 million worth of fish, tomatoes and melons were exported from the region to Europe. Although a European court repealed EU-Morocco trade and fisheries deals in 2021 – arguing that the agreement was made without the consent of the people of Western Sahara – Moroccan businesses continued to export mislabelled produce from the territory.

During its occupation of Iraq, US authorities implemented 100 orders that provided extensive economic advantages to US firms. Order 81, in spite of not being enforced, created new restrictions on plant varieties, banning Iraqi farmers from reusing seeds of new plant varieties and facilitating the establishment of a corporate-controlled seed market.

When coffee fuels conflict

In the Central African Republic, which has experienced an ongoing civil war since 2012, armed groups turn profits from trading in coffee, a lucrative commodity that plays a vital role in shaping conflict dynamics and the country’s  conflict economy. Similarly, the cocoa trade was used to fund armed conflict in Côte d'Ivoire during its five-year civil war between 2002 and 2007. Businesses trading in these goods help sustain the conflict resource economy by providing a no-questions-asked market.

During Colombia’s decades-long armed conflict, so-called death squads stole eight million hectares of land from small farmers, much of which was then illegally acquired by private firms. In 2016, a Colombian court ordered 19 companies, including several palm oil, banana and other agricultural companies, to return the stolen land. The multinational corporation Chiquita was also accused of financing the groups responsible for mass displacements and land grabs.

International humanitarian law (IHL) protects foodstuffs, agricultural areas (…) crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works from attacks, destruction or removal during conflict. Customary international law recognises “the right of peoples and nations to permanent sovereignty over their natural resources” as a basic component of the principle of territorial sovereignty and the right to self-determination. Yet, IHL is insufficient in regulating businesses in conflict, thus requiring a more robust legal framework that incorporates human rights concerns.

Human rights due diligence not enough

In its preamble, the most recent draft for a legally binding treaty on businesses and human rights released in July, stresses that “states must protect against human rights abuses by business enterprises and respect and ensure respect for IHL in all circumstances”. This key obligation, if enforced across the value chain, would require that so-called home states, where businesses are based, respect IHL and ensure that firms operating abroad also abide by IHL.

While this obligation in itself is positive, the language in the latest draft of the text remains vague about the measures states must undertake to ensure that business activities do not cause human rights abuse and violations in occupation and conflict situations.

The previous version of the treaty included a requirement to ensure enhanced human rights due diligence measures are adopted and implemented to prevent abuses in contexts of conflicts, occupations or wars. This could possibly include tying in a conflict analysis in their risk-assessment measures and developing an exit strategy to suspend or terminate operations if needed. This minimum requirement, however, has since been removed.

It is also crucial that the draft specifies that merely conducting enhanced human rights due diligence should not absolve corporations and natural persons from other forms of liability in the event that they participate in or contribute to worsening a conflict.

Given the heightened risk of business-related human rights abuses faced by people living in conflict-affected areas and occupied territories, it is imperative that international instruments that regulate business conduct ensure the highest standards of human rights protection.

As member states meet in Geneva next week for another round of negotiations, they must take seriously their responsibility to lay a solid foundation for the protection of human rights and the environment in these high-risk contexts.

Ayushi Kalyan is corporate accountability coordinator at FIAN International and works on the intersection of business and human rights issues, gender and conflict.

Heather Elaydi is a Palestinian-Canadian researcher and human rights advocate working on policy and politics around food, land and water, primarily in contexts of conflict and crisis in West Asia and North Africa.

This article was originally published in Geneva Solutions with the title "As countries wage war, corporations profit - time for robust international treaty" on October 19, 2023.

For more information or media interviews please contact Clara Roig Medina or Tom Sullivan


Time to hold corporations accountable on human rights a...