Confronting corporate human rights abuses must be a priority for the Biden administration

The minute that Joe Biden becomes president, he will immediately step into a cyclone of global crises unprecedented in scale. The COVID-19 pandemic. The climate emergency. Racial injustice. A deeply shattered democracy. The rise of authoritarianism and the silencing of activists and journalists who dare to question those in power. 

Each of these crises has grown so big that the Biden administration will need to make bold, transformational reforms just to make a dent. For example, it’s already too late to take “baby steps” to reduce our carbon footprint. Even if we were to reduce our greenhouse emissions to zero by tomorrow — an impossible task — there are already enough emissions trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere to guarantee that we will experience increasingly dangerous mega-storms, wildfires, and rising sea levels for decades to come. Nothing short of a complete shift to a new kind of global energy system will ensure that 2050 is as “calm” as 2020.

How did all of these crises reach such a dangerous point?

We often focus our attention on the actions (or inactions) of Donald Trump and other high profile political celebrities, but unchecked corporate power is a significant part of the problem. Unchecked corporate influence will not vanish with the end of the Trump administration. For years, the U.S. government has failed to use its power to hold corporations accountable when they do something reckless or harmful. We cannot blame the corporate sector alone for causing these crises, but corporations have blocked the U.S. government from taking urgent action on numerous occasions.

Corporate fingerprints on global crises 

Long a problem in the U.S., corporate profiteering has persisted throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, the fossil fuel industry exploited the pandemic as an opportunity to enrich itself at the expense of the communities in which it operates, often in communities of color. In March, at the request of industry lobbyists, the Trump administration used the pandemic’s onset as an excuse to stop enforcing regulations designed to protect the environment and public health. Soon after, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked emergency relief bills from moving through Congress, demanding that the legislation provide corporations with years of immunity from lawsuits — one of the industry’s top wishes even before the pandemic began.

Or take the Black Lives Matter protests as an example. As millions of protesters demanded an end to police brutality and systemic racism, many of the same corporations that expressed public support for the movement continued to fund politicians and industry groups that promote racial discrimination. Meanwhile, several American corporations have provided spying technologies that police have used to suppress Black Lives Matter protests and other social movements.

The same pattern is happening throughout the world. Multinational corporations are profiting from the destruction of the Amazon, forced labor camps that target Uighur communities in China, and the mega-development projects that forcefully evict hundreds of thousands of people from their homes each year.

Corporate capture of the U.S. government

In a new white paper, my colleagues and I look at the global problem of corporate abuse and what the United States can do about it.

Disturbingly, we find that the United States has become a safe haven for corporate human rights abuses. The U.S. government can do something about this problem — it has numerous legal tools and authorities. But politicians in power have chosen not to do anything.

This trend is a direct result of the corporate capture of all three branches of the U.S. government. The government has increasingly provided corporations with rights and privileges beyond what most citizens enjoy. This includes, for example, rights to influence the political system in ways that ordinary citizens cannot, as well as freedom from federal taxation. Meanwhile, corporations have used their political power to evade liability when they cause harm to others, both domestically and overseas.

The U.S. government’s decision to confront or ignore corporate abuse has global repercussions. Multinational corporations that do business in the United States have long partnered with foreign governments, security forces, and local elites engaged in serious corruption and human rights abuses committed overseas. 

When corporations face public pressure to stop human rights abuses, they evade accountability by promising to take voluntary action. For example, the cocoa industry faced criticism in the late 1990s and early 2000s for profiting from child slave labor in its supply chains in West Africa. The House of Representatives passed a bill that would have regulated the industry, but industry lobbyists promised lawmakers that they could solve the problem on their own. Almost 20 years later, researchers have found that child slave labor has only grown worse on West Africa cocoa plantations. But the promise of voluntary action was enough to prevent Congress from taking more robust measures.

Through the State Department, the U.S. government participates in many voluntary initiatives that raise awareness about business-related human rights abuses. But none of these initiatives provide legal accountability for corporations that engage in wrongdoing. Nor do they help victims of these abuses seek remedies. Meanwhile, the U.S. government rarely, if ever, prosecutes corporations for abuses committed overseas. While criminal prosecutions have occasionally resulted in important victories, many corporations get away with little more than a slap on the wrist. As a result, corporations lack the incentive to make real changes.

Seeking accountability in court

Many victims of corporate human rights abuses have brought civil lawsuits in U.S. courts, especially when they cannot obtain justice in their home countries. The U.S. government has often sided with corporations in these lawsuits, increasingly doing so under the Trump administration. The Supreme Court has also made it increasingly difficult for victims to obtain access to remedies, even from corporations with strong ties to the United States. 

In 2021, the Supreme Court will issue a decision in a civil lawsuit brought by former child slaves who have spent the past fifteen years seeking remedies from chocolate giants Nestlé and Cargill for the harm caused to them. It’s too early to know the outcome of this case, but the Trump administration and corporate lobbies have asked the Supreme Court to use the case as an opportunity to end victims’ ability to bring lawsuits in U.S. courts against corporations for human rights abuses committed abroad.

It’s time for corporate accountability

All of this points to a clear gap that needs filling. If the U.S. government wants to re-establish itself as a global leader on human rights, it cannot allow the United States to be a safe haven for corporate human rights abuses.

In our report, we highlight some ways that the U.S. government could confront corporate abuse. Congress should pass a human rights version of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act — a law that has a proven track record of fighting against bribery while also “leveling the playing field” for American businesses. Using a similar model for human rights would be cost-effective and familiar for companies.

Congress must ensure that victims of corporate human rights abuses can seek remedies in U.S. courts. Doing business in the United States is a privilege, not a right. If multinational corporations — both U.S. and foreign — want to profit from America’s consumer markets and capital markets, they need to adhere to American values throughout their supply chains.

But the Biden administration does not need to wait for Congress to act. The president already has many legal tools to respond to corporate human rights abuses. For example, the Department of Justice has the authority to investigate and prosecute corporations that violate federal human rights statutes, and the Department of Treasury could issue sanctions against corporations that violate human rights.

President-elect Biden faces the daunting task of leading the country through a tumultuous period. To be successful, the administration will need to take bold steps. This includes sending a clear message that corporations are important partners of the U.S. government but are not above the law.

To learn more about the actions that President Biden and Congress can take, please read Cancel Corporate Abuse: How the United States Can Lead on Business and Human Rights

You can also visit our campaign webpage and take action to ask Congress to stop corporate abuse.