It’s time to expand the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act to protect against human rights abuses around the world

As Donald Trump’s impeachment trial kicks off in the Senate, a new book “A Very Stable Genius,” reveals that early in his presidency, Trump disparaged and proposed eliminating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), a landmark U.S. law that makes it illegal for U.S-listed companies to bribe foreign government officials. The law is vital to the integrity of our democracy has helped make the U.S a global leader in the fight against corporate corruption. But instead of rolling back, or eliminating, the FCPA as Trump suggests, we should be doing just the opposite–replicating, strengthening,  and expanding it to tackle an issue largely uncovered by existing legislation: corporate human rights violations.   

A Deadly Gap in U.S. Law

At the moment U.S. law does not expressly prohibit corporations from engaging in gross human rights crimes. Companies can commit (or pay people to commit) torture, forced labor, and murder in their foreign operations and get away with it. 

And unfortunately, U.S. companies have been connected to these kinds of acts. Chiquita Brands International’s involvement in the killing of local community members by paramilitary groups in Colombia in the 1990s and 2000s is one notable example. Recent Supreme Court decisions have further undermined the use of U.S. Courts to hold corporations accountable for human rights crimes abroad.

This gap in legal oversight used to exist in regards to corruption. The FCPA changed all that when Congress passed it in the mid-1970s following a series of high-profile corporate corruption scandals. 

 Like Trump, corporations complained that the law would put them at a competitive disadvantage because paying bribes was simply a cost of doing business. That turned out to be false. In fact, companies could use the law as a shield against demands for under the table payments. Major companies, even ethically dubious ones like ExxonMobil, even spoke out publicly in support of the law.

Leveling the Playing Field

A similar kind of dynamic could play out with human rights. With a human rights version of the FCPA, if a U.S.-listed company was extorted by a paramilitary group or forced to pay a sketchy police unit, the company could cite the law as a reason for refusing to do so. 

The existence of such a statute could also help create a level playing field for other countries to adopt, which is what has happened with global anti-corruption regulations. 

Anti-Corruption and Human Rights are American Values

Violating human rights, like corruption, goes against American values and is simply bad for business. 

Companies that don’t engage in corruption and that demonstrate better respect for human rights can see benefits to their bottom line.

Despite Trump’s bloviation, laws like the FPCA have helped promote transparency and fair play while also contributing to profitability.  They should be strengthened and expanded to cover human rights rather than attacked and undermined. That’s why we need Congress to step up and create new legislation that would make corporate violations of human rights illegal. Doing so would go a long way toward canceling corporate abuse.


Keith Slack is the Director of Strategic Impact and Campaigns at EarthRights International.