The Chamber of Commerce’s Sorry Record on Human Rights

Egyptian President Abdel Fatah Al Sisi took power in a military coup in 2013, overthrowing the country’s democratically elected president. Since that time, Sisi has embarked upon a violent crackdown on democratic freedoms. It is estimated that he has arrested and jailed more than 40,000 political prisoners. Journalists are among the detained and torture is allegedly common in Sisi’s prisons. Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are severely abridged and civil society groups are routinely persecuted. As if all this weren’t bad enough, Sisi’s security forces have been implicated in a wave of extra-judicial killings.

Ignoring this abysmal human rights record, President Trump invited Sisi to Washington and lavishly praised him during their White House meeting on April 3rd. Given Trump’s affinity for strongmen, we perhaps shouldn’t be surprised that he would fête a leader with such a horrifying record of human rights abuses.

But Trump wasn’t the only person who fêted Sisi while he was in Washington. So did U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue. He welcomed Sisi to the Chamber’s headquarters across the street from the White House and one of his lieutenants declared that “[e]arly indications show we have entered a promising new period defined by the opportunity to forge a stronger partnership between the United States and Egypt based on common, vital interests.”

What are those “common, vital interests?” The Chamber highlights the two nations’ $5 billion in bilateral trade. It also mentions regulatory cooperation, entrepreneurism, and intellectual property rights as priority areas on which to focus.

Not one word on human rights.

Unfortunately, the Chamber’s embrace of Sisi and its silence about his appalling human rights record is business as usual for the group. Time and again, the Chamber has welcomed foreign leaders accused of gross human rights violations or opposed U.S. government actions to protect human rights overseas.

For example, in August of 2016, the Chamber hosted the foreign ministers of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan despite the fact that all five of these nations engage in serious human rights abuses according to Human Rights Watch. What’s more, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are accused of using the largest state-sponsored forced labor systems of cotton production in the world. One has to wonder why an American business group would want to associate itself with business practices that are antithetical to the responsible business practices that many of its member firms publicly promote.

In January of 2016, the Chamber urged the elimination of responsible investment reporting requirements in Myanmar. This despite the fact that Myanmar’s repressive military remains in tight control of many economic sectors, creating a risk that foreign investment in the country could lead to complicity in human rights abuses. What’s more, the one company that also offered written comments on the reporting requirements, Gap (which is also a Chamber member), supported these reporting requirements as being a useful for tool for improving labor practices and human rights in Myanmar.

The Chamber has also been a consistent opponent of transparency with respect to conflict minerals. Proceeds from the mining of these minerals have funded the ongoing conflict between various armed factions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which is responsible for an estimated 5.4 million deaths as well as an epidemic of sexual violence. In an effort to curtail international demand for minerals mined in the DRC and thereby extinguish the flow of money fueling the fighting, the U.S. government required that companies producing and/or selling products containing such minerals determine whether their products contained minerals from the DRC and publicly disclose whether their products were free of such minerals. The Chamber sued to block the implementation of this rule. In suing to block the conflict mineral rule, the Chamber ignored the position of companies such as Microsoft, General Electric, AT&T, HP, Dell, Intel, IBM, and Verizon (at least some of whom are Chamber members) who all publicly support the rule.

Alien tort statute litigation is another area where the Chamber has shown a complete lack of concern for human rights. The alien tort statute gives non-citizens the right to sue in U.S. courts in certain circumstances. In these alien tort cases, the Chamber has repeatedly supported multinational corporations, arguing that they shouldn’t be sued in U.S. courts for alleged complicity in human rights abuses overseas. For example, the Chamber supported Royal Dutch Shell, accused of complicity in a Nigerian government campaign against demonstrators protesting environmental degradations caused by Shell’s oil drilling. The campaign is alleged to have involved rape, looting, and pillaging. The Chamber also supported Rio Tinto, accused of complicity in atrocities including rape, pillaging, aerial bombardment of civilians, and the burning of villages during a civil war in Papua New Guinea.

The Chamber’s blatant and repeated disregard for human rights has not only placed it at odds with individual companies on specific policy questions, but it has also shown the Chamber to be increasingly out of step with the growing trend of greater business attention to human rights issues. The United Nations has developed guiding principles for business and human rights under the auspices of its global compact. An increasing number of companies around the world are signing on to these principles.

Unfortunately, the Chamber remains wedded to its “profits before people” way of thinking. While the Chamber’s total indifference to human rights is of course morally bankrupt, it is ultimately short-sighted and bad for business too. Those thousands of jailed Egyptians, thousands of enslaved Turkmen and Uzbeks, and millions of dead Congolese, they also represent so many economic actors – consumers but also innovators and entrepreneurs the Chamber claims to champion – who have been quite literally erased from the economy by the strongmen or armed militias who rule over them. What’s more, autocratic, violent regimes are incompatible with the climate of free-wheeling critical thinking that favors innovation and economic growth.

The Chamber’s support for tyrants such as Sisi begs the question: does the Chamber really even care about economic growth, innovation, and entrepreneurism? Or is it just dedicated to defending the modern feudal order, preserving the rights of the strong while resisting any attempts to empower the weak?