Outsourcing responsibility: human rights policies in the defence sector

International trade Military equipment Human rights Corporate social responsibility
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Every year corporate actors supply large volumes of military equipment to some of the most violent and unstable parts of the world. This equipment is often used unlawfully in the context of armed conflicts and in political unrest marred by serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.

In the Yemen conflict, for instance, leading defence companies have continued to supply arms to the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), seemingly ignoring a litany of probable war crimes committed by coalition forces. Boeing, BAE Systems, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, among others, have been integral to the coalition effort, supplying, servicing and arming a fleet of combat aircraft that has repeatedly struck civilian objects, including residential areas, schools, hospitals and marketplaces.

While the human rights obligations of states to regulate the international arms trade are now clearly defined under the Arms Trade Treaty and regional and domestic legislation, the crucial role of companies in the supply of military goods and services is often overlooked. Despite the often inherently dangerous nature of its business and products, the defence industry has not been the subject of the same level of scrutiny as other sectors – such as the extractive, agricultural, garment and tech industries – in relation to their human rights responsibilities. The defence sector has also been slow to acknowledge publicly its own responsibilities to prevent adverse human rights impacts in core areas of its business – namely the supply of arms to areas of conflict and upheaval.

Like all companies, corporates operating in the defence sector must put in place proactive preventive measures to address the human rights risks that the misuse of their products and services pose. These measures should include robust human rights due diligence policies and processes – separate from those of the state – to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for how companies address both their potential and actual human rights impacts. Effective due diligence must be commensurate with risk, adequately resourced and geared towards the prevention of harm to others. Should companies fail to take adequate preventive measures, they are opening themselves up not just to reputational risk but to potential legal liability

Amnesty International contacted 22 leading arms companies, focusing on large corporations in the aerospace defence sector, but also including manufacturers of armoured vehicles and small arms. After setting out company responsibilities under the UNGPs, Amnesty International asked them to elaborate on their human rights due diligence policies and processes, posing specific questions, including how they assess risks of adverse human rights impacts in situations of conflict/upheaval; how they monitor those risks; and what actions they take to address them, including providing or cooperating in the provision of remedy. Where relevant, Amnesty International also highlighted specific concerns in relation to the use of the company’s arms to commit serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.

This report focuses on Airbus, BAE Systems, Leonardo, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Rolls-Royce, Saab and Thales. All these companies supply military equipment and services to the Saudi Arabia/UAEled coalition which is a party to the ongoing conflict in Yemen, supplying and servicing combat and surveillance aircraft, aircraft engines and bomb guidance and delivery systems.

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