Is selling police equipment to a notoriously brutal government tantamount to assisting in torture?
William Schulz believes that it can be, and that these types of sales are one of the principal ways in which businesses can entangle themselves with torturers. Schulz, former executive director of Amnesty International, spoke during a presentation in early May sponsored by Wharton’s Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research.
Seldom are businesses in the developed world implicated directly in torture but, too often, they avert their eyes as their products, purchases or independent contractors support abuses, according to Schulz, who is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank based in Washington, DC. He cited the case of Taser International, the Scottsdale, Arizona, manufacturer of “stun guns”. Taser’s devices—sold domestically to police departments and private citizens—shoot electrified barbs that cause a flash of intense pain and momentary muscle failure.
Illustration by: Malay Karmakar / Mint
The US commerce department has documented the sale of Tasers to countries, including Saudi Arabia, that are known for using electro-shock devices as tools of torture, he said.
Selling tools isn’t the only way in which firms find themselves linked to torturers, Schulz said. Sometimes, they hire guards who end up abusing people while protecting a company’s property. Unocal, a California oil-and-gas company, for example, was accused in US courts of employing soldiers in Myanmar who tortured, raped and killed villagers while guarding a pipeline. The villagers sued in the US under the Alien Torts Claims Act, and Unocal settled in 2004.
Firms sometimes do business directly with repressive regimes or rebel groups and, in effect, fund their practices, according to Schulz. This predicament arises most often in extractive industries, such as mining and oil and gas, where the largest remaining reserves tend to be located in developing countries that either have autocratic governments or are embroiled in civil war,he noted.
Perhaps the most notorious example is the diamond industry. In Sierra Leone and Angola, diamond sales supported insurgencies to such an extent that theUnited Nations adopted a resolution condemning trade in what it called “conflict diamonds”.
In making judgements about whether to refuse to operate or invest in a country, Schulz said that firms must consider a variety of factors. The most obvious, besides the directness of the link, is the severity of the abuses. Another is how dependent the country’s government is on the sales of a given commodity. In Sudan, for example, oil is the country’s lifeblood. “I don’t pretend that the ethical questions are easy. You make judgements where you think you can have an impact and where the crime is serious enough.”
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