Defense industry ignores threats to human rights

Arab Unreported
Sep 17 · 6 min read

The world’s largest defence contractors are preparing for their participation in an international arms fair in London these days. Now a new Amnesty International report shows that industrial companies such as Airbus, BAE Systems and Raytheon do not use due diligence in the area of ​​human rights to prevent their products from being used in possible human rights violations and war crimes.

For the Outsourcing Responsibility report, Amnesty International surveyed 22 defence companies on how to fulfil their responsibility to uphold human rights in accordance with internationally recognized standards. Many of the surveyed companies are providing weapons to countries accused of war crimes and gross human rights violations, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

None of the responding companies could adequately explain how it responds to its responsibility for human rights or demonstrates reasonable due diligence; 14 companies did not respond at all.

“The role of defence contractors in deadly conflicts marked by serious human rights violations has been hushed up for far too long. While states such as the UK are rightfully being brought to justice for their reckless arms trafficking, companies that benefit from supplying weapons to countries involved in these conflicts have largely managed to escape control, “said Patrick Wilcken, expert for Arms Trade Control at Amnesty International.

“Not one of the companies we mentioned could prove to have properly complied with its human rights due diligence. Not only does this testify to alarming indifference to the human costs of their industry, but it could also result in these companies and their bosses being prosecuted for complicity in war crimes. “

Amnesty interviewed 22 defense companies from eleven countries, including Airbus (Netherlands), Arquus (France), Boeing (USA), BAE Systems (UK), Leonardo (Italy), Lockheed Martin (UK), Raytheon (USA), Rosoboronexport (Russia) , Thales (France) and Zastava (Serbia). A complete list of answers can be found here.

While states’ human rights obligations to regulate international arms trafficking under the Arms Trade Agreement and regional and national laws are clearly defined, the crucial role companies play in the delivery of military goods and services is often overlooked, despite the nature of their business and operations involves risks.

Weapons for use in Yemen

From 10 to 13 September, Defense & Security Equipment International (DSEI), one of the world’s largest weapon fairs, will take place in London. Exhibitors include companies that have been making millions in arms and services for the military campaign in Yemen, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

BAE Systems, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon, for example, have been instrumental in the Coalition’s military action as they have equipped weapon systems with several fighter jets that have repeatedly hit civilian properties such as homes, schools, hospitals, and marketplaces.

None of these companies explained how it had fulfilled its human rights due diligence to assess and prevent the risks of supplying arms and services to the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

In one case, Amnesty International traced the fragment of a bomb from the scene of an air raid in Sana’a that killed six children and their parents in 2017 to the Raytheon plant in Arizona.

When asked by Amnesty International what steps Raytheon took to investigate and respond to this incident, the company responded: “Due to legal restrictions, customer concerns … Raytheon does not share information about its products, customers or operational issues. “

It also stated that the export of military and security equipment is “subject to extensive review by the US Department of State, the Department of Defense and Congress”.

Outsourcing of responsibility

“Most companies indicated in their response to Amnesty International that their home states were responsible for assessing human rights risks as part of the weapons licensing process,” says Patrick Wilcken.

“But government regulation, regardless of the sector in which they operate, does not exempt companies from their human rights due diligence. Hiding behind governments is not enough, especially if it has been proven that mistakes have been made in granting permits and governments that grant them, even for their involvement in war crimes and other violations of human rights of criticism. »

BAE Systems described the conclusions of Amnesty International as “false and misleading,” adding that BAE Systems uses its policies and processes in compliance with laws and regulations as part of its trade policy. However, when asked about compliance with human rights due diligence in connection with the company’s dealings with Saudi Arabia, the company replied: “Our activities in Saudi Arabia are subject to the approval and supervision of the UK Government.”

Leonardo stated that Amnesty International’s conclusions were “not entirely fair” and that the company is fulfilling its human rights due diligence to an extent that goes beyond complying with national laws and regulations on arms export licensing. However, the company did not explain in more detail what exactly this means in practice — for example, in the export of armaments to the coalition from Saudi Arabia and the UAE for use in the Yemen conflict.

14 companies did not respond to Amnesty’s request. These include the Russian arms exporter Rosoboronexport, which supplied military equipment to the Syrian army accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. There was no answer from Zastava, a Serbian company whose rifles could link Amnesty to a horrendous mass execution in Cameroon, or from Arquus (formerly Renault Trucks Défense), a French company that delivered armoured vehicles to Egypt where they did use to crack down on protesters.

Amnesty International urges armaments companies to review their clients’ past behaviour against human rights standards, to contractually maintain high expectations for compliance with international human rights standards, to continuously monitor and regularly monitor compliance by their clients, and to take advantage of opportunities to influence customer behaviour.

“Defense companies wash their hands into innocence by claiming they have no control over their use after shipping their goods. However, this argument is neither legally nor ethically tenable — it is high time for companies to take responsibility for their decisions », says Patrick Wilcken.


According to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, as unanimously approved by the UN Human Rights Council in June 2011, all companies have a responsibility for respecting human rights. Under this responsibility, they have a duty of care to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for the potential and actual negative impacts of their activities on human rights.

For the defence sector, this means that companies must assess and combat potential human rights risks and infringements in all areas of their business, including how their customers, including armies and police, use their weapons and related services.

The primary purpose of due diligence is to refrain from causing or contributing to human rights violations. Therefore, if a company can not prevent or adequately mitigate adverse human rights impacts, it should avoid or discontinue the supply of the relevant weapons and related services. These responsibilities go beyond complying with national laws and regulations — such as state approval procedures — for the protection of human rights.

Failure to comply with due human rights due diligence increases both the risk of reputational damage and the legal risks to an industry that delivers high-risk products to dangerous regions. Legal concepts such as the “complicity” and “aiding” of companies in committing crimes under international law continue to evolve and could in future apply to arms companies that continue to supply weapons, although they know they may commit or facilitate grave violations international human rights law or international humanitarian law.

Amnesty International has contacted 22 defence companies, of which the following eight answered: Airbus, BAE Systems, Leonardo, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Rolls-Royce, Saab and Thales. From the other 14 companies — Arquus, Avibras, Boeing, Dassault Aviation, Elbit Systems, Embraer, Heckler and Koch, General Dynamics, Herstal Group, Norinco, Northrop Grumman, Remington Outdoor, Rosoboronexport and Zastava — remained the answer.


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