Executive Order Targets Enablers of Atrocities, and Companies Should Follow Suit
President Obama commemorated Genocide Prevention Month on Monday with a renewed commitment to marshal the full range of U.S. power to prevent mass atrocities. In his speech at the U.S. Holocaust Museum and Memorial, he announced the formal creation of the high-level, interagency Atrocities Prevention Board (APB) and rolled out new reforms to support the APB’s mission of making “never again” a reality. One of these reforms is the “GHRAVITY sanctions” – a set of punitive measures targeting those who commit or facilitate grave human rights abuses via information technology in Syria and Iran. The GHRAVITY sanctions are a novel tool, allowing the United States to target not just those who carry out widespread and systematic attacks on civilians but also those who provide them with technology to monitor, track, and target potential victims. Human Rights First has long argued that any effective U.S. strategy to prevent or address mass atrocity situations must include a government-wide focus on third-party enablers – the individuals, companies, and countries that provide material and technical support to perpetrators. The GHRAVITY sanctions represent an important step toward that end, and we applaud the Obama Administration’s call for new financial tools, such as these, that seek to disrupt the supply chains that fuel genocide and other mass atrocities. Another notable reform is the expansion of financial levers that the U.S. government can utilize. Specifically, the Obama Administration instructs the Treasury Department to “position itself to more quickly use its financial tools to block the flow of money to abusive regimes” and “explore with international partners the use of additional financial measure for preventing and responding to atrocities.” These reforms will be more effective if used not only to isolate oppressive regimes but also to disrupt material support from third parties. The responsibility to ensure that American entities aren’t enabling atrocities elsewhere doesn’t stop at the Treasury Department. With the GHRAVITY sanctions, the Obama Administration sends a signal to all companies that sell or provide technological support to oppressive regimes like Syria and Iran – but also Bahrain, Egypt, and Yemen. Companies that do business with repressive regimes play a pivotal role in undermining efforts to protect civilians, transition to democracy, and uphold international human rights. Companies in every sector have an internationally recognized responsibility to protect human rights. They have a responsibility that goes beyond mere compliance with the law: “a social responsibility over and above compliance…as business goes about its business, it should not infringe on the rights of others,” in the words of John Ruggie, the former UN Special Representative for Business and Human Rights. Companies should immediately assess the possible human rights impact of their activities in the Middle East. This is the first step in what should be a broader effort to mitigate negative consequences. In undertaking this assessment, companies should review relationships with their partners, suppliers and distributors to confirm that they have policies and procedures to prevent or minimize sales to repressive regimes – and if not, to address this gap. Finally, ahead of future sales, companies should consider safeguard measures, technical or otherwise, to limit abuse by government purchases. Both the U.S. government and the multi-stakeholder Global Network Initiative can play a role in helping companies to undertake these due diligence measures. As the Obama Administration’s announcement makes clear, the United States is committed to ensuring an end to mass atrocities and will be looking closely at the role of enablers. Companies are on notice and should move swiftly to demonstrate their commitment to this policy.