In a recent decision reported in the Guardian, a federal appeals court ruled that Caterpillar Inc. could not be sued over the death of an American peace activist who was crushed under bulldozers sold to the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). The story of Rachel Corrie, the activist who was crushed by a 60-ton Caterpillar D9 Bulldozer in Rafah, Gaza in 2003 while trying to prevent the razing of a Palestinian home by the Israeli army, achieved widespread media attention. Reports of the IDF’s razing of homes in Rafah were issued by numerous human rights watchdog organizations, including Human Rights Watch. Corrie’s family, along with four Palestinian families of victims killed while their houses were bulldozed, began legal proceedings against Caterpillar in 2005 for selling machines to Israel. Lawyers arguing for the families insisted that the company sold the bulldozers to the Israeli government on a commercial basis and knew, or should have known, that they would be used to demolish homes and kill innocent victims in violation of international law.
Explaining its decision, the court claimed that it could not rule in favor of the bereaved families "without implicitly questioning, and even condemning, United States foreign policy towards Israel." Of course, this is not the first time that U.S. companies have been implicated in mass human rights abuse and not had to answer for their participation. Indeed, U.S. companies have been intimately connected to the human rights abuses of regimes throughout modern history. Near the turn of the millennium, pressure from Jewish organizations finally forced the U.S. to begin looking at the use of slave labor by U.S. corporations (and their subsidiaries) in Nazi Germany.
A court case brought against Ford Motor Co. was dismissed, but Ford admitted that its German subsidiary, Ford-Werke AG, used labor at the Buchenwald concentration camp to build vehicles. Other major U.S. corporations that continued to operate in Nazi-occupied Europe and used slave labor include General Motors, Chase Manhattan Bank and JP Morgan. ''There are things that have to be faced up to,'' alleged Elan Steinberg, World Jewish Congress executive director, ''American companies were collaborating with Nazi Germany at a time when we were at war, because there was an ethos that demanded huge profits at the expense of everything else.''
Modern history is peppered with examples of corporations seeking profit during periods of mass human rights abuse: In the 1970s, the U.S. manufacturing giant, ITT, and others helped overthrow democracy and install the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile (to listen to the Nixon Whitehouse tape that acknowledges this relationship visit GWU’s website, The National SecurityArchive). Numerous companies supported South African apartheid, including U.S. giants IBM, General Motors, ExxonMobil, J.P Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Caltex Petroleum Corporation, Ford Motor Company and the Fluor Corporation. In 2002 a group of South Africansunsuccessfully sued 20 banks and corporations that did business in South Africa during apartheid. The list goes on and on.
Even if these corporations are not held accountable for their role in mass human rights abuse and economic activities are allowed to take legal precedence over human rights, it is of vital importance to recognize the role that corporations play in this abuse. It appears to be the responsibility of the public to put pressure on corporations to consider where they do business and with whom.