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Tech companies operating with opacity in Israel-Palestine

Tech firms operating in Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel are falling “woefully short” of their human rights responsibilities amid escalating devastation in Gaza, says Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

Only four of 115 technology companies operating in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) and Israel have responded to a survey asking about the steps they are taking to avoid contributing to further harm in the conflict in Gaza.

Of the firms contacted by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) since December 2023, the only four that responded are Ericsson, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), TikTok and Meta.

The BHRRC invited the companies to provide details of their approach to due diligence concerning human rights in the conflict areas.

“The private sector has a crucial role to play in ensuring it is not contributing to further harm in the region – and tech companies, in particular, must recognise their role in this crisis,” said BHRRC executive director Phil Bloomer.

“They must demonstrate they are straining every sinew to avoid worsening the disaster by undertaking ‘heightened human rights due diligence’ – identifying salient human rights risks and plans to mitigate them. This goes beyond what is normally required of companies, given the danger of perpetuating the conflict. And it starts with transparency.”

While only HPE reported having a human rights policy in place that includes specific measures on enhanced conflict-related due diligence, Ericsson responded that the presence of armed conflict is “an important factor” in its consideration of human rights, and TikTok was the only company to mention international human rights law.

The BHRRC said Meta did not respond to any questions directly, but did provide information on its efforts to combat misinformation and hate speech on its dedicated website.

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The BHRRC, which regularly conducts these types of outreach exercises, noted the “astonishingly low 3% response rate is unprecedented” in the organisation’s history. In comparison, a similar survey ran by the BHRRC in relation to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine noted that 29% of companies responded to questions about their heightened human rights due diligence in the context of that conflict.  

While the scope of that survey was wider than technology companies, the BHRRC said the tech sector was the most responsive.

Commenting on tech firms’ “deafening silence” around how they are controlling their technology being used, Bloomer added that there is a real danger their unregulated actions will pour fuel on the conflict’s fire.

“With notable exceptions, their apparent sense of impunity sends a clear message to investors and governments: robust regulation and continuous engagement are critical to ensure respect for human rights by the tech sector,” he said.

The BHRRC added that the decision by 111 firms to not respond would appear to be a purposeful policy choice: “The four respondees’ answers illustrate this is not rocket science, and with adequate will and resources the risks of human rights abuse can be mitigated as well as communicated.

It further added that the “comprehensive response” provided by Ericsson, for example, about its heightened human rights due diligence efforts and robust risk mitigation undertakings, demonstrate better practice is possible: “Investors and governments that facilitate corporate profits and presence in the region must now insist on heightened due diligence, risk mitigation and stakeholder engagement in the context of this conflict – as they have in others.”

The BHRRC said the 115 technology firms were selected based on their mentions in news articles on the conflict, reports by digital rights organisations highlighting harms impacting people, and research projects exposing companies’ involvement in the conflict.

Credible risk of genocide

At the start of April 2024 – just over two months after the International Criminal Court issued its ruling warning of the credible risk of genocide in Gaza – the United Nations’ (UN’s) 150th update on the hostilities noted that over 33,000 Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli military since 7 October 2023, while over 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals have been killed by Hamas in the same time; the vast majority during its initial attack in October.

A group of 19 UN special rapporteurs previously described the conditions in Gaza as “apocalyptic” at the end of January, noting that over 26,700 Palestinians had been killed by Israeli forces up to that point. A smaller group of five rapporteurs later noted that by 15 April, 1.7 million people (or 75% of all Gaza residents) had been displaced, with 60 to 70% of all homes in Gaza having been either completely destroyed or partially damaged.

Regarding the role of technology companies, the BHRRC said firms operating in the region have been linked to a host of alleged human rights violations through the Israeli state’s potential use of their products and tools, including the use of artificial intelligence to designate targets for its bombing campaign; the censorship of Palestinian voices on social media platforms, as well as failures to address the spread of hate speech; and the intensifying use of facial recognition and other surveillance tech to track people’s movements.

According to the UN’s Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) from 2011 – which have since been iterated on and further defined by other UN offices and bodies – enterprises operating in situations of armed conflict must “respect the standards” of international law, and will therefore need to conduct heightened human rights due diligence on their operations and supply chains.

“The responsibility to respect human rights requires that business enterprises: (a) avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through their own activities, and address such impacts when they occur; (b) seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts,” says the principles document.

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