The proposed shareholder resolution also highlights Amazon’s relationship with the United Arab Emirates, which has been documented as targeting human rights defenders, journalists, and political dissidents.
One group supporting the new resolution is the faith-based organization Investor Advocates for Social Justice. Founded 40 years ago as the Tri-State Coalition of Responsible Investors, the group’s first action was to campaign against apartheid in South Africa by boycotting and encouraging divestment from companies like American Express, IBM, and Shell. The Amazon resolution is intended to target apartheid-like systems that exist today, says executive director Courtney Wicks.
“You have to ask what Amazon and the entire tech sector is doing,” Wicks says. “They make all these commitments around human rights, but at the core of their business plan is selling products to customers with a track record of human rights abuses.” Wicks would like to see Amazon introduce a screening process to vet potential government customers and turn down contracts likely to contribute to human rights violations.
Should Amazon shareholders approve the resolution, the company will be forced to join others that have been pressured by shareholders into paying more attention to the potential uses of their products.
Investor pressure led Microsoft to agree last year to conduct a human rights impact assessment of government contracts that Microsoft spokesperson Michelle Micor told Startup is due out in early 2023. Outside of the tech industry, IASJ negotiated racial equity audits at Tyson Foods and Dow Chemical Company in December 2021 and March 2022, respectively.
But designating certain business practices as taboo doesn’t always change a company’s trajectory. Following protests against an AI contract with the US Department of Defense, Google in 2018 adopted AI ethics principles that forbid working on weapons or tech that goes against “widely accepted principles of international law and human rights.” Yet the company has since increased its defense work, both in the US and elsewhere, for instance with the Israel contract. A Google spokesperson told Startup this year that although “not directed at highly sensitive or classified military workloads,” that deal supplies Google technology to the Israeli military.
Outside assessments of a company’s impact on human rights, as suggested today for Amazon, can also fall short. Facebook, for instance, commissioned an independent study of the platform’s possible role in the genocide of the Rohingya people in Myanmar, but a Harvard review last year found that the report failed to adequately assess the most significant roles played by the company’s products. The Harvard review warned that the relatively new tool of human-rights impact assessments risks being used as “ethics washing” by businesses attempting to avoid accountability. It said that in order to be effective, human-rights impact assessments must be done on an ongoing basis, after an initial baseline assessment.
A date has not been set for the next annual Amazon shareholder meeting, but it is expected to take place in spring 2023. It’s unusual for externally driven shareholder proposals to succeed, says Michael Pachter, managing director of equity research at Wedbush Securities. But he believes Amazon shareholders are now more passionate about environmental, social, and governance matters than in the past. Overall, he guesses the resolution has a 50-50 chance of passing.
“I see no real impediment to voting for this, nor do I see a massive pushback from Amazon management,” Pachter says. “While they might recommend against the proposal, they have to take the matter seriously by saying, ‘We would do this on our own anyway,’ and by demonstrating that they’re cognizant of the risks of supporting governments with poor human rights records.”
Updated 12-15-2022, 1.45 pm EST: This story has been updated to clarify that American Baptist Home Mission Societies filed the Amazon shareholder resolution.