The proposed shareholder resolution also highlights Amazon’s relationship with the United Arab Emirates, which documents say targets 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 of companies such as 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 wonder what Amazon and the whole tech industry is doing,” says Wicks. “They make all these commitments around human rights, but the core of their business plan is selling products to customers with a track record of human rights violations.” Wicks would like to see Amazon introduce a screening process to vet potential government customers and reject contracts likely to contribute to human rights violations.
If Amazon shareholders pass the resolution, the company will be forced to join others who have been pressured by shareholders to pay more attention to the potential uses of their products.
Pressure from investors got Microsoft to agree last year to conduct a human rights impact assessment of government contracts that Microsoft spokesperson Michelle Micor told WIRED will be released in early 2023. Outside of the tech industry, IASJ negotiated racial equality audits at Tyson Foods and Dow Chemical Company in December 2021 and March 2022 respectively.
But labeling certain business practices as taboo doesn’t always change a company’s trajectory. After protests against an AI contract with the US Department of Defense, Google adopted it in 2018 AI ethical principles which prohibit work on weapons or technology that goes against “generally accepted principles of international law and human rights”. Yet the company has since expanded its defense work, both in the US and elsewhere, for example with the Israel contract. A Google spokesperson told WIRED this year that while “not targeting highly sensitive or classified military workloads,” that deal provides Google technology to the Israeli military.
External assessments of a company’s impact on human rights, as proposed today for Amazon, may also fall short. For example, Facebook has commissioned an independent investigation into the possible role of the platform in the genocide of the Rohingya population in Myanmar, but a Harvard review Last year, the report found it failed to adequately assess the key role the company’s products play. The Harvard review warned that the relatively new tool of human rights impact assessments risks being used as “ethical washing” by companies seeking accountability. It said that to be effective, human rights impact assessments must be conducted on an ongoing basis, after an initial baseline assessment.
No date has been set for Amazon’s next annual shareholder meeting, but it is expected to take place in the spring of 2023. It is unusual for externally-driven shareholder proposals to succeed, said Michael Pachter, director of equity research at Wedbush Securities. But he believes Amazon shareholders are now more passionate about environmental, social and governance issues than they were in the past. Overall, he estimates the resolution has a 50-50 chance of success.
“I don’t see any real barrier to voting for this, nor do I see a massive backlash from Amazon management,” says Pachter. “While they may advise against the proposal, they should take the matter seriously by saying, ‘We would do this on our own anyway’, and by demonstrating that they are aware of the risks of supporting governments with a poor record of human rights service. ”
Updated 12/15/22, 1:45 PM EST: This story has been updated to clarify that American Baptist Home Mission Societies filed Amazon’s shareholder resolution.