The International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR) is a firm believer in collaborative, intentional change. In an effort to alter laws and norms for the better in a sustainable way, it works with a wide variety of stakeholders – many who also occupy the civil society space – and seeks to elevate myriad perspectives in its work. This leads ICAR to engage in coalition work and partnerships that, while at times slow-going, affirm ICAR’s desire to make change that is long-lasting and meets the desires of many.
All of ICAR’s initiatives, research, and projects are intended to help realize a future in which we operate under a rights-based economy. Thus, its projects to achieve worker rights, tackle corporate-driven corruption, create mechanisms for corporate accountability, and reform supply chains, among others, all contribute to this holistic vision. To this end, ICAR has been effective in creating guidelines aligned with its ideals for various industries to meet and in inserting language into global declarations that uphold the ideal of better supply chains. (For example, it has created an Apparel and Footwear Supply Chain Transparency Pledge in which a multitude of companies have participated, and helped change global norms through advocating for rights-based language that was added to the G20 2017 Leaders’ Declaration.)
Although this might not be the express intention, ICAR researches – and publishes its research – in a way that is wonderfully, and critically, accessible to the public. In its efforts to understand the future of work, to push for supply chains that respect and protect human and environmental rights, to build a better trade regime, and to ensure accountability for corporate wrongdoers, ICAR engages with stakeholders and releases its findings free of charge on its website. This gives regular people the ability to understand ICAR’s work and track its progress on various initiatives. Ultimately, this allows ICAR to “walk the talk” of transparency, demonstrating for others its commitments to knowledge and clarity, not just for those who it investigates, but also for itself. And, although building public interest and pressure in these areas is extremely challenging, ICAR’s public research and stances on different issues very clearly show its potential partners that it will work thoroughly and intensely on the issues to which it commits.
Another major element of ICAR’s strategy is adaptability. As ICAR works to hold corporations accountable to governments and to the public will, they must constantly employ new tactics in order to be successful in a changing landscape. The American – and global – political climate has been volatile over the past several years to say the least, with governance rapidly moving from being in favor of, to vehemently against, the world vision and mission for which ICAR fights. As such, the organization has adopted a wide array of strategies and initiatives to address various elements of corporate human rights violations, and even created a new position over the last year.
More specifically, ICAR has worked to confront the quickly evolving nature of labor and labor rights. To do so, it has expanded its efforts to realize workers rights, and the types of threats to labor rights that it examines. This includes investigating the ways in which automation and mechanization impacts human rights and recommendations for governments and industry to respond. Research on this topic culminated the release of the Robots and Rights report, which was launched at RightsCon in May 2018. This kind of information and research is vital for the public to understand the new challenges to human rights and to job attainment as automation increases. It can hopefully inform lawmakers and regulators as they address the impacts of these changes on the lives of workers.
Tackling corruption and corporate influence in politics are major elements of ICAR’s more recent initiatives, and are also ones in which ICAR has had to change its tactics in order to be effective. To take on these massive issues, especially during a time where the U.S. government seems more vulnerable to corporate power than at any point in recent memory, ICAR created a new position – Director of Advocacy and Campaigns – and hired my supervisor, Jana Morgan, to fill it. It did so after acknowledging that corporate capture was something so expansive that it required a new member of the team dedicated solely to this issue; otherwise this new area of work would spread the team too thin, or it would not get the attention it deserved. Jana is working to stop corporate-driven corruption through coalition work and through an effort to change the legislation that allows for it in the first place, which may take many years of dedicated and focused labor.
ICAR’s many initiatives are all aimed at adopting realistic tactics to achieve one lofty goal, while maintaining a collaborative spirit. ICAR’s efforts to work thoroughly, and to work with others, have resulted in powerful collective calls for the global community to do better and do right. The policies ICAR and its allies propose are consistently innovative and practical, shaping a better framework of global norms. Although ICAR’s work is slow, as it works toward long-term solutions, and it (along with civil society at large) is at odds with the current U.S. government, it works diligently and responsibly, with a strong track record of success.
In its pursuit of its vision for a better world, the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR) partners with organizations in the U.S. and abroad to responsibly fight for change. ICAR believes strongly in the idea of collective power, and, as a membership-based organization, seeks to engage other civil society actors in its mission to learn about and then seek to solve corporate human rights violations. It then targets its work toward legislators, policymakers, corporations, corporate investors, international governments, and various other stakeholders with the ability to make change, endeavoring to encourage those groups to fight for good. Further, ICAR strives to arm the average citizen with the ability to learn about and investigate corporate human rights violations through their published resources.
The Washington, D.C.-based organization works toward long-term, sustainable solutions to the factors that enable corporations to commit human rights abuses. It also works to develop and enact mechanisms of accountability and redress in cases where violations are committed. ICAR’s mission basically sums up its goals for society; it believes in “an economy that respects the rights of all people, not just powerful corporations,” and seeks to promote human rights and equality by holding corporations accountable for their actions. Further, ICAR asserts that the efforts of the corporate accountability movement to stop corporate abuses are absolutely tied to larger issues of inequality. Thus, it seeks a rights-based economy that not only holds corporations accountable for their actions, but also promotes a more equitable state of the world.
ICAR plays the long game when it comes to their strategies to effect change at home and abroad. In order to alter deeply embedded societal structures, such as long-established mechanisms that enable corporate abuse of workers or corporations influencing policymakers counter to the public interest, steps must be taken incrementally. Even significant steps, like publishing reports on supply chain abuse or forming a coalition to lobby legislators to change regulatory policy, may take years of sustained effort to be impactful. The current climate only complicates matters in the fight for public good and regulations that protect human rights. At present, politicians with an anti-regulatory agenda hold the most power, backed by powerful corporate interests (although that might change with the midterm elections).
As such, in its domestic work, ICAR and its civil society peers have been put on the defensive, and need to employ strategies to protect or restore accountability/regulatory mechanisms in addition to efforts to move forward and make positive change. Just recently there have been myriad rollbacks of Obama-era regulatory policies that protect workers, land rights, and other interests that directly align with ICAR’s work. ICAR has joined and spearheaded multiple coalitions in response to the unleashing of corporate power to wreak havoc on the citizens of America (and the world). This collaborative work is targeting harmful practices like, for example, Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, which are heavily impacting allies like Greenpeace, and issues like voting rights and the corrupting power of corporate money in politics.
Further, ICAR is utilizing multiple strategies to attack corporate capture. Corporate capture is the mechanism whereby corporations and extremely wealthy individuals or groups leverage their money and unduly influence domestic and international decision-makers. This almost always results in the undermining of human and environmental rights. Work against corporate capture is an integral part of ICAR’s recent efforts, as it submits letters to public officials, calls for changes in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and develops a new project to call out corporations that do the most harm in their efforts to influence government.
In its more internationally geared work, ICAR seeks to holistically change the culture and laws surrounding corporate behavior. It works to develop and secure legal frameworks promoting corporate respect for human rights, ensure compliance to those frameworks, provide remedy when corporations violate those laws, and create tools to assess the ethicality of a corporation’s supply chain, sourcing, or other business practices. Major corporations have an outsized impact over the lives of many worldwide, be it due to labor standards or to environmental degradation harming communities near sites of corporate operation. So, ICAR believes it is necessary to expand the conditions under which corporations can be held liable for their action to align accountability mechanisms with the scale of corporate power. ICAR works on procurement reform, labor practices, and other elements of the production process to try and improve the state of human rights.
The complex and multi-dimensional approach that ICAR takes to change is one that is absolutely vital in a rapidly changing landscape of corporate power and size. Although the impact of its work may be difficult to quantify in the short-term, ICAR is working toward the collective good in the long run in a manner that is aligned with the importance that it places on living good lives free from extreme harm. In its pursuit of a more equitable and just society, ICAR persists unfailingly to protect against the incredible harms of corruption and a non-rights based economy.
Josie and I conducted our first interview in Jordan together. We met with a Syrian woman and spoke to her via our translator, Maher, for around an hour, discovering every detail of her life. She was mostly soft spoken, and had a sweet, lightly freckled face with big, light brown eyes. Her demeanor was unimposing and contained. Her delicate body was hidden beneath a large, knee-length coat and hijab. Despite our language barrier, I could tell from our unbroken eye contact that she spoke with intention. Her laughter lit up the room, causing Maher and the other women in the room to laugh with her. I was upset that I could not hear her words firsthand, but I tried through body language and emotional expression to connect past the barrier of a person acting as an intermediary between us (while Maher is a translator and wonderful facilitator, connection is simply more difficult without immediate understanding).
Toward the end of the interview, we had covered a variety of topics that were not at all typical to those in the media’s “refugee narrative.” We instead talked about this woman’s children and their passion for swimming, what their home looked like back in Syria, and how they used to sit in their garden for meals with their extended family. I asked Maher if there were any other major parts of her life that she would like to share, and her response was surprising and humbling.
She essentially said, “thank you for listening to me, for being interested in me, in my problems. It’s very nice to have this interview.” She nodded and smiled, eyes crinkling, as Maher translated this for us. At the end of the interview, she asked for a photograph with Josie and I to keep. When we left, her and her 17-year-old daughter gave us hugs, and her daughter told us that she loved meeting us, and asked us if we had WhatsApp so she could stay in touch.
When I talked to family and friends about this program before I came to Jordan, they all asked what we were doing, and how our research would be used. They asked if we would be writing big papers, if we would be published, if this could change policy, and how we could make an impact on the increasingly xenophobic narratives and laws surrounding refugees. And while we will write essays using this research and can contribute to years of interviews done by previous Duke Immerse students, it is of vital importance to remember every day who we are and what we are doing.
We are all undergraduate students. We are not Ph.D. candidates or recipients, spending years living with a community making groundbreaking contributions to academia. We are not policymakers, and policymakers will not take us seriously nor will they care about our opinions on the refugee crisis, no matter how informed they might become. And while we might hope one day to be in those positions, for now we can only show people that they are important as people. While governments reject them, the media paints them poorly, and they suffer more than we can imagine, we can still show those with whom we work that we care about them. We aim to, at base, address the big picture issues of the refugee experience, and seek out the overarching problems facing these populations. But at the same time, we seek the delicate balance of bringing respect and understanding to an individual’s life through their interviews. We care about their stories, their intricacies, their humanities, their laughter, and all the component parts that sum up to make them who they are.
If in the process of collecting our research in our life story interviews, we can lift some of the burden of loneliness and isolation, and remind people here and there that they matter, then I will consider this month more than well spent.
Growing up in Los Angeles, one of the places with the highest concentration of Jewish people in the world, my Jewish identity was never a qualifier for marginalization, obvious identification with minority status, or a source of discomfort generally. Synagogues are everywhere in Los Angeles, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs were frequent, I had days off of school for our most important holidays, and I attended Hebrew School. At the same time, my education about Israel as a young child was very simple; I was taught that after the Holocaust, Jews needed a safe place to escape persecution, and that Israel had been rightfully restored to the Jewish people as that safe place. It was a straightforward narrative: brave people protected the Holy Land from people who were unjustly hateful towards the Jews, and landed claimed by Palestine belonged to Israel.
The first time I understood the status of Jews as a minority population was when I came to college. I was shocked at the discovery that friends of mine from the USA had neither met a Jewish person nor had any conception that there is a sizable contingent of Jews living within their own country. But this reframing of my conception of my identity, and the realization that I have to navigate a world in which many people have huge misunderstandings of Judaism (especially as hate crimes against the Jewish community in my own country skyrocket in conjunction with the new administration) is incomparable to the challenges to my identity posed by being a Refugee and Migrant Studies major spending a month in a nation with a massive population of displaced Palestinians.
At minimum, half of the taxi drivers I have met are Palestinians who have been forced to leave their home nation, or whose parents or grandparents once fled. There are stores and restaurants run by Palestinians, and clothes covered in pro-Palestine slogans right near our hotel. A huge number of aid organizations in Jordan that we have discussed, met with, or I have read about serve the Palestinian population, many members of which are impoverished, in urban slums, or in refugee camps (some of whom belong to families who have been in refugee camps for generations – essentially since the founding of Israel). According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, there are over 2 million registered Palestinian refugees in the Kingdom of Jordan alone.
I find myself grappling with my religious identity here in ways that I have never been in my life, uncomfortable responding honestly to the frequent questions I get from people asking if I’m Arab or Muslim, and if not, why my skin is so dark for a white American (it is not uncommon for Eastern European Jews to have an olive complexion). People who have been displaced by Israel, along with others who have experienced a complex history of wars with Israel and Israel’s expansion into what was once their land, might be anti-Israel, and this is not unjustified (others, of course, are fine with it). As a Jewish American, I’ve been told for much of my life that my religious identity in a way ties me to Israel, obligating me to support each one of its actions and signaling to others that Israel is where my loyalties lay. When someone tells me that they were once from Palestine, but were forced to leave, my instinctual response is not to identify myself to them as someone whose religion I have been taught can be associated with a government that forced their displacement; the link between Judaism and Zionism that has been engrained in me growing up, regardless of its prevalence here, makes me deeply feel strange in my own skin. I do not believe that the ejection of a people from their land is okay, and disagree strongly with expansionism in Israel now.
However, my mental discomfort is made greater by the fact that I also do not believe Israel should not exist. As evidenced by the Holocaust, before Israel, there was nowhere that would take in Jews; we are historically an unwanted peoples. Further, to eliminate Israel would be to create another mass displacement, and in this current political climate, the odds of millions of Israeli Jews being absorbed into other nations, especially if there were nothing to be gained politically from taking them in, is around zero. Right now, forcibly displaced persons are unwanted peoples, almost universally. The way that Israel’s policies have developed, and the way the founding of the nation was handled are things that I cannot support.
So, I have had to figure out how to handle the reality of my religion in these circumstances. The conclusion I have drawn is that I neither need nor deserve the ability to handle my interactions surrounding issues of religion and Palestinian displacement with mental comfort and ease. This sort of cognitive dissonance that I cannot accept is what forces me into a space of thinking more critically about my opinion on and role in these matters, and will ideally prevent any sort of complacency. While I might be torn ethically, as a person, I am growing.
After an interview I conducted earlier this week with my interview partner, Idalis, the young man we had interviewed and his uncle asked if we could sit and talk for a while. They wanted to understand our perspective on the Syrian crisis – they asked what we knew about it, what we thought about it, and what other Americans thought. Idalis and I ended up telling them about the problems with the American media, and the ways in which this region, and refugees like them, are falsely portrayed. We talked about how often the media characterizes refugees as dangerous, conflates Muslims and terrorists, and fails to capture the true dynamics of the region, instead painting all of the Middle East as dangerous, destabilized, and overrun by radicals – including Jordan.
In response to our frustrations over the media, the man we were interviewing – a young man of 25, who helps to take care of his three deaf siblings and left Syria with his elderly grandmother – asked us a few questions we could not answer: why is it that the American media does this? Why does it stray so far from truth? What is its motivation in demonizing an entire religion?
Idalis and I looked at each other, dumbfounded and slightly panicked. We could not properly explain away something that, when truly questioned, is appalling. There is no justification for demonizing an entire population, and pretending the majority of people who have fought against or fled from conflict are the same as the small minority causing conflict for extremist purposes. It would make sense to try to raise awareness about a safety concerns if they legitimately existed. However, claiming that all refugees and even all Muslims pose a substantial security threat, and will target and kill Americans while destroying American culture is blatantly wrong, and has been extremely harmful; it has altered the narrative surrounding these people, and there has been a massive spike in cases of white American men murdering people who look like they could potentially be Muslim. It is interesting to note that the media has done nothing to suggest that radicalized “nativist” Americans who have gone on killing sprees could perhaps be more dangerous than refugees, who have committed zero acts of terror in the United States.
Alternatively, a possible reason for the spread of fear and falsehoods is to support a political agenda. To me, that would be worse than doing it for the sake of raising awareness about some extremely misjudged safety concerns, because that would mean that people in positions of power at news agencies like Breitbart and Fox are willfully sacrificing the opportunity for Muslims and refugees at large to feel safe in America for the sake of a political party. I have no idea what values that could begin to reflect, but I know that I cannot support them.
Neither of these answers was good enough, and so the one we gave ended up being frustratingly inadequate. We told them that maybe, it’s the ugly history of racism and xenophobia that stains America continues to permeate so much of society that is to blame, or maybe it is willful ignorance, or maybe it is for the sake of politics that the media does such things. And we tried to assure them that many see past the lies being spread; many Americans, like us, continue to fight for awareness and truth. We seek ways to alter the narrative surrounding them, to ensure that the truths of their humanity, their goodness, and their struggles are heard, but this is incredibly difficult, and we are still learning how to make change.
At its base, this whole exchange was extremely unsettling, because it served as an extraordinarily powerful reminder of how problematic American media is. As American university students to whom refugees have opened up and shared some of the most intimate and painful details of their personal histories, we have not fulfilled our responsibility to investigate why things are this way, who these narratives work for, and what justifications are used to convince individuals that these groups are sacrifice-able. So now, we can use the conversations we have had and the incredible amount that we have learned from refugees here in Jordan, and try to fight against media that continues to devastate people that have already lost so much.