Australian companies are increasingly exposed to conflict-affected areas, primarily due to the proximity of business operations to war zones and the propensity to hire private security forces when operating in insecure environments. Such exposure gives rise to heightened operational, ethical and reputational risks to business personnel, assets and ‘corporate brand’.
Companies, as well as individual corporate executives and employees, are also exposed to domestic and international legal liabilities when conducting business activities in a conflict-affected area. These include the possibility of criminal responsibility for the commission of, or complicity in, war-crimes and civil liability for damages. Such legal actions have been launched in multiple jurisdictions around the world.
Despite this, our research indicates that Australian companies remain largely unfamiliar with international humanitarian law and its relevance to their operations.
International humanitarian law, found primarily in the 1949 Geneva Conventions, is relevant to any actor exposed to armed conflict. This body of law exists, in part, to protect civilians and civilian property – including company personnel, assets and operations – in situations of armed conflict.
Businesses are increasingly demonstrating their commitment to conduct activities in a conflict-sensitive manner, with an awareness of human rights obligations and the Sustainable Development Goals. There is also growing global acknowledgment of both the positive and negative impacts that businesses can have on armed conflict and other situations of violence. For instance, there are examples of businesses playing significant social, political and economic roles in conflict situations, such as providing valuable services to civilian populations in times of war, but also evidence of businesses being complicit in atrocities amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity. However, we believe international humanitarian law remains underrepresented in contemporary discussions on corporate social responsibility and sustainability.