That Scarlett Johansson is unable to be both the face of SodaStream – an Israeli drinks company with operations in a West Bank settlement, and Oxfam – a global humanitarian organisation that advocates for a boycott of products made on such settlements, has made world headlines.
Regardless of how you view her decision to relinquish her role with Oxfam and retain her relationship with SodaStream, Johansson's involvement has served to raise awareness and discussion of many compelling issues: the merits of the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions ("BDS") campaign being waged against Israeli settlements and/or Israeli products in general, the status of those settlements, and their role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The viciousness and vitriol that this episode has generated on mainstream and social media outlets also demonstrates the enduring, highly-charged dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
However, beyond the facts of this particular conflict and company, the incident also highlights a broader issue which receives too little consideration: the role and responsibilities of multi-national companies doing business in zones of armed conflict.
That is, are global corporations such as SodaStream a force for peace and economic development (as Johansson and Sodastream contend), or are they rather drivers of conflict, exacerbating tensions, and engaged in economic exploitation (as BDS supporters and Oxfam contend)?
Occasionally, the answer is black and white. But almost invariably, the answer is somewhere in between, eluding simplistic characterisations as "good" or "bad", "right" and "wrong". Painting all corporate activity in a given conflict zone as inherently harmful is as flawed and as unhelpful as the contrary point of view. Perhaps a better question is what should our expectations of these corporate giants that do business in conflict zones be?
The issue of corporate responsibilities in conflict zones goes to the very heart of what it is to be a profit-driven global corporation in the modern-age. It is an issue that spans countless conflict zones and countries, and is as old as the multi-national corporation itself.
In the 17th century, the first "great" multi-nationals - the British and Dutch East India Companies – in the pursuit of profits imposed a repressive rule over much of the subcontinent and south-east Asia, and had their own private armies. Contemporary multi-nationals have been accused of complicity in horrific crimes in conflict-zones: murder, torture, rape, even genocide. For example, DeBeers was heavily criticised for financing both sides in the Angolan civil war by its trade in "conflict diamonds;" the Shell Oil company is accused of inflaming tensions in the violence-stricken Niger Delta through its oil and gas operations there; and Chiquita (- that's right, the banana company - ) pled guilty to charges of assisting terrorists in Colombia.
And don't think that this type of corporate behaviour said to be driving and intensifying armed conflicts is not an Australian problem too: Australian-based companies have been accused of fomenting a civil war on the Papua New Guinean island of Bougainville that resulted in thousands of civilian deaths (Rio Tinto), aiding mass murder in the Congo (Anvil Mining), and paying multi-million dollar bribes to Saddam Hussein's dictatorship (AWB).
But whilst big business is often considered part of the problem in conflict-affected areas – pursuing profits at the expense of the local communities and at the expense of peace, there is growing evidence to suggest that business could be part of the solution as well – partners in building peace.
Jane Nelson of Harvard University has led the way in developing models of "corporate peace-building" – tangible contributions companies can make to aiding the peace. She argues that the power and influence that big business wields, as well as the significant capabilities that they could bring to bear on the problem, can all be leveraged to improve the possibility of peace. Responsible management of natural resources, providing jobs and economic opportunities, promoting integration and communication across ethnic and religious boundaries, and helping develop stable governing institutions are all examples of peace-building objectives to which many global corporations could contribute.
Achieving this vision of "corporate peace-building" is seen by many as a quixotic pursuit. After all, business is business: companies' will continue to do what they have always done – pursue profits and their own self-interests.
Yet this profit-above-all-else conception of the corporation, championed by the likes of Milton Friedman, is being challenged by more expansive notions of a modern company's obligations to society. Moreover, there is business logic to peace. Companies have an interest in building peaceful, stable and economically vibrant communities. After all they are potential future consumers. Moreover, the risks to reputation and their bottom-line of having egregious misconduct exposed and penalized are also powerful incentives to coax companies to monitor and maintain high standards of behaviour in regions afflicted by violence and conflict.