Arms companies failing to address human rights risks

As the world’s biggest arms companies prepare to set up shop at a global arms fair in London, a new report by Amnesty International shows how major industry players including Airbus, BAE Systems and Raytheon are not undertaking adequate human rights due diligence which could prevent their products from being used in potential human rights violations and war crimes.

For Outsourcing Responsibility, Amnesty International contacted 22 arms companies and asked them to explain how they meet their responsibilities to respect human rights under internationally recognized standards. Many of the companies investigated supply arms to countries accused of committing war crimes and serious human rights violations, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The role of arms companies in deadly conflicts marred by serious human rights violations has been the elephant in the room for too long.

Patrick Wilcken, Arms Control Researcher

None of the companies that responded was able to adequately explain how they meet their human rights responsibilities and demonstrate proper due diligence, and 14 did not respond at all.

“The role of arms companies in deadly conflicts marred by serious human rights violations has been the elephant in the room for too long. While states like the UK are, rightly, being pursued in the courts for their reckless arms deals, the corporations who profit from supplying arms to countries involved in these conflicts have largely escaped scrutiny,” said Patrick Wilcken, Arms Control Researcher at Amnesty International.

“Not one of the companies we contacted was able to demonstrate adequate human rights due diligence. Not only does this show an alarming indifference to the human cost of their business, it could potentially expose these companies and their bosses to prosecution for complicity in war crimes.”

Amnesty investigated 22 arms companies from 11 countries, including Airbus (Netherlands), Arquus (France), Boeing (USA), BAE Systems (UK), Leonardo (Italy), Lockheed Martin (UK), Raytheon (USA), Rosoboronexport (Russia), Thales (France), and Zastava (Serbia). A full list of responses is available here.

While the human rights obligations of states to regulate the international arms trade are now clearly defined under the Arms Trade Treaty and regional and domestic legislation, the crucial role of companies in the supply of military goods and services is often overlooked, despite the often inherently dangerous nature of its business and products.

Arms for use in Yemen

Defence & Security Equipment International (DSEI), one of the world’s largest arms fairs, takes place between 10-13 September in London. Among those exhibiting are companies who have made millions from supplying arms and services for the Saudi Arabia/UAE-led coalition’s campaign in Yemen.

BAE Systems, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, among others, have been integral to the coalition effort, arming a fleet of combat aircraft that has repeatedly struck civilian objects, including homes, schools, hospitals and marketplaces.

None of these companies explained what human rights due diligence they had undertaken to assess and address the risks of supplying arms and services to the Saudi Arabia/UAE-led coalition.

In one instance Amnesty International traced a bomb remnant from the site of an airstrike in Sana’a, which killed six children and their parents in 2017, to Raytheon’s manufacturing plant in Arizona.

When Amnesty International asked Raytheon what steps it had taken to investigate and respond to this incident the company issued the following response: “Due to legal constraints, customer relations issues… Raytheon does not provide information on our products, customers or operational issues.”

Raytheon added that prior to export, military and security equipment is “subject to a multifaceted review by the US Department of State, Department of Defence and Congress”.

Outsourcing responsibility

Hiding behind governments is not good enough – especially when licence decisions have been shown to be flawed

Patrick Wilcken

“Most companies who responded to Amnesty International made the argument that responsibility for human rights assessments lies with their home states through the arms licensing process,” said Patrick Wilcken.

“But government regulation does not exempt companies – no matter what sector they operate in – from carrying out their own human rights due diligence. Hiding behind governments is not good enough – especially when licence decisions have been shown to be flawed, and governments issuing licences are themselves being challenged over their role in war crimes and other violations.”

BAE Systems described Amnesty International’s conclusions as “false and misleading”, adding that BAE Systems applies “measured and appropriate policy and process of its own in respect of compliance with laws and regulation” through its Product Trading Policy. However, when questioned on human rights due diligence in relation to the company’s trade with Saudi Arabia, the company replied: “Our activities in Saudi Arabia are subject to UK government approval and oversight.”

Leonardo said that Amnesty International’s conclusions were “not completely fair” and that the company did carry out human rights due diligence which went beyond compliance with national licensing laws and regulations. However, the company did not explain how these policies work in practice in concrete situations –  for example, in exports to the Saudi Arabia/UAE coalition for use in the Yemen conflict.

Fourteen companies simply did not reply to Amnesty’s requests for information. These include Russian arms exporter Rosoboronexport, which has supplied military equipment to the Syrian armed forces, who stand accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. There was also no response from Zastava, a Serbian company whose rifles Amnesty traced to a horrific mass execution in Cameroon; or Arquus (formerly Renault Trucks Défense), a French company that has supplied armoured vehicles to Egypt where they were used to brutally crush dissent. 

Defence giants are washing their hands of their responsibilities by arguing that, once their goods are shipped, they no longer have any control over how they are used.

Patrick Wilcken

Amnesty International is calling on defence companies to vet clients’ past performance against human rights benchmarks; build high expectations of compliance with international human rights law into contracts; continuously monitor and periodically audit client performance; and use leverage to influence the behaviour of clients.

“Defence giants are washing their hands of their responsibilities by arguing that, once their goods are shipped, they no longer have any control over how they are used. This argument doesn’t stand up, legally or ethically – it’s high time companies started taking responsibility for their decisions,” said Patrick Wilcken.

“If it is impossible to avert the risks that arms will be used for human rights abuses, companies should avoid or cease supplying weapons.”


Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), which was unanimously endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in June 2011, all companies have a responsibility to respect human rights and, to meet that responsibility, undertake human rights due diligence to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for how they address both their potential and actual human rights impacts.

In relation to the defence sector, this means companies must assess and address human rights risks and abuses arising in all aspects of their business, including how clients such as national armies and police forces use their weaponry and related services.

The primary purpose of due diligence is to avoid causing or contributing to human rights abuses. Therefore if a company cannot prevent or adequately mitigate adverse human rights impacts, it should avoid or cease supplying the relevant arms and related services. These responsibilities exist over and above compliance with national laws and regulations – such as state licensing systems – aimed at protecting human rights.

Failure to carry out adequate human rights due diligence increases both reputational and legal risks for an industry that supplies high-risk products to dangerous environments. Legal concepts of “corporate complicity” in and the “aiding and abetting” of international crimes continue to evolve and could in the future apply to arms companies that continue supplying weapons in the knowledge that they may be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international human rights or humanitarian law.

Amnesty International contacted 22 defence companies, eight of which responded:  Airbus, BAE Systems, Leonardo, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Rolls-Royce, Saab and Thales. The other 14 companies – Arquus, Avibras, Boeing, Dassault Aviation, Elbit Systems, Embraer, Heckler and Koch, General Dynamics, Herstal Group, Norinco, Northrop Grumman, Remington Outdoor, Rosoboronexport and Zastava – did not respond.