Seeking "Human" Rights for Corporations 

Intel's dangerous claims are not a joke.

In its fight to overturn a fine for violating Europe's antitrust law, the Intel Corporation is bizarrely claiming that its "human" rights have been violated. In reality, Intel is undermining the struggle for true human rights.

The corporation is in major tussles with authorities throughout the world over claims that it prevented rival chipmaker AMD from expanding its market share. Intel is alleged to have paid a PC manufacturer to delay the release of AMD-powered desktops and a retailer to keep its shelves AMD-free. For these transgressions and others, the Europeans have proposed a fine of more than $1.5 billion. Intel is aggressively fighting back, and reports are that it has spent well over $100 million on legal expenses.

As part of its defense, Intel is claiming that its "human" rights have been violated by the lack of due process that the European Commission has shown the giant company, attempting to use protections that apply to aggrieved human criminal defendants. In other words, Intel is arguing that profit-seeking companies should enjoy all the protections and rights that societies grant to people, and more. Corporations already enjoy special rights in many areas, such as in tax policy and access to power through their armies of lobbyists. In competition with other locations, cities and states are forced to bow down to corporations to convince them to locate facilities in their areas.

Intel's claim that it deserves human rights also belittles humanity and elevates the corporate form to god-like status. Like Zeus and the panoply of gods of Greek mythology, the corporate gods get the rights and privileges of humans and the status of gods, too

Intel's claim reminds me of a comic book character that I used to like as a kid, Bizarro Superman. I was mesmerized by Bizarro Superman, who lived on a square planet in which things were the opposite of what they were in the regular world. Up was down and black was white. It was cool, but a bizarro version of human rights is not.

Of course there are so many corporate bizarro world stories around today that it's hard to keep up. In the East Bay, it's the story of Toyota, which is closing its NUMMI auto plant in Fremont. The auto company is demanding a payment of $2,000,000 from the state for training its employees to work as autoworkers — the same autoworkers it is laying off. But Toyota's greed is petty compared to Intel's action. The concept of human rights itself is under attack in Intel's shenanigans.

More than sixty years ago, the initial formulation of human rights came in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Consultations on this declaration included representatives from all continents and all major religions, and world leaders including Mahatma Gandhi. Its preamble recognized "the inherent dignity" of "all members of the human family." This dignity, which comes from the ability to exercise one's human capabilities, was recognized by the document as "the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world." It is clear that human rights belong to humans. Article One reads, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."

In defense of Intel, many in the legal profession will argue that their lawyers were just doing their job. But at a certain point, enough is enough. The legal issues being advanced by Intel are certainly creative, but so were John Yoo's legal justfications of torture.

The Intel position is part of a complex set of ideological confusions that have the effect of making human rights an empty signifier. It is bad enough that those in favor of human rights have expanded the concept into areas it does not fit. And, of course, any country that does anything ethically questionable, including our own, tries to cover its actions by claiming that it is supporting human rights.

The "humanness" of corporations is not only being advanced in the area of human rights. In a recent argument before the US Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FEC, a case involving the rights of corporations to have similar "rights" in election campaigns as do persons, Justice Sotomayor made her first big splash when she said in an oral argument that judges were making corporations "creature[s] of state law with human characteristics." When the more conservative judges seemed to object, Justice Ginsburg replied that a corporation "is not endowed by its creator with inalienable rights." (Any surprise that it was the women who stood up for our species?)

So, the real story here is the rise of the Bizarro Corporation that thinks it can place itself at or above human beings. But what is society about? What is the purpose? Articulating the concept of human rights in Intel's way will destroy the ability of the concept to mean anything. How do we expect folks to understand the importance of human rights if the concept is degraded to the point that it is just a litigation tool? What does this do to the values that human rights are supposed to represent?

Just imagine the scene in the home of an Intel executive. The kids come home from school and say they have been writing letters to help protect the rights of poor women in the Sudan, to keep them free from rape and torture. Dad sticks his chest out and tells his kids that he too has been fighting for human rights, trying to stop a fine against one of the largest corporations in the world. They are brothers and sisters in arms against the human rights violators, he tells them. What are the kids to think?

The effect of Intel's stance is sure to contribute to confusion now and disillusionment later for many who would be attracted to working for human rights.

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