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

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

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

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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