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OPINION | COLUMNIST: Taking on the masters

by Shea Leibow Tribune News Service | May 13, 2022 at 3:04 a.m.

At the 2021 annual shareholder meeting of the U.S. weapons manufacturer General Dynamics, shareholders turned out to confront the company's board of directors, asking how they justify the destruction and death they've helped cause.

Medea Benjamin, co-founder of peace group CODEPINK, to which I belong, used her shareholder question last year to ask CEO Phoebe Novakovic how she justifies making $21 million a year, while in 2016 a 2,000-pound bomb made by General Dynamics hit a Yemeni marketplace killing 97 civilians, including 25 children.

Novakovic, in response, said General Dynamics' role is ultimately to "support the U.S. military and U.S. foreign policy."

Among the proposals before the board was a request from the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany in New York that the company prepare a human rights report to address and remedy the "actual and potential human rights impacts associated with high-risk products and services." As the sisters pointed out, General Dynamics' products and services are used by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Israel and U.S. government agencies at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The company's weapons have been used in war crimes and human rights violations against Yemenis, Palestinians, asylum-seekers and others. A 2019 Amnesty International report found that General Dynamics did not meet its responsibilities under human rights law.

The board unanimously recommended a vote against this, saying it would "undermine shareholder value" by attempting to "embed radical skepticism toward U.S. foreign policy."

Defense contractors like General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin hide behind a veneer of serving the U.S. government, but ultimately only care about selling weapons and making profits. It is against their self-interest to provide transparency around their human rights practices, because the more weapons they sell, the better.

This is why now is a critical time to pull money away from these weapon-making corporate behemoths. Divestment by churches, universities, or municipalities not only pulls financial resources from these death-dealing corporations but also demonstrates that there are dissenting communities across the United States.

Weapons manufacturers are pulling in immense profits from militarized violence in Ukraine, Yemen, Myanmar, Somalia and elsewhere. But we all have more power than we think, and an important first step for building a demilitarized future is pulling away money--and power--from these weapons profiteers.

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