Auschwitz Institute’s Owen Pell on Reducing Business Proximity to Human Rights Abuses

Colloquium on Business and Society

Historically, genocide and mass atrocity are never “spontaneous or random. They are always culminations of processes” that can be identified and studied, Owen Pell, president of the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation, told students at the Yale School of Management on October 27. Speaking at the Colloquium on Business and Society, Pell pointed to the many cases in history in which corporations have become implicated in human rights abuses, from Nazi Germany to South Africa during apartheid to Colombia in the last 20 years.

The Auschwitz Institute trains government officials to understand and mitigate the processes that can lead to genocide and mass atrocity crimes. The institute also helps governments create networks with other governments, and with civil society, in order to improve the capacity for genocide and mass atrocity prevention. 

One of the most effective ways to get corporations to take a more active role in genocide prevention, Pell said, is to help them understand that human rights abuses are bad for the bottom line, and that they should take into account the processes that could lead to genocide or mass atrocities when making business decisions. In addition, corporations need to examine how engaging with civil society could assist in that effort.

“Recognizing processes [that can lead to genocide] for what they are is very challenging, and corporations often don’t want to be involved in how a country runs itself,” said Pell.

Another important idea, Pell said, is that human rights violations don’t occur outside the context of economics.

“For example, a recent study by economists showed how the economics of scarcity actually shaped how both Stalin’s Great Terror, as carried out in parts of Ukraine, and the Nazi Holocaust in Belarus during World War II unfolded,” he said. “Even in extreme circumstances, the rules of economics, including behavioral economics and economic decision-making, still applied.”

Businesses are starting to recognize that they cannot ignore human rights violations, he added: “Increasingly businesses are coming to see genocide and mass atrocity as bad for business. They are beginning to understand that it does lower your rates of return over time, and that ROI will decline significantly when serious violations of human rights impact a market.”

Pell urged Yale SOM students, as they begin their careers in NGOs, corporations, and government, to consider genocide and mass atrocity as part of the overall risk analysis of any business. “If you better understand the processes by which you look at genocide and mass atrocity, and the risk they pose to any society,” he said, “you will better understand the risks you’re taking in pursuing business opportunities.” 

About the Event

Owen Pell, President of the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation will be on campus October 27, 2016, for a Colloquium on Business and Society. The talk is titled “Global Citizens: Addressing Corporate Proximity to Human Rights Atrocities and Abuses.”

Pell is also a partner in White and Case LLP, and his talk will explore questions including what can and should international law do to influence corporate behavior with respect to human rights abuses occurring where companies do business, what role does corporate culture play in the problem of potential complicity, and what role could it play in correcting that problem?

Corporations large and small operate on an international scale, including in countries where vulnerable or marginalized communities face government-associated violence or oppression. Historically, corporations have found themselves in close proximity to gross violations of human rights, and even genocide. That proximity runs a spectrum from direct complicity (e.g., IG Farben’s use of slave labor at Auschwitz and Degussa’s design of more efficient canisters for death camp gas chambers) to willful ignorance (e.g., Talisman Energy and the genocide in Darfur) to companies simply doing business in and with oppressive regimes. Although over 8,000 companies have signed the UN Global Compact, serious questions remain, including (i) What can and should international law do to influence corporate behavior with respect to human rights abuses occurring where companies do business?; and (ii) What role does corporate culture play in the problem of potential complicity and what role could it play in correcting that problem?

This event is open to the public.



Owen Pell is a partner at White and Case LLP in New York City, a large international law firm. His areas of practice include complex commercial litigation, securities litigation, litigation involving foreign sovereigns and their state-owned entities, and litigation involving issues of public international law, including issues relating to genocide and mass atrocity that can arise in U.S. litigation. In 2000, Pell participated in the negotiations between the United States and France to resolve Holocaust-related bank claims. More recently, he completed a case for the Republic of Peru that resulted in an agreement by Yale University to return artifacts from Machu Picchu to Peru.

Pell has formulated a proposal for a title-clearing and dispute resolution body to address claims relating to works of art looted from individuals during the Holocaust. In 2003, the European Parliament overwhelmingly adopted a resolution supporting further study of this proposal. Pell was invited to be the only private lawyer on the US delegation to the June 2009 Prague Conference on Holocaust Era Assets, which culminated in the signing of the Terezin Declaration. Recently, he has been advising the U.S. government on issues surrounding Holocaust-looted art in Germany.

Pell has been widely published on the subject of Holocaust-looted art and reparation claims, including in the DePaul-LCA Journal of Art and Entertainment Law and within the papers of the Permanent Court of International Arbitration. His article, “Historical Reparation Claims: The Defense Perspective,” was featured in the book Holocaust Restitution: Perspectives on the Litigation and Its Legacy (NYU Press 2005). He has also spoken at a TEDx event at Binghamton University on “Diplomacy 2.0” and how the changing nature of statehood in the 21st century is affecting how human rights issues are addressed by states, multinational companies and non-governmental organizations.

According to Mr. Pell, he is dedicated to the work of AIPR because his legal practice exposed him to “the processes that continue to cause genocide to occur around the world, and because the law, by itself, cannot prevent genocide and mass atrocity, highlighting the need for other approaches to interrupt the cycles that lead to genocide.”

Pell is particularly interested in finding ways to integrate international businesses into the work of AIPR. According to Pell, this intersection is critical because “businesses are so involved in shaping the societies in which they operate, and in the day-to-day human rights circumstances of their employees, customers and consumers—especially in fragile states at risk for genocide and mass atrocities.”