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Ben & Jerry’s Parent Company Defended Doing Business In Countries With Poor Human Rights Records

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Jennie Taer Investigative Reporter
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  • Unilever, the company that agreed to allow Ben & Jerry’s to pull its product from Palestinian territories, previously defended doing business in countries with poor human rights records.
  • In past letters to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Unilever maintained that issues in Cuba, Iran, Syria and Sudan weren’t material to its business operations.
  • Marc Greendorfer, president of Zachor Legal Institute, emphasized the hypocrisy of the letters with Ben & Jerry’s recent decision to stop selling its ice cream in the Palestinian territories.

Unilever, Ben & Jerry’s parent company, previously defended doing business in countries with poor human rights records, and countries designated as state sponsors of terrorism before supporting the ice cream company’s decision to pull its products from the Palestinian territories over Israel’s policies in the region.

Ben & Jerry’s announced in July that it would cease sales of its ice cream in the “occupied Palestinian territories,” citing “an internationally recognised illegal occupation.”

Unilever, a U.K.-based company, responded saying that it’s “fully committed” to its presence in Israel and supported Ben & Jerry’s decision to stop selling ice cream in the Palestinian territories, while keeping its products in Israel.

When it acquired Ben & Jerry’s in 2000, Unilever “recognised the right of the brand and its independent Board to take decisions about its social mission.”

Marc Greendorfer, president of Zachor Legal Institute, a legal advocacy organization fighting anti-Israel boycotts and anti-Semitic activity, told the Daily Caller News Foundation that Ben & Jerry’s recent decision doesn’t square with Unilever’s operations in countries with poor human rights records.

“If Ben & Jerry’s parent company, Unilever, truly believes that political issues should dictate where they do business, this is contradicted by the fact that they operate in the countries with the worst human rights abuses and have defended doing so to United States regulators on the basis that the operations are not material to their operations,” Greendorfer said.

“Surely, the revenues from selling ice cream to Jews in their historic homeland are even less material to Unilever’s operations than, say, the revenues from doing business in Syria, Iran or Cuba, yet it looks like Unilever continues to do business in those countries as they boycott Jews,” he continued. “What makes this discrimination so blatant is that the Securities and Exchange Commission explicitly asked Unilever why it was doing business in countries that were state sponsors of terror and Unilever explicitly stated that it saw no financial risks in doing so.”

Unilever lists Sudan, Venezuela, China, Iran, and Syria among its dozens of locations on its website. Palestine and Israel are also listed locations.

The company says it respects the human rights of its employees and states in a policy: “Business can only flourish in societies where human rights are respected, upheld and advanced. Unilever recognises that each business has the responsibility to respect human rights and the ability to contribute to positive human rights impacts.”

In 2010, the Unilever Group (Unilever N.V. and Unilever PLC) responded to an SEC inquiry on its activities in Iran, Syria, Sudan and Cuba, saying that it “did not have material business operations in any of those jurisdictions at that time” and continued to not have “material business operations or sales” in those countries.

Its operations in Iran, Sudan and Syria didn’t involve working jointly with government-run entities, according to the letter. In Cuba, the Unilever Group said that it made sales “through an arrangement with a state-owned manufacturing company.” The Unilever Group said that the only arrangement that it had with the Sudanese government was for a memorandum to support its customs agency’s “anti-counterfeiting efforts.” (RELATED: DeSantis Requests State Action Against Ben & Jerry’s)

Doing business in those countries, the Unilever Group concluded, would mean providing residents of poor countries with  “day-to-day” products for their benefit.

The letter referenced Unilever’s “sensitive territories” policy and committed to abiding by United Nations sanctions “and any other international boycott or similar initiative that has the force of international law.” In areas that may be “cause of international concern, for example, for human rights violations,” Unilever will apply a policy to not enter agreements that mean going against its code of business principles, to continue operations where human rights are respected, and to understand that its operations will benefit employees and their families, and others involved, according to the letter.

The SEC responded to Unilever with “no further action.”

In 2006, Unilever PLC responded to an SEC inquiry regarding its “contacts with countries identified as state sponsors of terrorism by the U.S. State Department,” stating that the Unilever Group’s contacts with Cuba, Iran, Sudan, or Syria weren’t material.

Unilever PLC said that along with providing general products to consumers for the benefit of those countries’ citizens, it was abiding by U.S. laws and regulations and considered its own “sensitive territories” policy.

The letter stated that the Unilever Group’s partners in Iran, Sudan, and Syria aren’t connected to those countries’ governments.

Unilever disclosed to the SEC in 2020 that it had sold products to a hotel owned by an affiliate of the Islamic Republic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which was designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. Department of State in 2019. Unilever paid some of the “income, payroll and other taxes, duties and fees” to the Iranian government and the company’s “non-US subsidiary” retained an Iranian bank account, according to the filing.

The SEC continued to ask Unilever about its business in countries deemed state sponsors of terrorism, and the company continued to defend that its business in those countries weren’t material to its operations.

Greendorfer said that even though Unilever is not a U.S.-based company it should still be required by the SEC to fully disclose to investors the effects of pulling its products from certain countries.

“While Unilever is not a U.S. corporation subject to the requirement that it act in the best interests of shareholders, rather than third parties, because its shares are listed on U.S. markets it is obligated to abide by U.S. reporting requirements,” Greendorfer said.

“As such, the SEC should, at a minimum, require Unilever (and any other company engaging in discriminatory boycotts) to provide investors with full disclosure on the financial impact of engaging in boycotts so investors can make a reasoned decision as to whether the actions are material to their decision whether to buy, hold or sell their Unilever shares.,” he concluded.

Unilever did not respond to the DCNF’s request for comment.

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