Airbnb, the global short-term rental platform, has announced a new policy under which it will donate the profits it earns from listings in territories under foreign occupation, with the understanding that business operations in such territories contribute to ongoing human rights violations. This policy contravenes Airbnb’s legal obligations under the UN business and human rights framework, and is unprecedented in the history of corporate donations in the United States. Organizations committed to human rights should reject these donations.
In November 2018, Airbnb announced a new framework for assessing whether its “listings in occupied territories . . . contribut[e] to existing human suffering” and/or are connected to territorial disputes. Airbnb would remove listings with these negative human rights impacts from its platform, the company said, starting with properties in Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Months later, in the course of settling several lawsuits challenging the new policy before the company’s upcoming IPO, Airbnb reversed its decision to delist settlement properties. Under a modified policy, the company would preserve the listings—as well as rentals in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and other occupied and contested areas around the world—but would donate the proceeds of those problematic listings:
The company will rely upon our previously identified framework to evaluate these areas. If Airbnb determines [our business activity is] central to ongoing tensions, we will adopt the […] approach of allowing listings and donating Airbnb’s profits generated by Airbnb host activity in the region to non-profit organizations dedicated to humanitarian aid that serve people in different parts of the world.
In other words, Airbnb plans to continue its rights-violating activity but donate the proceeds. The extent to which this policy violates human rights law is particularly striking in the context of the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Rights violations are not a function of Airbnb’s profits; they are a function of its activity.
Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (GPBHR), organizations including the United Nations, the Eiris Foundation (which has produced a helpful guide for companies operating in occupied territories), and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have advocated that companies end all operations in places like Israeli settlements to avoid contributing to ongoing human rights violations.
The GPBHR do not permit any business operations in Israeli West Bank settlements. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has found that “[b]usinesses play a central role in furthering the establishment, maintenance and expansion of Israeli settlements,” noting that “violations of human rights associated with the settlements are pervasive and devastating, reaching every facet of Palestinian life.” According to HRW, “any adequate due diligence would show that business activities taking place in or in contract with Israeli settlements or settlement businesses contribute to rights abuses, and that businesses cannot mitigate or avoid contributing to these abuses so long as they engage in such activities.”
Even if Airbnb were to operate at a loss in the occupied territories, its presence facilitating property rentals on lands that are illegally held would still contribute to rights abuses. It is the service Airbnb offers, not any profit the company earns from that service, that supports Israel’s settlement enterprise, its illegal occupation, and the attendant violations of Palestinians’ rights.
Airbnb’s policy is unprecedented in the history of corporate donations in the United States.
In three types of exceptional situations—during crises, to counteract greenhouse gas emissions, and when required to pay for past damage—companies have donated profits associated with harmful activity. Airbnb’s new policy is unprecedented in that it imagines counteracting ongoing harmful activity. Persistent activity in occupied territory is not like any of these exceptional circumstances in which forfeiting profits relieves a company of legal liability, earns reputational benefits, or justifies a temporarily harmful course of conduct.
Donations of profits made in occupied territory (“occupation-donations”) are not like donations of profits generated during emergencies and natural disasters. Airbnb donates profits and facilitates individual private donations after major storms, and Uber caps surge pricing and donates its surge fare commissions during crises to avoid profiting from situations of emergency and natural disaster. By doing so these companies provide needed services to communities in crisis, taking temporary measures so as not to benefit from others’ misfortune. Airbnb cannot analogize occupation-donations to this approach: its business in occupied territories is not temporary, and does not provide an emergency service. Rather, its business in Israeli settlements sustains a crisis situation by contributing to ongoing, devastating human rights abuses.
Occupation-donations are not like environmental offsets. Companies sometimes purchase carbon offsets to counteract the effect of their greenhouse gas emissions. Offsets are meant to balance the global emissions total by supporting projects that capture carbon, and to further a global transition toward renewable energy resources. Offering occupation-donations to unspecified “non-profit organizations dedicated to humanitarian aid that serve people in different parts of the world” is not analogous to carbon offsets. A better analogy would be a clothing company operating a sweatshop and promising to donate proceeds linked to the sweatshop’s low labor costs to global humanitarian causes. The global balance of human rights is not like the global balance of carbon emissions. Airbnb’s business in occupied territories cannot be offset by donations.
Occupation-donations are not like returned profits or damages paid for past harm. Many companies have returned fees or profits or have paid compensation as the result of public pressure or legal or regulatory action to address harm caused by their prior (discontinued) business practices. Courts have entered judgments for billions of dollars against oil companies like BP and Exxon after major spills. The consulting firm McKinsey & Company has returned fees following unseemly business practices in South Africa and insufficient disclosures in recent bankruptcy work in the United States. Airbnb’s business in occupied territories, however, is ongoing, as are the contributions to human suffering it admits to furthering in those regions. Airbnb cannot wash its hands while persisting in dirtying them.
Emergencies and natural disasters, offsets supporting the transition to renewable energy, and compensation for past wrongdoing each relate to harm and adverse impacts that are bounded in time. Because Airbnb’s occupation-donations are unprecedented and because they represent, by the company’s own assessment, complicity in ongoing rights abuses, humanitarian organizations should reject them. Airbnb cannot cloak itself in one of these models of corporate beneficence to justify ongoing contributions to human rights violations as indefinite as the Israeli occupation itself. While Airbnb continues to operate in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and in other occupied territories, humanitarian organizations should refuse the company’s donations.