On Friday, November 17, 2017, Steven Press, Associate Professor of History at Stanford University, and Andrew Fitzmaurice, a Professor of History at the University of Sydney, presented their works on corporations and colonization to the Mellon Sawyer Seminar on Corporations and International Law. Both professors’ works focused on the late 19th and early 20th centuries partition of Africa, albeit from different sides – Press focused on the role of the corporation, free of state ties, in colonizing Africa, while Fitzmaurice focused on the man who led the legal transformation that allowed non-state entities to gain sovereignty: Sir Travers Twiss. Twiss, a former Anglian clergyman, lawyer, and the subject of societal downfall at the hands of his wife’s past life as a sex worker, went against his own previous work to help King Leopold gain support for the International African Association – Leopold’s corporation – as the colonizer of the Congo. While Fitzmaurice argues that Twiss’s role in the Anglican Church and as a lawyer made him an expert in utilizing the creation of new legal identities, a knowledge that helped him temporarily reform international law, the most interesting aspect of the conversation lies in between Fitzmaurice and Press’s works – the notion that sovereignty can be bought.
While introducing his paper, Press drew on a modern-day example of this phenomenon – the United States’ continued control over the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. While the United States does not permanently own the base, it writes an annual check to the Cuban government in compliance with its lease agreement, and the United States continues to control the land despite tensions with the Cuban government since the Cold War. Both Fitzmaurice and Press spoke to the influence of capitalism on the practice. The purchase of both the land and sovereign rights of Alaska by the American government from the Russians in 1867 may have sparked a Western interest in the purchase of sovereign rights, because capitalist ideals argue that the market is best able to provide efficiency. The fall of Twiss’s notion, the professors argued, may also be tied to economic trends – the rise of socialist ideals in the early 20th century brought to light the idea that colonizing corporations tied to the domestic economy – such as Germany’s Kolonialgesellschaft – reaped private benefit for the owners while creating public losses at the tax payers’ expense.
While the public and international law currently does not perceive corporations as being able to purchase sovereign rights as Twiss argued in the 19th century, this belief may be willfully blind to the obvious. Today, the modern corporation is capable of great influence over national and local governments in many of the foreign companies in which it operates. This influence is arguably stronger where the state is weaker. A prime example is companies engaged in the textile industries of South East Asia. The influx of money – no matter how small of an amount – that multinational corporations bring to an impoverished area makes the host government likely to bend over backward at the will of the corporation to keep the company there. The company then lobbies for the government to avoid adopting workplace safety regulations and often bribes local officials to not perform mandated inspections. Even if we do not see this as buying sovereignty in the same way we see Leopold’s foray into the Congo or the United States’ lease on Guantanamo Bay, it reflects the same capitalist ideals that Press and Fitzmaurice touched on in their conversation.