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Opinion

Nationalism, xenophobia and authoritarianism: How should business respond to these rising trends?

Gregory Tzeutschler Regaignon, Research Director

As shocking as Donald Trump’s election was to all of us who believe in human rights and social justice in the US and globally, and as weak as implementation of his agenda and his popularity have been in his first three months, it is dangerous to view his election, and his voters’ rejection of mainstream politics, as an isolated moment.

Advocates for human rights, open government, and a more equal and fair society have been dismayed by many of the administration’s actions, including:

  • an immigration and travel ban that courts have struck down as discriminatory
  • the repeal of rules that restricted availability of government contracts for companies that violate labour rights
  • the approval of oil pipelines that environmental groups fear will threaten water sources, disregarding indigenous rights and claims
  • the reversal of policies to fight climate change
  • the dismantling of mandates that companies report on their payments to foreign governments for oil, gas and mining operations, and on their actions to avoid “conflict minerals” in their supply chains

On some issues, most notably the immigration ban and climate policies, many companies have stood for human rights and environmental justice, based on both their interests and their principles.  These are welcome voices for responsible policy, but they may risk ironically reinforcing populist and nationalist support for the administration that is based in disdain for elites and suspicion of corporate influence.  This danger is particularly high when companies speaking out are “gig economy” firms like Uber and Lyft, whose business model undermines workers’ rights and decent wages. And global companies like clothing giant VF Corp, who profit from trade policies that have driven down workers’ earnings, particularly among the less educated. 

While we who advocate for human rights welcome support from the business community, ad hoc lip service without deeper engagement is both tactically and morally insufficient.

Although it makes sense for business leaders to speak out on discrete issues where they have particular interest and leverage, they risk fueling a backlash if they do so without connecting to broad-based concerns about excessive corporate influence, low pay, inequality, and lack of economic security and opportunity. To avoid this, their actions must connect to and support movements for social change and political reform.  Three fundamental steps would show they are doing this: 

  1. Engage with and learn from social movements that have mobilised unprecedented broad support for inclusive prosperity and a healthy, open and fair society  such as Fight for 15, climate justice groups, civil liberties NGOs, and women’s march organisers – and enter into constructive dialogue about how business should evolve to advance their goals
  2. Empower employees to organise and speak out on social and environmental issues, and heed their voices, as Google did after thousands of its workers protested the Muslim immigration ban
  3. Join calls and actions for limits on corporate money and influence in politics  reflecting the 66% of small businesses who believe that unlimited corporate donations are bad for business  and adopt and support clear and strong conflict of interest and disclosure policies

While we who advocate for human rights welcome support from the business community, ad hoc lip service without deeper engagement is both tactically and morally insufficient at a moment when all forms of justice faces such grave threats from nationalist and increasingly authoritarian government.

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Golda S. Benjamin, Southeast Asia Researcher & Representative

President Duterte’s war on drugs is dividing the Philippines on the spheres of policy, morality, and principles of law.  After numerous reports of killings and human rights violations, the question now is: how can the Philippines fight a war against drugs without sacrificing law and human rights?  The answers are difficult, especially in an environment where critics of the President’s crusade against drugs are aggressively dismissed. When the European Union raised its human rights concerns and mentioned the possibility of removing the Philippines’ trade preferences, Duterte simply told the EU to “mind their own business”.  After The New York Times published two articles and a video documentary, all critical of the drug war, palace officials accused it of doing a demolition job against a very popular president.   

In this tense and criticism-averse national environment, civil society, government, and businesses all have serious and urgent roles to play. 

It is critical for businesses to clearly and publicly send the message that their support of the war against drugs is conditioned on the respect for human rights and the rule of law.  For example, after donating to government, businesses must continuously monitor and audit the use of their funds to ensure that they go to rehabilitative programmes and facilities, and not to less-than-legitimate operations indiscriminately targeting alleged drug addicts.

Businesses in the Philippines have been relatively quiet on the human rights concerns related to the war on drugs.  It is time for them to speak up. 

If the business sector’s message on this issue is unclear, it would be very easy for rabid supporters of an all-out drug war, to launch a propaganda campaign claiming that even business actors are willing to sacrifice law and human rights in order to address the drug problem in the Philippines.  This need is especially urgent, as Duterte’s biggest supporters exploit his approval ratings to maintain the public’s unconditional support of his all-out war, and deflect accusations of authoritarian conduct.

Businesses must also be vocal in taking a collective stand against unlawful and indiscriminate targeting of their workers who are accused of being drug addicts.  Philippine law gives businesses the right to conduct random drug testing for their workers.  In reminding government that this mechanism exists, businesses will be perfectly positioned to protect their workers and still tell government that they too are determined to keep work environments drug-free. 

For civil society, we must help encourage and even pressure businesses to clarify their support of Duterte’s drug war.  Additionally, we need to use lawful mechanisms to exact accountability and transparency in the use of corporate funds to pursue the war on drugs.  Business and Human Rights Resource Centre can contribute by using our company response mechanism to invite businesses to provide clear statements communicating their demand for government to respect human rights in the war against drugs. It is also possible to use public fund accountability laws to trace where donated corporate funds go – to ensure that these are not used to promote serious human rights violations by government actors.

Right now, businesses in the Philippines have been relatively quiet on the human rights concerns related to the war on drugs.  It is time for them to speak up. 

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Isabel Ebert, Western Europe Researcher & Representative

Western Europe has witnessed a significant rise in xenophobia over the last few years.  Many Western European countries such as France, Belgium, Germany and Sweden, have seen far-right movements before and racism and xenophobia have long existed. But now, a new rise of right-wing populist politics has brought repressive governments with it. As most of these countries are predominantly shaped by Christian values, populists have also gained approval through the rise of Islamophobia. Migrants and refugees are therefore frequently subject to suspicious observation and or hostile treatment.

Progressive business voices can be a key source to influence public discourse on inclusion and integration. 

Business can help fight this prejudice by integrating migrants through employment opportunities and vocational training, so that they can actively participate in society. Wir Zusammen, an initiative integrating refugees into the workforce, founded by German entrepreneur and supported by over 150 companies including McDonalds, Google and the Deutsche Bank, demonstrates the potential for positive corporate action in the face of xenophobia. Alongside the challenge of integrating migrants into the labour market, hate speech in the media, based on race, ethnicity and religion is a major concern in the region. We’ve seen hate speech feed into politics in the upcoming elections in France and Germany, and during Brexit. Corporate involvement in this sweeping trend can range from funding and disseminating hate speech, to standing up for diversity and tolerance.

Progressive business voices can be a key source to influence public discourse on inclusion and integration. Companies have started to engage with civil society on the matter and some governments, such as the German one, are stepping up with regulatory measures to hold social media companies to account. The fast moving dynamics of hate speech and xenophobia in social media will require an equally fast adapting response by companies, civil society and governments to mitigate harmful effects.

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Ella Skybenko, Eastern Europe/Central Asia Researcher & Representative 

Since 2000 Russian authorities have been reducing public and legal space for civil society institutions, particularly in the case of human rights groups, opposition movements and the media. In 2014 Vladimir Putin, threatened by a revolution in Ukraine, sent a clear message to Russian citizens that any acts of resistance would have serious consequences. This has resulted in a crackdown on civil society in Russia. The success of the crackdown has set a bad example for other countries in the region. Recent examples of governments cracking down on civic space include Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Bosnia.

Businesses operating in such countries don’t seem to be concerned with human rights records of authoritarian governments, remaining silent, feigning ignorance or at worst helping authorities in their crackdown. This was the case in Russia when Sergey Nikiforov, an Evenk indigenous community leader opposing a gold mining project, was sentenced to 4 years in prison on allegedly fabricated charges of bribery brought by the engineering company “DalTeploEnergo”. This is just one of many examples.

Businesses operating in these countries don’t seem to be concerned with human rights records of authoritarian governments, remaining silent, feigning ignorance or at worst helping authorities in their crackdown. 

Development banks don’t seem too concerned about human rights abuses either. The European Investment Bank (EIB) is being criticized for failing to safeguard vulnerable groups in projects outside the EU. Out of the 68 countries covered by its External Lending Mandate, 38 are ranked as authoritarian or hybrid regimes by the Economist Intelligence Unit. For example, the EIB signed a loan agreement of 50 million EUR with the International Bank of Azerbaijan, even though the bank is known as a financial supporter of the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR), whose income helps strengthen the authoritarian state regime.

As this dangerous trend proceeds worldwide, it is crucial democratic countries and the UN respond, by supporting a concept of universal human rights through all available means, including the media. Otherwise we run the risk of seeing widespread damage to global developments in human rights.

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Bahaa Ezzelarab, Middle East & North Africa Researcher & Representative

Public and political spaces have been shrinking at an alarming rate in Egypt over the last few years. With the arrest of political dissidents, the enactment of legislation that nullifies political expression, the closure of civil society organisations and pending arrest of rights defenders, the private sector needs to realize the specific responsibilities it bears.

 

Business must not rely on the suppression of voices to assume that their activities do not have negative impacts. 

Lack of freedom of expression and association means that communities that suffer from environmental pollution and workers who have serious grievances have lost channels they have traditionally used to express concerns of human rights abuse. Business must not rely on the suppression of these voices to assume that their activities do not have negative impacts. Instead, it should make its position known with regards to this shrinking civil space and take steps to ensure the existence of systems and procedures that channel concerns resulting from business activities. 

Businesses in Egypt must also adopt a higher standard of transparency. In a context that lacks mechanisms for freedom of information, this becomes even more pressing. Businesses must provide more information to the public on major projects that they engage in with different state bodies, and not accept the veil of secrecy often cast upon them. Plans surrounding mega coal power projects in Hamrawein exemplify this lack of transparency, where very little is known about whether adequate human rights due diligence or studies on potential social and environmental impacts have been conducted. Similarly, businesses must also provide sufficient information on their supply chains, and must bear the responsibility to respect human rights in different tiers of their supply chains. While the Egyptian government is adopting several policies and incentives to attract foreign investment, the private sector must not abuse this context to escape accountability and abandon its obligations to respect human rights.

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Joseph Kibugu, Eastern Africa Researcher & Representative

A few weeks ago, more than 260,000 Somali refugees staying at the Daadab refugee camp gained reprieve when the High Court prevented the Kenyan government from forcefully repatriating them. The executive had argued that a number of attacks by Al-Shabaab extremists had been planned from within the camp. A government spokesman was quoted saying, "the lives of Kenyans matter. Our interest in this case, and in the closure of Dadaab refugee camp, remains to protect the lives of Kenyans." However, the High Court ruled that "…the government's decision specifically targeting Somali refugees is an act of group persecution, illegal discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional…" 

The recent Nairobi Declaration on Durable Solutions for Somali Refugees and Reintegration of Returnees in Somalia, opened a window of opportunity for Kenyan businesses to take proactive measures to support refugee livelihoods while at the same time, promoting their own business interest. Among its appeals, it adopted “a 'whole of society' approach to refugee protection and assistance by enabling…private sector actors to support refugees, especially women, children and the vulnerable”. This would mark the beginning of a full embrace of Somali refugees who have often been viewed with suspicion by many locals. 

The private sector ought to leverage its access to political power by encouraging government to respect the acceptable human rights and humanitarian standards in dealing with terrorism, as opposed to nationalistic notions that exclude parts of the population.

When Somalia stabilizes, as we are all hoping it will someday, Kenyan businesses ranging from hospitality, construction and banking, stand to benefit. They will very likely rush to participate in post-conflict reconstruction and establish local branches of Nairobi-headquartered companies,  as they have done with expansion into the neighbouring countries like South Sudan. The time to extend friendship to the people of Somalia is now – by taking positive steps and offering them training, internships and job opportunities without exploiting their immigration status and develop a new crop of business leaders who would be uniquely positioned to lead the private sector in Somalia. The private sector ought to leverage its access to political power by encouraging government to respect the acceptable human rights and humanitarian standards in dealing with terrorism, as opposed to nationalistic notions that exclude parts of the population.   It should take a leaf from the German private sector which has taken positive steps to embrace and accommodate migrants from warring countries in the Middle East, in what is increasingly proving to be a smart business move.

In the debate about how Kenya treats its refugees especially from Somalia, the private sector has been loudly silent.  This may be a lost opportunity, not only to promote human wellbeing, but also the sector's own interests.