Breaking through the impasse: Corporate human rights defenders at the UN Forum

Gilles Goedhart, Senior Human Rights Policy Officer at Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Netherlands

Creating a network of companies that are willing to act, willing to speak up, when human rights are under threat in the countries where they operate. This is a movement that is sorely needed.

An audible murmur went through the meeting room in the Palais des Nations. The participants were clearly surprised at the firm instruction to break up into small groups and talk to each other.

But that is precisely what we wanted, and precisely what is needed in order to make any progress. The setting was the annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, last month in Geneva. The goal of this Forum is to help turn the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights into reality. That is, to make sure that states fulfill their duty to protect human rights, that corporations live up to their responsibility to respect human rights, and that victims have access to remedy when their rights are harmed by business activity.

Business-related human rights abuse is still rampant, and even well-meaning companies are struggling to do better. 

The Guiding Principles, which have been around since 2011, have completely changed the discourse on business and human rights. Companies can no longer pretend that human rights are the exclusive domain of the state, and that their activities have nothing to do with human rights. Tragedies such as the Rana Plaza factory collapse and the murder of Berta Cáceres have put the impact of business on human rights firmly in the public eye.

However, business-related human rights abuse is still rampant, and even well-meaning companies are struggling to do better. An important reason for this is the lack of trust and understanding, and therefore the lack of cooperation, between companies, civil society, and governments. Yet each of these actors has a clear role to play in order to make progress. The annual Forum is meant to bring the players together, and yet they are often still caught within their own bubbles, and although The Netherlands has a longstanding tradition of cooperation between stakeholders, this is still a relatively new concept in the UN. Tellingly, the setup of UN meeting rooms is usually geared towards one-way traffic from the speakers to the audience.  

Companies that are willing to act, willing to speak up, when human rights are under threat in the countries where they operate. ‘Corporate human rights defenders’, if you will. 

At one of the events organised during the Forum, we wanted to try and break through this impasse. The event was based on an exciting new project by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, and supported by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The objective is to create a network of companies willing to go beyond respect for human rights in relation to their own operations. Companies that are willing to act, willing to speak up, when human rights are under threat in the countries where they operate. ‘Corporate human rights defenders’, if you will. A case in point: the recent statement by Adidas on protecting human rights defenders.

After the scene on this topic had been set by Sarah Brooks of ISHR, Matthias Stausberg of Virgin discussed how and why it had set up the pro-LGBT corporate coalition ‘Open for Business’, stressing the importance of standing up for the rule of law. Jochanan Senf of Ben & Jerry’s spoke on the value of engaging with civil society organisations and movements such as Black Lives Matter. Daniel D’Ambrosio explained why DLA Piper advises its clients that civil society is vital for knowing the human rights risks faced by businesses.

But the contribution that drew the most attention was Lea Rankinen’s account of the case concerning human rights defender Andy Hall. Hall authored a report by NGO Finnwatch exposing human rights abuse related to tuna and pineapple production in Thailand. The pineapple company Natural Fruit did not take this lightly, and Andy was soon faced with civil and criminal charges of defamation. Lea’s company, Finnish retailer S Group, which procured pineapples from Natural Fruit, took the position that their own human rights due diligence could never be perfect, and that the unfettered efforts of human rights defenders are a crucial complement. S Group ended up testifying on Andy’s behalf during the court case. Interestingly, two Thai industry associations related to the tuna sector also came to his defense by posting Andy’s bail when he was imprisoned.  

At a time when human rights are under threat from all directions, this is a movement that is sorely needed. 

The ensuing discussion, during which moderator Kees van Baar, the Dutch Human Rights Ambassador, made participants break up into groups in the four corners of the room, clearly demonstrated the importance of a free and open-minded exchange of views between companies and their stakeholders. As Lea explained, talking to human rights defenders was an eye-opener for her and her colleagues, which helped them ask the right questions to their suppliers.

Of course, I am not claiming that the companies named here are perfect. Nor that they are anything more, at this point, than inspiring exceptions to the corporate mainstream. But they are part of a growing movement of ‘corporate human rights defenders’ that is willing to join forces with civil society and stand up against repression. At a time when human rights are under threat from all directions, this is a movement that is sorely needed.