Business can help champion human rights in the American justice system - here's how

16/3/20 - Celia Ouellette, Chief Executive, Responsible Business Initiative for Justice

Companies have a key role to play in combating injustice, writes Celia Ouellette of RBIJ

Next week I am addressing the Ethical Trade and Human Rights Forum on a panel entitled Companies as Human Rights Defenders. It’s a topic close to my heart. As a former death penalty defence lawyer, and having worked on 200 to 300 cases across 20 US states, I have frequently seen human rights abuses in the very institutions created to prevent them.

From an intellectually disabled 18-year-old facing execution for being the “lookout guy” in a drug deal, to my clients being forced to use socks when the local jail ran out of toilet paper, my experiences repeatedly and traumatically drove home my conviction that something had to change.

It was one client, however, who was the catalyst to my creating the organisation that is now the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice. I had travelled to a remote and rural part of the Appalachian region of the United States to advise yet another 18-year-old child on a plea.

Plea agreements in death penalty cases are a sick joke. In any commercial transaction, an offer of an agreement where a refusal means you literally die would be considered unenforceable, not to mention unspeakably cruel.

However, in death penalty cases your client is forced to do exactly that. He must almost always willingly agree to a sentence of life, without the possibility of parole, to avoid execution. As you can imagine, no client is jubilant on the day they sign a plea agreement in return for their life. For that reason, I would typically spend a day or two post-plea with my client.

We’d talk about life, what it looked like now, and how to come to terms with it all. In this one conversation – after much acknowledgement by both of us that the system was unfair – my client repeatedly told me that I needed to stop parachuting into individual cases, and instead find a way to make the system lessunfair.

He urged me to stop pulling people out of the river, but to instead swim upstream and figure out how to prevent so many people falling in. Simply put: He urged me to fight for the changes that we both knew needed to take place.

I was convinced that companies could hold the key to sweeping change in systems of justice. I was convinced that if business leaders saw what I’d seen they would be motivated to help. Above all, I was convinced that businesses could be effective human rights champions.

My client drove me to set up the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice, a new organization dedicated to engaging companies in the fight for fairness and equality across systems of punishment and incarceration.

Businesses have joined in their droves, despite the fact that almost none of them are directly involved in criminal justice. Which raises the question: Why would, and why should, businesses care about human rights outside of their own supply chains?

First, businesses are led by humans, their employees are human, their customers are human. By championing human rights, they reflect the fundamental values of the individuals that comprise them.

Workers are demanding that companies not only reflect these values in their operations but by engaging in policy issues that matter to them. It is no longer enough that they “do no harm”. They now must actively stand up for people in their communities and beyond.

This has been amplified by a perceived retreat by government when it comes to social issues. Groups are increasingly concerned that traditional institutions lack the capacity, or the inclination, to advocate for them. As privileged and powerful community stakeholders, it is the responsibility of businesses to step in.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the American justice system, where systemic racism and the criminalization of poverty routinely marginalize the most vulnerable individuals.

This creates powerful incentives. Businesses have to attract and retain talent. A May 2018 Korn Ferry Institute study predicts there will be 85.2 million job openings worldwide by 2030. As competition for talented workers intensifies, businesses have to make themselves attractive to the most talented jobseekers.

Millennials are three times more likely to work for companies committed to social and environmental purpose. Consumers are also demanding “purpose” - nine out of ten millennials would switch brands to one associated with a cause. The business case for human rights engagement has become impossible to ignore.

There is also an argument on opportunity. Business is a unique voice and platform in today’s society, and can deliver meaningful and measurable change. Governments are always competing for foreign investment (especially since 2008 financial crash), and by being vocal businesses can drive human rights up the political agenda.

No constituency is more important to local leaders. We live in an era of rock star CEOs, with figures like Richard Branson leading the charge on some of the world’s most critical issues. In our own space, JP Morgan Chase’s CEO Jamie Dimon has been a lightning rod for corporate engagement in criminal justice.

Ultimately, businesses should champion human rights because it’s the right thing to do. With their unprecedented influence, they can drive meaningful, measurable and enduring change for the most vulnerable and marginalised people in society.

I have seen this power first hand, and can testify to the role that businesses have already played in delivering fairness and equality in the American justice system.

Public social purpose has become economically imperative to sustainable business, and by vocally championing human rights, companies can reflect the values of their executives, employees and customers.