Despite the odds: Businesses speaking out for human rights

Mauricio Lazala, Deputy Director, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

Cambodia workers strike Jan

How are companies speaking out for human rights? What motivates them to do so? And, importantly, what can civil society learn from the examples to date?

This blog is an extension of a piece published by OpenGlobalRights in June 2015:  “What human rights?” Why some companies speak out while others don’t

In June this year, a prominent independent journalist and activist, Rafael Marques, faced 24 charges of criminal defamation over his investigation of killings, torture and land grabs in Angola’s diamond industry. As may be expected, several human rights, press freedom, and anti-corruption NGOs worldwide expressed grave concerns about the trial and called for Mr. Marques’ release. But perhaps less predictably, three leading jewellers, Tiffany & Co., Leber Jeweler, and Brilliant Earth also joined calls on the government to end the trial.

Recently, we have seen a proliferation of repressive laws and practices deployed by an increasing number of states, and an increase in the criminalisation of human rights defenders and other civil society actors. Companies’ responses are at odds with their public human rights commitments when they remain silent and do not act. However, some companies are speaking out against these actions, taking a public stance on matters where business has traditionally been silent. But how are companies speaking out for human rights? What motivates them to do so? And, importantly, what can civil society learn from the examples to date?

Going public

In the garment sector, in January 2014, clothing companies sourcing from Cambodia, including adidas, Columbia, Gap, H&M, Inditex, Levi Strauss and Puma, condemned the government for its violent crack-down on striking garment workers, resulting in deaths and injuries. In March 2013, in Peru, six US textile firms urged the Peruvian Govt. to repeal a law that condoned labour rights violations, making it difficult for them to implement their own sourcing codes of conduct.  And in 2009, in response to the coup in Honduras, major apparel companies called for the restoration of democracy. Concerns over their supply chains play a big role in these cases.

In the ICT sector, Google famously pulled out of China in 2010 over censorship attempts. And in February 2012, following a call from a Pakistani NGO to tech companies not to respond to a tender by their government for the "development, deployment and operation of a national-level URL filtering and blocking system", Websense, Sandvine, Verizon and Cisco committed publicly not to submit bids – some cited human rights concerns as their reason for this.

In the food sector, two Thai seafood associations provided bail for rights activist Andy Hall, who was imprisoned and charged in 2014 following his investigations into abuses of migrant workers in the food industry in Thailand. The industry associations said they support “the work of human rights activists who carefully investigate rights abuses for the benefit of society.” In late 2014 in Poland, 18 local companies and Heinz joined a campaign against a proposed opencast mine and power plant that threatened to displace thousands, pollute the air and drastically deplete local water tables.

There are also examples involving companies from multiple sectors. In March this year 379 businesses & organisations submitted a public statement to US Supreme Court in support of same-sex marriage, including corporate behemoths such as Coca-Cola, Goldman Sachs, Microsoft and Morgan Stanley. We also saw companies rally in opposition to a so-called religious freedom law in Indiana, which would permit businesses to discriminate against the L.G.B.T. community under certain circumstances. The reaction from the business world was considered by many observers to be the primary factor in getting the law revised.

In January 2015, following a series of anti-Islam rallies by xenophobic groups in Germany, companies like Rhein-Energie and Volkswagen kept their installations dark. The latter said this was to underscore that the company "stands for an open, free and democratic society." In the last couple years, hundreds of companies have publicly expressed their support for the peace process between the Colombian Government and the FARC guerrilla; before this, companies in Colombia kept a very low profile in relation to solutions to the armed conflict.

Speaking out against abuse is the right thing to do. But a “business case” to support tolerant and open civic spaces is not too difficult to make.

More recently, civil society has called on FIFA sponsors to respond to human rights concerns at construction sites for the Qatar 2022 World Cup. So far, adidas, Coca-Cola and Visa have issued statements. Visa, for example, said “[we] continue to be troubled by the reports coming out of Qatar... We have expressed our grave concern to FIFA and urge them to take all necessary actions to work with the appropriate authorities and organizations to remedy this situation and ensure the health and safety of all involved.” Some observers may say these statements are timid; however they go well beyond what most major sporting events sponsors have been willing to say.

Lessons

Speaking out against abuse is the right thing to do on its own merits. But a “business case” to support tolerant and open civic space is not too difficult to make, as businesses clearly benefit when the rules of the game are clear; consumers are empowered, employees are respected, and the judicial system works well[1]. Where human rights thrive and defenders are protected, companies will also find it easier to comply with their own codes of conduct and meet their public commitments to human rights.

Speaking out for human rights could even help companies financially. Firms in the US are discovering that taking an enlightened public stance on social justice issues makes business sense – it helps attract and retain new customers and the best staff. Investors are also increasingly looking at the social and environmental records of companies[2], and companies needing access to multilateral banks and export credit agencies need to comply with strict international standards. And sometimes businesses just won’t want the bad press that comes with being associated with a repressive government.

Civil society should use these insights to recruit business to their defence of human rights and broader civic space, and when necessary take the business case forward where they can. Another tool are awards/prizes which help protect human rights defenders by raising their public profile. Some businesses sponsor these awards; corporate prizes and public statements help legitimise defenders’ work and remove the stigma that they are “anti-development” or “traitors”.

Companies can be a powerful voice in the protection of the vulnerable in repressive countries, particularly where abuses are taking place linked to their industry and when they are major investors. For civil society, it will be far more challenging to recruit to their cause state-owned companies, and private companies that don’t have a consumer-facing business model. Today’s reality dictates that civil society’s limited time and resources should be used cleverly to target the right kind of business.

Unfortunately many companies remain unwilling to speak out for human rights. However let’s hope that the examples and lessons above can help create and expand "enabling environments" for human rights defenders and the civic space, while an increasing number of companies realise that it is in their own interest to do so[3].


[1] See for example “Human Rights: It is your Business”, IBLF, 2005

[3] See also: “How business can encourage governments to fulfil their human rights obligations”, United Nations Global Compact Human Rights Working Group, 29 March 2010