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Government repression of human rights activists: when should business speak out? From Hong Kong streets to the European Games in Azerbaijan

Annabel Short, Program Director, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

In June 2015, Azerbaijan will host the first ever European Games.  As the event’s glitzy website declares, “Baku 2015 will be a celebration of elite sport in the capital city of Azerbaijan, a modern and dynamic European destination.”

Meanwhile, the government is undertaking what Human Rights Watch has described as “an unprecedented repression of independent voices.”

In recent months, many human rights activists have been imprisoned.  Prosecution proceedings citing economic and tax offences have been brought against 21 non-profit organizations working on social justice and transparency issues.  On 23 September, the prominent human rights defender Leyla Yunus was beaten in the Kurdakhany detention facility where she is being held, and Amnesty International says that the dire conditions in her cell are aggravating her already weakened health.

In this context 40 civil society organizations wrote to the four corporate "Official Partners" of the Games - BP, Nar Mobile, P&G and Tissot (part of Swatch Group)– as well as to two companies listed as "Official Supporters" – McDonald's and TicketHour.  They said: “in situations like this when [the company] is making a significant financial contribution, it should use this leverage to require guarantees that sponsored activities and projects do not result in adverse human rights impacts.”

This letter points to an important broader question, about the role of private companies in raising human rights concerns with governments.  Back in 2000 Sir Geoffrey Chandler, formerly of Shell and the founder of the Amnesty International UK Business Group, said that in the face of major abuses: “Silence or inaction will be seen to provide comfort to oppression and may be adjudged complicity….Silence is not neutrality. To do nothing is not an option."

The UN Global Compact Human Rights Working Group has endorsed a Good Practice Note on “How Business Can Encourage Governments to Fulfill their Human Rights Obligations.”  It says that: “When governments fail to uphold their responsibility to respect human rights, corporations are increasingly expected to do more to help support human rights including by encouraging governmental integrity.” 

There are some important examples where companies have spoken out about specific human rights cases. 

In January this year, clothing companies sourcing from Cambodia condemned the government for its violent crack-down on striking garment workers.  In March 2013, in Peru, six US textile and clothing firms urged the Peruvian Govt. to repeal a law that allegedly 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.  These cases demonstrate that companies can play a vital role, at the right times, in asking governments to uphold human rights.

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre approached the companies contacted by the NGOs regarding the European Games in Azerbaijan, inviting their response.  So far, only BP, Swatch Group and McDonald’s have responded.

Swatch emphasized its role is as the official timekeeper of the Games, adding that “Politics always tried to use sports events for their causes claiming always good reasons, but Tissot as a timekeeper remained always only dedicated to the athletes.”

McDonald’s clarified the nature of its involvement – stating that the ten McDonald’s restaurants in Azerbaijan are run by a developmental licensee, and that while the licensee has “publicly expressed support for the Games,” neither it nor headquarters “is an official sponsor or making financial contributions”.

BP, which is the “Oil and Gas Sponsor" of the Games (BP has a major oil development project in Azerbaijan), said in its reply:

“…The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) are very clear in their circumscription of those responsibilities and obligations: it is the State’s duty to protect human rights, the role of business to respect human rights and for both to provide access to effective remedy where breaches occur. We therefore believe that the government of Azerbaijan has the primary responsibility to protect human rights and we remain ready to implement their guidance in this regard. We recognise our responsibility to respect human rights and to avoid complicity in human rights abuses, as stated in the UNGPs. All our activities are in conformance with the legislation of the Republic of Azerbaijan which includes universal conventions and agreements on human rights. However, we do not believe that seeking to influence the policies of sovereign governments could be considered to be a part of our role as a sponsor of the European Games…”

Commenting on this response, Peter Frankental, Economic Relations Programme Director at Amnesty International UK says:

“BP's decision to sponsor the Baku 2015 Games is not a neutral one.  Human rights defenders and those imprisoned for their beliefs in Azerbaijan may feel let down by a company that is sponsoring an event that has nothing to do with its own operations in the country.  BP should realise how States use major international sporting events to showcase their country and deflect criticism.  The company's sponsorship will be seen as a form of endorsement.  At a time when Azerbaijan is coming under growing pressure for its infringements of human rights,  BP should take a hard look at itself and ask whether aligning the company with the Government of Azerbaijan is really more in keeping with its values than promoting respect for human rights.”

David Petrasek, Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa, comments:

“It's hard not to treat with cynicism BP's sudden reluctance to 'influence the policies of sovereign governments', something it engages in as a matter of course, when the company's interests are at stake. Further, it is alarming that BP would defer to the 'guidance' of the Azerbaijani Government as regards how best to protect human rights - as all available evidence indicates this would necessarily result in the implementation or continuation of policies and practices that fall far short of the Government's international obligations.

"Finally, the fact that BP claims the support of the UN's guiding Principles for its undue deference to sovereignty and its 'head-in-the-sand' approach to growing authoritarianism in Azerbaijan, is of particular concern, and must be denounced by all those working to strengthen the impact of these Principles."

Of course, Azerbaijan is just one of many countries where the space for civil society to operate is being squeezed, and where little is heard from the private sector to push for greater freedoms and the rule of law.

Our Middle East Representative Rania Fazah has written in Open Democracy that in Egypt, “Human rights are on hold in the name of economic development”. 

On 1 October, a New York Times editorial argued that President Modi's new "Made in India" campaign should heed the Indian Supreme Court's warnings that "that gutting environmental protection laws and demonizing citizen groups that raise legitimate concerns are no way to move the nation forward."

The China Director of Human Rights Watch, Sophie Richardson, has drawn the connection between the Chinese government’s repression of human rights activists, and its recent bullying tactics towards Western multinationals operating in the country.  Business “didn’t see the parallels between the treatment of activists and their own treatment, and, in some circumstances, they criticized activists when they called for greater freedoms,” she wrote.

The case she is referring to is that of accounting firms which took out an advert in Chinese newspapers in June.  They warned that investors might be deterred from investing in Hong Kong if democracy protests escalate.  The advert – signed by Ernst & Young, KPMG, Deloitte Kwan Wong Tan & Fong (the company's Hong Kong unit), and PricewaterhouseCoopers, said: "We are worried that foreign multinationals and investors will leave their Hong Kong headquarters because of this, or even withdraw their business, and shake Hong Kong's place as an international business center over the long term.” 

Richardson goes on to say that if some of the world's biggest, best-known firms voice their concerns about the Chinese government's human rights abuses, there are opportunities for change.  "Companies should adopt sound business practices in China, including on human rights, and report on them regularly.  Firms should reach out to human rights groups to compare government tactics and to understand common problems with the Chinese legal system so they can push for the types of reforms that would benefit both groups.”

It is not just human rights groups saying that at times, silence is not an option.  A Bloomberg commentary once the Hong Kong protests had swept through the city says:

"If Hong Kong’s business community hopes to preserve what’s unique about their city, it can no longer remain silent about how the local and Chinese governments have chosen to manage dissent there. Rather, they need to be just as vocal about the negative consequences of assaulting unarmed students as they have been about threats to shut down the central business district. It’s time for them to reaffirm how a world-class business city should behave under duress. The Chinese government won’t appreciate the warning, but it’s guaranteed to listen."

Clearly, companies need to manage their own human rights impacts – through their operations and their value chains.  And, when it comes to business’ influence over government, an important dimension is that of corporate capture (for example, lobbying to dilute legislation in areas such as labour rights or environmental protection).  But a little-explored area is the role companies can play in speaking out, publicly or privately, in the face of widespread abuses by governments: and the point at which silence becomes complicity.

We look forward to featuring perspectives and examples here.  Should business strive to be a positive force for human rights in its influence over government actions, rather than a silent bystander or enabler of abuse?  What actions should companies take?  Please send us comments and suggestions of material to include on our website: to 'short (at) business-humanrights.org'.  We would love to hear from business representatives and human rights activists alike.