Human Rights Defenders discuss engaging with business at International Civil Society Week in Serbia

10/4/19 - Ana Zbona, Civic Freedoms and Human Rights Defenders Project Manager, BHRRC

Ana Zbona speaks to Human Rights Defenders on what companies can do to help protect civic freedoms.

At this year's International Civil Society Week event in Belgrade, Serbia, we interviewed three human rights defenders about how the ‘shared space’ where business and civil society operate is currently under attack from governments, and sometimes by corporations.

They offered their ideas about what companies can do to positively engage with civil society and support and protect civic freedoms.

Sutharee Wannasiri

Sutharee Wannasiri

Country: Thailand

Human Rights focus: Freedom of expression, assembly, and association, and Labour Rights

Business sector focus: Agriculture and livestock

Sutharee has been supporting the 14 Myanmar workers that have denounced labour rights abuses at the Thammakaset Farm in Thailand. She has actively engaged in public advocacy to demand business accountability on labour rights abuses, and an end to the judicial harassment workers are facing in retaliation for reporting these.

To date, Thammakaset Farm has filed more than 13 criminal and civil complaints against the workers and the local CSO staff from Migrant Worker Rights Network and the journalists supporting them, including her – many of them are ongoing. The majority of the cases have been dropped by the courts.

Sutharee said:

“It is also the responsibility of international brands that buy from Thailand to make sure the companies they are sourcing from are not engaged in judicial harassment that creates a chilling effect on whistleblowers and other defenders. They should establish mechanisms that allow workers and defenders to communicate with the brands directly and ensure that they are protected from any retaliation from suppliers during the investigation. The results should be made public and bring accountability for the abuses.”

Amanda Segnini

Amanda Segnini

Country: Brazil

Human Rights focus: Youth engagement and environmental rights

Business sector focus: Consumer-focused industries 

The organization engajamundo focuses on youth empowerment in Brazil, with a particular focus on climate change. Its main goal is to make young people ware of their power to transform their communities. The organization is concerned about how civic freedoms will be negatively affected under the new government of President Jair Bolsonaro.

Engajamundo is open to dialogue and ongoing engagement with companies if there is an alignment in values. Amanda believes that companies and civil society could engage more with one another if they find a shared purpose. 

Amanda said:

It might be right for companies to say something in support of activists that are under attack – but only if they have been working with the community long-term and have an ongoing relationship with them: for example, if they work with local producers and source responsibly from them. If such a community is under attack, a brand should say or do something in their support. But if they only say something without having that relationship, it’s like they are just ‘riding on the wave’, taking advantage of the buzz. Companies also should not censor civil society they engage with. For example, once we were invited to take part in a corporate event, but they tried to censor what we wanted to say. We decided not to participate in the end.” 

Sasa Uzelac

Sasa Uzelac

Country: Serbia

Human Rights focus: Labour rights

Business sector: All sectors

Sasa is the Solidarity Center's Regional Coordinator for South East Europe. Solidarity Center was established by AFL-CIO, and is the biggest international organization supporting trade unions and associations working to protect labour rights in South East Europe. He says trade unions and workers' associations are increasingly under attack from governments, companies, and far-right political organizations and movements.

Sasa says the tide of far-right populism is creating additional problems for organizations and people advocating for labour rights. Workers' rights are being endangered on a daily basis by “ruthless” employers and “mindless” government officials. Freedom of association, decent working conditions, and human rights in the field of work are at risk due to governments’ failure to sanction unlawful activities by employers.

Sasa said:

“The best thing brands can do is to introduce union practices from their country of origin, rather than exploiting the weaknesses of the local system and local practices in their operations. But sadly they are not doing that to a high enough standard in this region. When big international companies enter the market, they should also make sure that the health and safety standards are brought to the levels of their countries of origin.”

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