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"Why human rights activists should work with companies – not just fight them"

Author: Regan Ralph, The Fund for Global Human Rights, in openDemocracy, Published on: 17 October 2019

...The rising tide of hostility to human rights, often spearheaded by authoritarian governments, has swept across the globe in recent years, with devastating consequences on rights and freedoms, and the people who defend them. The international consensus that governments must uphold human rights norms is under fire in unprecedented ways...Human rights defenders are rethinking their tactics and strategies. As they do so, they must begin forging new alliances with others who can influence human rights conditions, including large companies run for profit.

This can be an uncomfortable shift. Human rights advocates, myself included, are accustomed to calling out the bad practices of profit-oriented business, especially in mining and oil-drilling. Those bad practices continue – as does the need for watchdogs to keep companies accountable for their actions – but they do not capture the full range of corporate behaviour or rule out the possibility of effective partnerships with corporate leaders that value human rights, be it for moral or business reasons. Given what's at stake, and the power and reach that corporations bring to the table, it's terrain worth exploring.

Many corporate leaders are starting to acknowledge that environmental, social and governance issues are important to their business interests...The outsize influence of big companies, especially multinationals, means that they can be more powerful than governments in determining how and whether people enjoy their human rights. From a strategic and tactical standpoint, it makes sense to figure out where our interests align and how to bring these influential entities to a shared sense of what change is needed and how to secure it.

Aware of their potential influence, some companies have already done things to make society better. In one recent example over 180 CEOs in the US signed an open letter opposing state efforts to restrict reproductive rights...Some companies are taking controversial positions on social issues – Nike's support for US athletes boycotting the national anthem is but one example...[T]here are corporate leaders who care about more than making money. Whatever the motivation, a collaborative approach with rights groups can help build on it by ensuring companies are guided in the right direction and move beyond rhetoric into action.

Take, for example, a recent collaboration between well-known apparel companies in the US, a Taiwanese supplier [Nien Hsing], local labour unions and human rights groups to combat gender-based violence and harassment in Lesotho apparel factories...In this case, activists were critical both to exposing human rights abuses and to crafting solutions...

A collaborative approach can complement the more adversarial 'naming and shaming' approach familiar to many human rights groups. We can capitalise on the power, influence and – where it exists – goodwill of companies by working with them, when possible; companies can rely on the local knowledge, data and experience of human rights groups to avoid or prevent inflicting harm on the communities affected by their work, and help them instead support these communities in ways that improve lives.

In another example of such collaboration, The Fund for Global Human Rights is partnering with Apple to support human rights groups working in mining-affected communities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)...These examples from the DRC and Lesotho reveal that, despite the increasingly hostile political landscape for human rights, change is afoot at the local level, where activism has grown stronger and more sophisticated. This creates a new arena for collaboration, where such work has significant, sustainable impact and could counter government attempts to silence dissent.

Human rights advocates have long sought to influence corporations, from trying to stop their abusive practices to enlisting their support. As the political landscape is changing, generalisations about human rights groups on the one hand and corporations on the other no longer hold. We all have a stake in creating societies that respect rights and norms, and should be finding ways to work together.

[also refers to Levi Strauss, Wrangler (owned by Kontoor), The Children's Place]

Read the full post here

Related companies: Apple Children's Place Kontoor Brands Levi Strauss Nien Hsing Nike Wrangler (part of VF Corp)