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Tema: How to work on business-related human rights issues

At the end of 2018, Norwegian companies were invited to discuss the worrying trend of deliberate diminishing of civic freedoms around the world in a meeting in Oslo, kindly hosted by Ethical Trading Initiative Norway: The rise in attacks against civil society organizations and rights defenders and why more and more companies are starting to react and to defend civic space. Many believe that nowadays no company and their investors can afford to be bystanders with so much at stake.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Michel Forst, also present at the Oslo meeting, described how human rights defenders, including trade unionists, anti-corruption activists and journalists are threatened, attacked and killed in growing numbers. Nearly six in ten countries are seriously restricting people’s fundamental freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression, according to CIVICUS.  Since 2015 the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has tracked over 1,400 incidents of attacks against activists working on human rights issues related to business.  

“A shared space”

The concept of a ‘shared space’ argues that in developing companies’ human rights policies and processes, companies have come to depend upon civic freedoms that enable civil society to reveal human rights impacts. Civic freedoms allow citizens to ask questions, express opinions, propose solutions to social problems, and press governments to keep commitments to protecting human rights. Equally, innovative, profitable and sustainable business depend fundamentally on the rule of law, accountable governance, stable investment environments and respect for human rights. A recent report by The B Team found clear evidence that limits on important civic freedoms are linked to negative economic outcomes; according to the study, countries with higher degrees of respect for civil rights experience higher economic growth rates and higher levels of human development.

Sadly, many companies have been exposed as being complicit, aiding, abetting or directly involved in these attacks. In one recent example, a court in Honduras found seven men guilty of the murder of environmental and indigenous activist Berta Cáceres; two are directly linked to the hydroelectric company DESA. On the other hand, there are exceptions and examples of good practices by a growing group of leading companies.

Good practices

From the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi to fabricated charges against Cambodian trade unionists, attacks on defenders and civic freedoms increasingly worry the business community. A growing number of corporate leaders are recognizing that they must defend the interests and values that they share with civil society around the world; increasing awareness and expectations are compelling shareholders and employees to take sides and pressure companies, however difficult the choices and trade-offs may be. Four prominent examples from 2018 demonstrate this trend:

  • Adidas and Nike were among global apparel brands that urged the Cambodian Government to drop politically-motivated criminal charges against labour rights activist Tola Moeun and others – and supported freedom of association.
  • In Germany, BMW and Daimler engaged with their employees to combat xenophobia and racism following far-right riots against immigrants; Siemens even urged employees to speak out and emphasized that tolerance and respect are important business values.
  • In the USA, companies have spoken out in unprecedented tone and numbers against some of Trump Administration’s measures; in June Microsoft, Cisco, Chobani, AirBnB, Apple, Twitter, American Airlines, Johnson & Johnson, Twilio, and the US Chamber of Commerce, among others, challenged Trump’s policy of separating migrant & asylum seeking families at the border.
  • Eight multinationals and investors issued a call to protect civic freedoms, human rights defenders and rule of law in a joint statement. The statement is the first of its kind, with supporters ranging across the consumer goods, mining, apparel, banking, jewellery and footwear sectors, and stresses that when human rights defenders are under attack, so is sustainable and profitable business.

“Corporate activism” – Some key recommendations to Norwegian companies

‎Corporate activism – whether reluctant or deliberate – is not easy. New guidance anticipates these inescapable challenges for companies and their leaders. The guidance explains the normative framework, the business case and the moral choice that should inform company engagement and action; offers a step-by-step decision-making process and a menu of possible actions.

Many Norwegian companies have global supply chains and would unavoidably face some of these challenges sooner or later. We offer five specific decision factors that Norwegian companies should consider:

  1. All companies must ensure – through the application of the UN Guiding Principles – that theirown operations do not cause, contribute and are not linked to attacks on activists and civic freedoms. If they do, they must address the causes and consequences according to the UNGPs.
  2. Beyond that, there is a discretionary opportunity to act. Besides defending the core elements of the shared space, the business case rests on managing operational and repetitional risks; building competitive advantage; and overcoming mistrust and securing the social licence to operate. Companies can also make a moral choice to act, both to do no harm anywhere and to do good where possible.
  3. How to act? There is no one appropriate form of action that applies to all circumstances; a spectrum of actions (individual and collective, public and private) may be combined concurrently or sequentially to address an issue or situation.  Companies should be guided by pragmatic flexibility as they consider circumstances, relationships and opportunities to make a positive difference.
  4. Who decides whether and how, a company will act? It is essential that these decisions are involving corporate headquarters and in-country executives and staff. Local civil society and other stakeholders with which the company should maintain steady engagement should be consulted.
  5. Responsible companies should evaluate both the risks of action and inaction. Companies may perceive that taking critical positions, especially in public, may put relationships with host country governments at stake. But often companies will conclude that the risks and potential costs of inaction are more difficult to anticipate, mitigate and manage over the long-term than the risks of action. It is unwise to be on the wrong side of history based on a short-sighted cost-benefit analysis.

These decision factors provide practical steps that companies can and should take to be allies of civil society and not just bystanders – or worse, casualties – in the global crackdown against the “shared space”. It is not the business of companies to pick fights, but fights are already coming to companies that could make or break them. Companies should engage carefully but deliberately – in their own interest – to support and defend this invaluable but fragile shared space.

Mauricio Lazala – Deputy Director & Head of Europe Office, Business & Human Rights ResourceCentre

Sandra Petersen – Executive Director, Norwegian Human Rights Fund


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