What should business do about shrinking civil society space?
Every year, on 10 December, the Institute for Human Rights and Business publishes its “Top Ten” issues to watch in the coming year. This year the plight of civil society and human rights defenders made the list, we cite examples from Africa, Australasia, Asia and Europe. But why?
It is undeniable that the space for civil society to play its independent role in defending the rights of citizens, and in particular the most marginalised, is shrinking in many parts of the world. But why should businesses care? Human rights defenders around the world, who we remember today on International Human Rights Day, are a thorn in the side to governments and sometimes to businesses as well. Can a case really be made for businesses to defend the rights of human rights defenders who might challenge the very governments with whom the companies wish to conduct their business? It might be #HumanRightsDay – a time for hope – but surely this is beyond the bounds of even idealistic wishful thinking?
Today, a range of civil society organisations were invited to join diplomats at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London to celebrate International Human Rights Day. Similar events were taking place in many other countries around the world, sometimes involving governments, sometimes not. This is not to give the UK Government a clean bill of health, questions were asked about the UK’s role in rendition relating to the victims of torture, following yesterday’s US Senate report on the CIA post 9/11, as well as why the European Convention of Human Rights has such a bad reputation in the eyes of some leading British politicians. But it remains the truth that the people who asked these questions today will not be fearing a knock on the door in the middle of the night for daring to do so. This cannot be said for an increasing number of countries. Marginalisation, violence and torture, or just the fear of them, can have a freezing effect on future dissent and freedom of expression. The important role of protecting privacy within this regard has already been made in an earlier commentary.
My friend Phil Bloomer from the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre asked the question about what the business response should be to this shrinking civil society space. It is an interesting question. Some companies will react that this is a political issue, an issue of civil and political rights and for any government and its citizens to sort out between themselves. Others, who have “gotten” the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) might also point out the role of business is to respect human rights – not to protect them. Therefore, some might argue that the rights of human rights defenders can be respected, but if a government or other entity wishes to abuse their freedom of expression or privacy on an issue not related to their core business activity, why is of their concern?
This, however, would be an incorrect reading of the UNGPs as responsibility needs to be understood in terms of contribution or linkage to a negative impact – businesses can benefit from the status quo in countries where human rights defenders, trade unionists and others are routinely rounded up – just by staying quiet.
But we don’t even have to go there. Business logic itself suggests that human rights defenders are of core business concern. The number of companies that now have “stakeholder engagement” programmes is incalculable. But far fewer actually define what they consider a stakeholder to be. Interestingly, many shareholders, for whom the company actually has legal and fiduciary duties, resent the term as it dilutes their primary relationship to the company. This is very understandable. Therefore, I must admit I remain confused as to why so few companies actively use the term “rights-holder” to describe those people upon which their activities might have a direct impact.
Anyhow, if we accept that many companies now feel the need to talk to people (and not just shareholders and regulators) about their activities, then – by definition – they must take an interest in the ability for these people to think, speak and act freely, otherwise what is the point? I would argue that is implicit in the whole stakeholder concept, in particular if we include rights-holders within it, that business should take an interest in the space allowed to civil society in any given market or production site.
I don’t often single out companies for praise, but I am excited by H&M’s public statements in relation to living wage and collective bargaining: that the only way to obtain meaningful understandings of what a living wage is within a particular context is to allow workers the freedom and security of negotiating one. “Trade Union space” is not often discussed within the same context as “civil society space” but the two are heavily linked. The abuse of rights outside of a workplace will eventually permuate the workplace itself, and vice versa. Arguably, most of the active human rights defenders in the world today, and especially when we consider the role of business, are trade unionists. But there are many other examples, companies have often given safe spaces to those vulnerable to exploitation and even murder, from Oskar Schindler forward, there is nothing new to this. Business leaders have to remain very quiet about what is perhaps the most sensitive of business and human rights issues. Even now we are still learning about the role business leaders played during the last years of apartheid South Africa.
But business can be more transparent about what it is doing proactively to help secure civil society space. The United Nations has itself clarified the essential role of human rights defenders. But in specific business leaders might like to consider steps such as:
- Being more precise about who really are the affected rights-holders in a given country and to assess their vulnerability. Do nothing that will make them more vulnerable (including identifying them publicly if this is against their wishes) but do what you can to make them less vulnerable. In some contexts formalise your relationship with them if it helps to protect them.
- Think very carefully about your corporate philanthropy. Whilst giving grants can often strengthen civil society, over dependency, co-option, corruption and discrimination can weaken it.
- Even casual references to the importance of civil society in business operations can surprise governmental counterparts or the local security services which might make assumptions about what business is expecting. This is perhaps one of greatest public policy contributions of international multi-stakeholder processes such as the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights or the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Providers.
- Have rapid response procedures to protect known human rights defenders or trade union representatives, which might mean bringing such people under the temporary protection of a company, international organization or a foreign embassy.
- In conflict areas, use enhanced due diligence to assess the true vulnerability of all individuals and communities, and consult independent experts on the ground such as the International Committee of the Red Cross/ Red Crescent.
In my book, The Social License, I argue that civil society plays an essential role in defending the social contract itself – the ability of society to hold its governments to account. Less civil society means less social license, in definitional terms, as the consent granted to business activities is likely to be tacitly and not actively given. There is much that business could do to defend civil society space – we must first remind business leaders worldwide why it is in their own best interests.
So business, remember, remember, the tenth of December and in particular lets remember human rights defenders such as Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzay, winners of this year’s Nobel Prize for Peace.