Should companies act when civic freedoms are under attack?

Mauricio Lazala Active citizenship, General, Influencing, Private sector, Rights

Mauricio Lazala and Ana Zbona, from the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, discuss how companies can help support civic freedoms and human rights defenders in the countries where they operate.

Civic freedoms are being eroded around the world. According to CIVICUS, nearly six in ten countries are seriously restricting people’s fundamental freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression. Civil society organizations are under pressure; human rights defenders, including trade unionists, anti-corruption activists and journalists are threatened, attacked and killed in growing numbers.

At the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, we have tracked over 1,400 attacks against activists working on human rights issues related to business since 2015.  Many companies have been exposed as being complicit, aiding and abetting, or even directly involved in these attacks. For example, a court in Honduras recently found seven men guilty of the murder of environmental and indigenous activist Berta Cáceres—  two are directly linked to the hydroelectric company, DESA.

Companies, as well as civil society, depend upon civic freedoms.
However, no company and their investors can afford to be bystanders. The concept of a ‘shared space’ argues that companies, as well as civil society, depend upon civic freedoms. These 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 found clear evidence that limits on important civic freedoms are linked to negative economic outcomes; and countries with higher degrees of respect for civil rights experience higher rates of economic growth and human development. From the murder of Jamal Khashoggi to fabricated charges against Cambodian trade unionists, attacks on defenders and civic freedoms are of increasing concern to the business community.

There are a growing number of examples of good practices from leading companies:

  • Last year, Adidas, Nike and other global brands urged the Cambodian Government to drop politically-motivated criminal charges against labour rights activists, and showed their support for freedom of association.
  • In Germany, BMW and Daimler asked their employees to combat xenophobia and racism following far-right riots against immigrants. Siemens even urged employees to speak out; emphasizing that tolerance and respect are important business values.
  • In the USA, companies including Microsoft, Apple, and Twitter have spoken out in unprecedented tone and numbers against some of the Trump Administration’s measures; most recently, dozens of companies challenged Trump’s policy of separating migrant and refugee families at the border.
  • Eight multinational companies and investors recently issued a call to protect civic freedoms, activists and rule of law. The joint statement is the first of its kind, and stresses that when human rights defenders are under attack, so is sustainable and profitable business.

But corporate activism — whether reluctant or deliberate — is not easy. New guidance by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre and International Service for Human Rights anticipates the challenges for companies and their leaders. It explains the normative framework, the business case and the moral choice that should inform company engagement and action. The guidance includes a step-by-step decision-making process, and a menu of possible actions.

All companies must ensure; through the application of UN Guiding Principles; that their own operations are not linked to attacks on defenders and civic freedoms. Beyond that, 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.

In some situations, like the increasing restrictions on Hungarian civil society, companies prefer to raise concerns individually and privately with the government. In others, such as Cambodia’s crackdown on striking workers, companies choose to make collective and public demands.

We can offer four main lessons to civil society, for engaging businesses to make change happen in this area:

  1. Recognise that companies are all different, and some can be partners on these issues. Understandably a lot of mistrust remains. No business is perfect and corporate abuse remains common. Yet in some situations, victims and defenders themselves have sought to partner with companies to increase protection and resist violations.
  2. Base calls for action on reliable data about restrictions and attacks. Highlight the specific role that companies can play. The more tailored the request, and the better connected the issue is with a company’s sphere of influence, the more likely they will act. Provide a menu of options rather than a single solution.
  3. Empower defenders and civil society to press companies to reduce negative involvement, and take positive actions. Many are not used to talking with companies, and will benefit from training, evidence and dialogue.
  4. Involve employees, investors, multi stakeholder initiatives (MSIs) and business associations. 500 Google employees recently persuaded the company to drop plans for a censored search engine in China. In the Cambodia example we mentioned, MSIs like the Fair Labour Association played important and constructive roles.

There is a lot at stake and a shortage of allies; companies and civil society should engage with each other carefully but deliberately – in their own interest – to support and defend this invaluable, but fragile shared space.

Download the recent reports on business support for civic freedoms and human rights defenders in full

Mauricio Lazala


Ana Zbona