Companies speaking out on human rights: less rare but not enough

June 17, 2015

On 17 June 2015 Open Democracy carried an article by Mauricio Lazala (Deputy Director at Business & Human Rights Resource Centre) and Joe Bardwell (Corporate Accountability and Communications Officer at the same) under the title: “What human rights?” Why some companies speak out while others don’t.”

It states that many companies nowadays speak out for human rights when it relates directly to their operations, but not to take a stand on broader human rights issues. It opens with the case of Formula One in Azerbaijan (Bernie Ecclestone, on the country’s human rights record,: “I think everybody seems to be happy. Doesn’t seem to be any big problem there.”

Companies tend to see the risks outweighing the benefits of publicly speaking out. The greater the leverage, the greater the risk, and the greater the reluctance to speak out. For example, earlier this year, Leber Jeweller, Inc., Tiffany & Co. and Brilliant Earth released statements calling on the Angolan government to drop charges against Rafael Marques, a journalist on trial for defamation after exposing abuses in the diamond industry, but none of these companies actually had operations in Angola. In fact, ITM Mining, who does have operations in Angola, pressed their case forward even when settlement with other parties looked likely.

Even where a company has significant leverage over a government, it might be reluctant to use this to further human rights. BP, for example, is the largest foreign investor in Azerbaijan, investing billions each year. Asked to respond to human rights concerns around its sponsorship of the European Games (being  held in Azerbaijan in June 2015), BP replied that it does “not believe that seeking to influence the policies of sovereign governments could be considered to be a part of our role as a sponsor of the European Games”. Of course, as David Petrasek said, BP would certainly seek to ‘influence the policies of sovereign governments‘ when the company’s interests are at stake.

Where the protection of human rights clashes with business interests, even some companies with strong human rights commitments show disregard for them. Earlier this year, 31 Swedish companies released a letter highlighting their concerns around statements by the Swedish Foreign Minister, Margot Wallström, criticizing Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. The Swedish companies called for the protection of economic relationships over these human rights considerations.

The article list some cases of companies speaking out:

  • In January 2014, clothing companies sourcing from Cambodia, including Adidas, Columbia, Gap, H&M, Inditex, Levi Strauss and Puma, condemned the government for its violent crackdown on striking garment workers that resulted in deaths and injuries.
  • In March 2013, in Peru, six US textile firms urged the Peruvian Government to repeal a law that condoned labour rights violations, making it difficult for them to implement their own sourcing codes of conduct.
  • And in 2009, in response to the coup in Honduras, major apparel companies called for the restoration of democracy. 
  • In the ICT sector, Google pulled out of China in 2010 over censorship attempts.
  • In the food sector, two Thai seafood associations provided the bail for rights activist Andy Hall, who was imprisoned and charged in 2014 following his investigations into abuses of migrant workers in the food industry.
  • In March of this year, 379 businesses and organizations submitted a public statement to the US Supreme Court in support of same-sex marriage, including corporate behemoths such as Coca-Cola, Goldman Sachs, Microsoft and Morgan Stanley.
  • And in the last couple years, hundreds of companies have publicly expressed their support for the peace process between the Colombian Government and the FARC guerrillas, when in the past most companies in Colombia kept a very low profile in relation to the armed conflict.
  • More recently, civil society has called on FIFA sponsors to respond to human rights concerns at construction sites for the Qatar 2022 World Cup. So far, Adidas, Coca-Cola and Visa have issued statements supporting workers’ rights in the country.

A “business case” to support tolerant and open civic spaces is not too difficult to make. Businesses clearly benefit when the rules of the game are clear, consumers are empowered, employees are respected, and the judicial system works well. Where human rights thrive and defenders are protected, companies will also find it easier to comply with their own codes of conduct and meet their public commitments to human rights.

Speaking out for human rights could even help companies. Firms in the US are discovering that taking an enlightened public stance on social justice issues hasn’t hurt their bottom line and makes business sense—it helps attract and retain new customers and the best staff. Investors are also increasingly looking at the social and environmental records of companies, and companies needing access to multilateral banks and export credit agencies need to comply with strict international standards. And sometimes businesses just don’t want the bad press that comes with being associated with a repressive government.

Companies can be a powerful voice in the protection of the vulnerable in repressive countries, particularly where abuses are taking place linked to their industry and when they are major investors. Unfortunately, many companies remain unwilling to speak out for human rights, especially when they think that doing so might hurt them financially. However, a few brave companies are helping to create and expand “enabling environments” for human rights. Perhaps they can set a new trend for companies speaking out to protect civic 

 

“What human rights?” Why some companies speak out while others don’t | openDemocracy.

One Response to “Companies speaking out on human rights: less rare but not enough”


  1. […] Companies speaking out on human rights: less rare but not enough […]


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