Frontline Insights

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

We’re used to thinking of profit-seekers as the bad guys. But they’re learning it’s in their interests to do the right thing.

Regan Ralph in interview with Mary
Regan Ralph
17 October 2019
Open bare land with many people and large, deep pits, seen from above
Coltan without conflict at a mine in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 2014
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MONUSCO/Sylvain Liechti/Flickr. Some rights reserved.
Fund for Global Human Rights horizontal logo

This article is part of an editorial partnership with The Fund for Global Human Rights.

In late August, the global trend toward authoritarianism struck another blow. This time it fell in Guatemala, as the outgoing president, Jimmy Morales, officially destroyed the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) – a body established to build rule of law, end impunity for heinous crimes and combat corruption. The CICIG’s successes proved too much for Morales to bear: he himself, along with his son, were under investigation. He revoked its mandate, threatened to free those found guilty as a result of CICIG investigations and targeted the human rights organisations that helped create it.

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. Rules are changing; governments that had long been champions of human rights are abandoning them; key international institutions that were supposed to improve respect for those rights are being undermined.

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. This August, for example, the US-based Business Roundtable, which represents the chief executives of 192 large companies, issued a statement disavowing the principle that a company exists solely to increase dividends for its shareholders. Instead, the Business Roundtable asserted that companies should seek to balance the needs of shareholders with those of customers, employees, suppliers and local communities. From that point of view, promoting respect for human rights and the rule of law can serve a company’s business interests as well as its professed ethical values. And while corporations are likely to respond first to the business case, some are also embracing the ‘values’ case for changing corporate behaviour.

Shared 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. The CEOs said that restrictions on access to abortion threaten the economic stability of employees and customers, and make it harder to recruit a talented and diverse workforce. Leading advocates for women’s health and rights welcomed these new allies to their cause and encouraged the entire business community to join the campaign to stop a rollback on women’s rights.

The business case for supporting rights goes beyond benefiting employees and customers. Some companies are taking controversial positions on social issues – Nike’s support for US athletes boycotting the national anthem is but one example – to create buzz and deepen consumer loyalty with a new generation that has made clear its commitment to concerns such as environmental sustainability or social justice.

Changing a whole industry

While consumer activism and attention to their bottom line are often what spur companies to take action, stop bad behaviour or develop more ethically produced products and services, there 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, local labour unions and human rights groups to combat gender-based violence and harassment in Lesotho apparel factories. A two-year investigation by the US-based Worker Rights Consortium revealed pervasive sexual harassment and abuse of female workers at five factories in Lesotho owned by Taiwanese company Nien Hsing. The US brands – including Levi Strauss, Wrangler, and The Children’s Place – responded to the allegations by signing enforceable agreements with labour and women’s rights groups that create an independent oversight body with the power to investigate claims of abuse and to enforce disciplinary action where appropriate.

Under the agreements the brands will do business with the supplier only if it accepts these worker-led programmes. Significantly, the Worker Rights Consortium guided the brands to do this rather than terminate their supplier contracts, which would have had further detrimental impacts on the factory workers.

This kind of collaborative problem-solving will change conditions of work for the 10,000 workers in these five factories, but it could also make things better across the garment industry in Lesotho and beyond. Kontoor, the company that owns Wrangler, has suppliers in as many as twenty countries, and plans to take the lessons from Lesotho to implement changes in its supply chain worldwide.

In this case, activists were critical both to exposing human rights abuses and to crafting solutions. This is possible today in ways it wasn’t twenty years ago thanks to the growth and development of local human rights groups and movements. Now, bringing local advocates like these into the equation ensures that those best placed to see the abuses taking place on the ground are also helping to develop locally relevant solutions. In the case of Lesotho, having local rights groups involved means that the government as well as the companies will be held to account for ensuring that national labour laws and international standards are upheld.

Beyond naming and shaming

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).

The DRC is the world’s primary source of cobalt, an essential ingredient for the batteries that power Apple devices, as well as other highly sought-after consumer products like electronic cars. The cobalt mining sector in the DRC is notorious for corruption, violence and human rights violations such as child labour.

For the Fund, working with Apple to address these issues is an opportunity to do two important things. First, it enables us to bring more resources to groups building support for labour rights, the rule of law and women’s rights in regions affected by mining. This helps to strengthen civil society and, as in Lesotho, enables communities to hold their governments accountable for enforcing labour and other human rights protections. And second, we can work with one of the best-known and most influential corporations in the world to promote respect for human rights throughout its supply chains – an approach we hope other companies will follow.

For its part, Apple sees the value in working together to create local conditions that support ‘cleaner’ supply chains. In its own words: "Apple believes that empowering independent voices at the mine-site level is critical to identifying and assessing risks in the supply chain.”

As a consequence of this collaboration, the Fund has supported local groups that have significantly improved lives in communities affected by mining. These activists have built the capacity of their communities to negotiate effectively with mining companies and public authorities, helping to protect the land and water they rely on. They have exposed the irresponsible exploitation of natural resources and held local authorities and companies accountable for it, as well as for abuses of fundamental human rights. And they have promoted the rights of female mining workers while also documenting and seeking accountability for cases of sexual assault and gender-based violence in their communities.

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.

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