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


Many companies speak out for human rights when it relates directly to their operations, but are some companies willing to take a stand on broader human rights issues? Français, Español

Mauricio Lazala Joe Bardwell
17 June 2015

After much pressure from human rights activists, and just days after Formula One announced its new human rights policy, the company approved Azerbaijan to host its first Grand Prix. When the company’s chief executive, Bernie Ecclestone, was asked if he would be looking into the country’s human rights record, he replied, "We have. I think everybody seems to be happy. Doesn’t seem to be any big problem there."

Despite Ecclestone’s sunny picture, in reality Azerbaijan has a dismal human rights record and is currently executing a massive crackdown on civil society, as reported by Human Rights Watch and others. These actions have been accompanied by massive PR campaigns to improve the country’s overall image. While Formula One’s new human rights statement notes that the company will “engage in meaningful consultation with relevant stakeholders in relation to any issues raised as a result of our due diligence”, what they are doing in practice is just business as usual.

While there are many positive examples of companies speaking out for human rights, far too many remain silent when human rights are at stake in repressive states, or, in a small amount of cases, work against the interests of human rights. It is increasingly common for large multinationals to have public human rights policies, many of which result in real action to address the human rights issues directly related to their operations. Often, these policies include commitments to undertake human rights due diligence and engage with stakeholders. But when some companies establish or continue operations in repressive states, these public commitments are regularly at odds with their inaction and silence.


Demotix/Aziz Karimov (All rights reserved)

Azerbaijani police detain a protester in Baku.

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. They joined a plethora of NGOs putting pressure on the Angolan authorities, 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. 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.

So when do companies speak out? And do they only speak up for human rights when it aligns with their business interests?

In the garment sector, 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. Of course, concerns over supply chains play a big role in these cases.

In the ICT sector, Google famously 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 Thailand. 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.

Speaking out against abuse is the right thing to do. But 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 space.


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