Soraya Aziz Souleymane: Business and human rights defender from the DRC

01.09.2015

ISHR interview with Soraya Aziz Souleymane, a business and human rights defender, Deputy Field Office Director in charge of The Carter Center’s Mining Governance Program in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The decision four years ago by a group of her peers to bestow upon Soraya Aziz Souleymane the title of ‘Miss Leadership 2011’ was in many ways prescient.  Not only does Soraya now hold the role of Deputy Field Office Director in charge of The Carter Center’s Mining Governance Program in the Democratic Republic of Congo; she also sees herself at the upper edge of a new generation of young activists and NGO workers dedicated to seeing their country reach its potential.

Soraya started managing grants to affected communities at a large mining company’s foundation. She described her frustrations with the limitations of working within the foundation; she had discovered that many of the decisions about where and how to disburse the funds had already been made as part of the initial negotiations with affected communities. She soon decided to move into the corporate structure itself.

 [When I joined the corporation,] it was an exceptional time, because the company was just beginning work in a new area and there was a need for many people… so much so that I was able to create a whole community relations department from the ground up.

Despite the positive experience of getting the first community relations department off the ground, Soraya said she still wasn’t satisfied. She described the realization of the limitations of working with projects, saying

My impact was limited just to this one small community. I couldn’t take those impacts and apply them to others. Also, all the policies had to be linked to production, to the generation of profit for stakeholders and investors. That’s how companies have always worked, and this was no different.

She recounted the feeling of being sidelined after production began at the mine, of having to ‘fight to justify how [her] projects would contribute to production.’ The business case for responsible community engagement, as in many cases, extended only so far as necessary to avoid public confrontation or community demonstrations and the potential for resulting reputational risk and production delay. When taking a break, pursuing a Master’s degree, and changing companies didn’t change the root causes of the problem, she decided to make a more radical change. She joined The Carter Center’s office in 2014.

Challenges of NGO Work and relations with the private sector

UN SR Maina Kiai, ISHR and its partners have raised concerns about the excessive influence companies can have over some governments. This ‘corporate capture’ can lead to policies that neglect, or even have direct negative impacts, on defenders. At the same time, many governments and civil societies are maturing and looking at sustainability and governance in the extractives sector. Soraya described her transition from private sector to civil society, highlighting both challenges and opportunities:

At the company, it was good – we had resources, support, the voice, we had almost immediate access to the ministries, no problem. A big challenge at The Carter Center is that we don’t have the same financial resources or the same level of influence. But other things are better, at least for me. My primary goal now at work is to change the situation of communities –  all communities – not simply to increase production or placate one group.

Soraya also uses her new role to engage in direct advocacy with the DRC government.  As she said, the chance to influence the policies of the state is ultimately a great opportunity. She also emphasized the value of gaining perspective through exposure to different sectors, and dismissed the idea that working for a company was ‘treason’. Instead, she noted that

this kind of movement back and forth, especially within a sector, can lead to a lot of evolution and changing perspectives. It can also lead to more cooperation. We’ve seen many times when civil society and companies have joined forced against the government to say, “No, that will not fly.” It’s a strategic alliance.

Lessons learned and strategies

In some cases, companies can be quite open to engagement, and as a result of their buy-in NGOs can have real effects on the ground. In her work, Soraya often finds herself raising questions to the company while doing the research, and working with them to find solutions. For some companies, this is a useful process of identifying problems, but also being able to improve their reputation for having taken proactive steps to address them. Soraya recommended against surprising companies with reports, instead noting the value of having company representatives stand with [them] at the podium and say, “We acknowledge this wasn’t done well, and we’ve already taken actions to correct it.” With this, you have gotten some concrete recommendations, and you’ve got buy in.

Sometimes, though, that strategic alliance or trust can be hard to build. Sometimes companies don’t even want to come to the table. But, Soraya says, for companies that do want to pay  attention to these issues, it is important to know the interests and the levers.

For example, you can go to the embassies of the diplomatic missions where the company is headquartered – the job of commercial officers is to promote investment, sure, but if the company has a bad reputation, they can’t do their job. They have an interest. You can also build relationships with civil society in home countries to increase pressure.

During conversations with a range of civil society organisations the week ISHR met Soraya, the challenges to human rights defenders working on extractives became clear. Harassment, intimidation, legal challenges, personal reputational risk. This is helped, though, because there is a growing solidarity between defenders and a sense of security in the fact that many organisations, including The Carter Center, are prepared to step in if they need support.

And despite the challenges, Soraya has a passion to do this work, and an optimism about civil society.

I think my background, the fact that I am Congolese and that I have worked in the sector means I have real interest in and capacity to influence what my country becomes – my children will grow up here.

I am very optimistic because there are many young people who are innovators, who are open to new ideas, who are willing to sit down with a range of stakeholders. They are also willing to say to the international community, “No, we don’t need x, we need y.”

And as for the government, the emphasis is also on frank discussion, even when there is a disagreement. As Soraya says, We must work with them for change – and we must be clear that this is not the same as working for them, as accepting the problem.