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23 Jun

At the close of HRC35, leading civil society groups welcome commitments by States to strengthen membership and outcomes of the Human Rights Council. Welcoming the dispatch of a team of experts to the DRC's Kasai region, the groups called for full access to the country as a step towards accountability. 

24 Jun
Inauguration of 47th General Assembly of OAS

ISHR joins CEJIL and over 100 civil society organisations in welcoming the decision taken at the Organisation of American States (OAS) to improve the financial stability, capacity, autonomy and independence of the Inter-American System for the protection of Human Rights.

22 Jun

The UN and States must take visible and sustained action against acts of intimidation and reprisal against those engaging or seeking to engage with the UN, says ISHR in a new report.

22 Jun

In a Statement to the 35th session of the Human Rights Council, ISHR called for a stronger focus on the implementation of Universal Periodic Review recommendations and the development of processes to ensure that civil society can freely engage without fear of intimidation and reprisal.

20 Jun

The Martin Ennals Foundation and the ten human rights organisations that make up the jury of the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders (MEA), today renewed their appeal to the government of the United Arab Emirates to release immediately and unconditionally Ahmed Mansoor, the last remaining human rights defender in the UAE who had previously been able to criticise the authorities publicly.

Business can and should ally with those defending human rights

02.02.2017

Este artículo también está disponible en Español.

Global businesses and grassroots human rights activists may seem like strange bedfellows.  But as attacks on basic democratic freedoms and the rule of law intensify around the world, they may have more shared values and interests than one might think.

We know businesses are driven by the bottom line. If they didn’t seek to increase profits, they simply wouldn’t exist. But we also know—and many business leaders are coming around to the idea—that long-term success relies on more than just profit generation and is linked to a range of external factors such as transparency, certainty, stability. And a social license to operate.

Failures to understand that social license, and in particular to prevent and respond to the human rights impacts of their work, have thrust many global businesses into an unwanted spotlight. They didn’t need to find themselves there.

Reputational damage and operational risks for a company are expensive. Because human rights defenders—such as lawyers, trade unionists, community leaders, or NGO workers—use public advocacy as a key tool for change, businesses often make the mistake of seeing them as additional drivers of cost.

However, business should see human rights defenders as priceless allies. They are the canaries in the coalmines, pointing to when governance failures become real financial, legal, and reputational risks to business. They are also the witnesses to corporate abuse of communities and the environment.

Because of this, the work of defenders often makes those in power uncomfortable—both states and non-state actors. They are targeted with laws and policies to stifle their activities, and face intimidation and threats to their work and their lives.

Yet without the work of defenders, whole societies and economies lose out. And that means businesses lose out, too.

Take the case of the 24 April, 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh. When the dust cleared, the largest industrial accident in contemporary times resulted in the deaths of 1129 workers. Multinational brands who sourced from Bangladesh had long known the government had little capacity, and less will, to make important changes—hiring and training labor inspectors, updating fire codes and retrofitting buildings to meet them, and so on. They also knew local authorities and business partners had engaged in active suppression of labor unions and workers speaking out. By many accounts, if those voices had been heard, the tragic death toll would never have been so high.

For those defenders trying to address such concerns on the ground it is, in a very real sense, a matter of life and death. Just ask Laura Caceres, who spoke at this year’s UN Forum on Business and Human Rights to honor her mother. Berta Caceres was gunned down last March in Honduras for her work defending campesina communities against abuses linked to the Agua Zarca dam.

The global response to Rana Plaza kicked off a sustained effort by major trading partners—and home countries—the US and the EU, as well as the ILO, to improve coordination and adopt a structural approach to improving labor rights in Bangladesh. The multi-stakeholder Bangladesh Accord has workers and unions at the table and on equal footing with government and businesses to improve workplace safety and worker voice. Berta Caceres’ death led the Finnish state and Dutch pension fund FMO to divest from the project. It has also refocused the attention of states, development organisations and the UN to the ongoing harassment of defenders in Honduras.

These cases show business can make a difference. It has a unique ability to create, maintain, and defend space for civil society through three tools: leverage, leadership, and partnerships.

How do these work? Take as an example a government drafting a law that aims to close down space for NGOs to operate. In addition to running counter to international law, this would also close off channels for businesses to benefit from NGOs’ work—whether implementing community projects or helping train workers. So how might businesses respond?

They can use the leverage provided by access, personal relationships and market share to push back on authoritarian impulses. To take just one example, when 30 global brands and global trade unions joined together to speak out against violent dispersal of protests and detention of activists in Cambodia in 2014, not only were the activists released, but the underlying issues of minimum wage took center stage in brand discussions with the government.

Businesses, and especially progressive businesses, also need to show leadership. In 2015, Adidas released a policy statement on human rights defenders that clearly led the pack, creating a company-wide commitment to speak out in defense of fundamental freedoms in the countries where they source. It takes a lot for a business to get in front, especially when they know that NGOs will be watching carefully to see those policies implemented. But setting the bar high has consumer appeal and can drive a race to the top.

Finally, businesses have resources. Partnerships directly with NGOs can be contentious, and businesses need to listen to and address the concerns of co-optation and whitewashing. But the global environment for traditional funding mechanisms is increasingly toxic. According to UN experts and leading funders, nearly a hundred governments have put limits on NGOs’ operations, including the ability to accept foreign (especially NGO) funding. For the financial survival of civil society, seeking support from businesses might be an option—if it is on equal footing and with clear redlines to maintain independence.

Civil society needs space and protection to carry out its work, and it is not just a moral imperative, but an investment opportunity for businesses to help secure that space and protection. The leadership, leverage and solidarity shown by companies who see support to civic freedoms and human right defenders as part of core business will pay long-term dividends.

This piece was first published by the independent global media platform openDemocracy.

 

Photo: The aftermath of the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Sharat Chowdhury (Some rights reserved)

 

 

 

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Country

Topic

Mechanism

1984

ISHR commences work to develop an international Declaration on the Rights of Human Rights Defenders

1988

ISHR publishes first Human Rights Monitor, connecting human rights defenders on the ground with international human rights systems and developments

1993

ISHR facilitates global civil society engagement with the Second World Conference on Human Rights, which leads to the strengthening of women’s rights, the affirmation of universal rights, the adoption of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action and the establishment of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

1994

ISHR provides training, technical assistance and support to its 1000th human rights defender

1998

After 14 years of ISHR lobbying, advocacy and negotiation, the UN General Assembly adopts the landmark Declaration on Human Rights Defenders

2000

UN Secretary-General appoints Hina Jilani as inaugural UN Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders, strengthening protection of human rights advocates at risk worldwide.

2004

ISHR leads a successful campaign for the appointment of a Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights

2005

ISHR co-founds and supports a range of international and regional human rights coalitions, including the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition, the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project and the West African Human Rights Defenders Network

2006

ISHR contributes to the establishment and institution building of a new global peak body for human rights issues, the UN Human Rights Council

2007

ISHR leads and coordinates the development of the Yogyakarta Principles on sexual orientation and gender identity, strengthening legal recognition and protection of LGBT rights worldwide

2011

ISHR’s sustained advocacy on the issue of reprisals and intimidation faced by human rights defenders leads to adoption of landmark UN Human Rights Council resolution condemning and strengthening protections against reprisals

2012

Working with key NGO partners such as Amnesty International, ISHR leads civil society efforts to strengthen UN human rights treaty bodies, prevent their weakening and better connect their work with victims and human rights defenders on the ground

2013

Working with supportive states and NGOs, ISHR advocacy leads to adoption of historic Human Rights Council resolution calling on all States to review and amend national laws to respect and protect the work of human rights defenders