There were twelve people around the board table in a meeting in 2015. Four were international representatives from the private military and security industry, four were diplomats from different nations and ranks, and the remaining four came from civil society organizations in different regions. Setting them apart was more than a table, three languages, and two interpreters inside an isolated cabin. How was it possible that all parties were able to discuss together the issues pertaining to human rights, military conflict, security companies, and responsible business?
Somehow, the conversation was working. It took years of interactions and hard work but, over time, the parties developed a deep respect for each other, despite their differences; a shared commitment to advance human rights in one of the most sensitive business sectors that exists; a commitment underpinned by a recognition that they had different but complementary roles to play at that same table; and an understanding of the need to recognize each other’s existence to be able to achieve systemic change in a reality already shaped before they entered that boardroom.
Building trust and a common narrative to engage in a constructive conversation is extremely difficult. Some would argue that a trusting relationship between civil society and private companies is not only impossible but also not desirable; that good faith is nowhere to be found in business sectors where human rights abuses can and do take place.
Sharpening our tools for change
It has already been 10 years since the adoption of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. At ISHR, we have invested countless hours in conversations with private companies, civil society, and regulators about their implementation, as well as the need to fill regulatory gaps, particularly with respect to the protection of human rights defenders.
The enactment of legislation at the regional and national levels requiring companies to carry out human rights due diligence, such as the newly proposed EU Directive on Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence, as well as negotiations on a binding international treaty on business and human rights, creates a window of opportunity for NGOs to be creative, ambitious, and innovative in testing new advocacy strategies to change corporate conduct and advance human rights.
Despite an understandably dogged legacy of mistrust between civil society and corporations, there is a momentum for human rights organizations to engage productively with businesses, responsible investors, and other private actors that hold increasing market power, leverage, and are subject to new human rights legislation. As we write, global corporations are becoming increasingly relevant actors in international conflicts. In other words, businesses could become powerful allies in advancing human rights’ agendas with governments or in regards to public opinion.
Lost in translation
It’s no mystery that businesses and civil society speak different languages and engage from radically distinct perspectives when referring to human rights issues.
It is true that corporate activism is on the rise, with some companies supporting important causes and campaigns such as LGBTQ+ rights, anti-racism, equality, and non-discrimination. However, companies are not founded for promoting and protecting human rights, even if we may wish it otherwise. Instead, corporations see human rights issues through the lens of their productive and business models. This does not mean that workers or companies do not care about human rights. They do care, especially in certain sectors and business cultures.
As civil society, we need to identify and understand how to best engage our strategic targets and audiences. If we want to constructively engage companies, business associations or investors on human rights issues, we must recognize who our interlocutor is. Businesses’ core activity is the starting point to analyze any human rights issue: their business, people, customers, and supply chain.
Businesses tend to focus on risk identification and mitigation. There is growing recognition that human rights defenders can play a vital role in sounding the alarm on problems within an organization’s operations or supply chain. Generally, ‘UN speak’ does not work with businesses. Civil society should avoid jargon when engaging with business circles. Business representatives seek examples and clarity on which human rights issues are of concern and how they are relevant to their operations.
Human rights within private companies
Civil society should not automatically feel good about the fact that a company has a person with “human rights” written in their title. Unfortunately, this often means that a position was created for compliance or reputational management purposes, to deal discreetly with human rights issues, or engage (read: manage) civil society relations. By contrast, companies that take human rights seriously embed the topic across functions and departments, working towards including human rights within the company’s ethos.
To achieve change, civil society should make every effort to better understand the complexity of a particular company, its economic sector, activity, internal governance, corporate values, and culture. Each company has its own systems and structure, progressing through their human rights journey differently.
On a micro level, the individual background, connections, and motivations of the human rights personnel within the company have great bearing on how issues are pushed through a company. At the systemic level, NGOs must understand the functioning of international business, economics, investment and trade.
Lessons learnt and scars taken
For NGOs considering engagement with business actors as a human rights advocacy tactic, and this will not and should not be all NGOs, ISHR sees risks to avoid and opportunities to take as we continue learning everyday.
Civil society should understand and use the market. As companies need to comply with human rights and sustainability regulations, NGOs and defenders can become key in risk assessment or due diligence processes, influencing directly the behavior of companies. We need to know the “enemy” and know ourselves. As civil society, we should build our technical capacity to understand and leverage international business, economics, investment and trade. We will not change business dynamics if we do not understand them.