Engaging businesses in human rights movement

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Engaging businesses in human rights movement

Below is a list of questions to serve as a starting framework for the discussion in this thread:

  • How activists build upon successful engagements with businesses?
  • How can activists leverage the mission statements of businesses to successfully incorporate them into their movements?
  • How can human rights advocates work with businesses to ensure that they take a human rights-centered approach to their corporate social responsibility?
  • What are various tactics that can be used to engage businesses in human rights advocacy?
  • Share stories of success.
Engaging companies at arm's length

At NYU Stern's Center for Business and Human Rights, we challenge and empower business leaders to make practical progress on human rights. We currently see mainly two types of organizations in our environment: organizations that name and shame companies for poor human rights practices and organizations that become co-opted by corporations. Our Center sits in-between those two extremes. We work with companies but we always keep a critical distance. To advance the corporate human rights agenda, this approach has been very powerful. We were able to analyse business practices up-close (which is critical for understanding the business drivers for human rights issues) but we can also publish unedited reports that contain recommendations how companies in a specific industry setting could improve their human rights performance.

Critical Distance

Thank you for your comment. I am curious how you maintain that critical distance you mentioned, while still maintaining a relationship that provides enough access to be able to conduct research and analyse the business up-close?

Also, how do you convert that working relationship into one that moves businesses into active participation in your human rights work/goals?

Members tagged in this comment: 
"Critical Friend"

Thanks Brent and Dorothee for kicking this conversation off - it's an important one.  I spent many years at Oxfam helping to define our posture towards companies.  We always left open the option of campaigning and were resolute about our independence - in fact and perception - but also eager to partner with companies under the right circumstances.  This was often a tricky balance, but it was/is worth the price.  I see a spectrum from campaigning to "co-opted" with much room in the middle.  The polls on that spectrum are certainly more comfortable and many groups congretate there, but I see more groups moving into the middle (including groups like Greenpeace and Rainforest Action Network).  Getting closer to companies provides vital intel (what are the real limits? who are the internal champions? where are the soft spots/what hurts? etc) and better ability to work with companies if/once they come around --  and risks of "cooption" are certainly manageable.  The Behind the Brands campaign does a good job maintaining that balance.  There are a couple of critical things to pull it off: 1. A declared and fully supported by leadership position that there are no permanent friends or enemies among companies (campaiging is always on the table, even with corporate partners, and doors always open to at least listening); 2. transparency about any significant engagement with the companies; 3. avoiding gratuitous offense (e.g. personalizing attacks).  At Oxfam, partner companies (like Starbucks) sometimes campaign targets, and campaign targets (like Newmont Mining) sometimes became allies (e.g. in supporting tougher oversight - Dodd Frank 1504).  Throughout we would do our best to maintain good relations.  A few more thoughts here: http://sustainablesmartbusiness.com/2014/01/businessngo-partnerships-six...

About circumnstances and deal breakers...

I agree with you Chris that there are some circumstance where engagement between civil society actors and corporations is not only possible but strategic. In our experience at PODER is about who the company is, what's on the table for discussion and how that engagement will support communities negatively affected by corporate practices. Keeping a critical distance is essential, as well as defininig the deal breakers on an ongoing basis, always revisiting the strategy that led us to engage with a certain corporation or private sector actor (investors for example) on the first place.


Academic platform as an advantage for fact-based research

Thanks for all your reactions to my initial post and thanks Brent for the additional questions. How do we keep a critical distance? Our Center has a huge advantage. We are based at NYU Stern's School of Business. This not only gives us authority to speak on business challenges but also provides a neutral platform to conduct fact-based research. In most cases, the facts speak for themselves. For example, in our research on Bangladesh's garment industry, we have evidence that the country has over 7'000 production sites for apparel. This number is twice as high as the number of factories that is commonly assumed. After Rana Plaza, efforts to establish fire and building safety measures  by brands and retailers have been focused on a much smaller universe. Yet, current approaches are clearly insufficient (and probably also ill-defined) if the actual number of production sites is being taken into account.

Views from the "other side" | and two questions for Chris/others

Thanks for this input Chris. Your work over the years has certainly demonstrated the art and potential of this balance. One thing I am aware of from my work and engagement with businesses (albeit those that are already aroud the table) is that company leaders also have views about what conditions lead to productive - even if not easy - engagement. Off the top of my head, maybe things like: Bringing thoughful and credibley evidence to the table; Understanding - though of course challenging - internal and external constraints; Applying reasonable and predictable time-lines; Being willing to have tough and confidential conversations behind the scenes; and helping devise road maps for improvement and good practice

But I have two questions for Chris and others on the thread...

  • What are the personal capabilties and sensibilites that you bring to the task of engaging companies, and how did you learn them?
  • How can smaller NGOs or individuals get funding to engage with companies as critical friends in ways that work (because its resouce intensive I would guess)?


human rights management skills

Mark, at NYU Stern, we are developing courses that enable future business leaders to manage human rights challenges. This includes understanding other stakeholders' points of view, getting the facts straight, and a principled agreement a common objective. We encourage students to closey study the process that resulted in industry-specific Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives, like the Fair Labor Association. These organizations institutionalize engagement and problem-solving approaches. My colleagues and I all have experience working in or for MSIs. The experience of mediating between corporations and civil society organizations is what builds personal capabilities and sensibilities for managing human rights challenges.

Companies incorporating a HR approach through due diligence

Trying to answer Brent's second question (How can human rights advocates work with businesses to ensure that they take a human rights-centered approach to their corporate social responsibility?) at PODER we have been promoting the incorporation of human rights due diligence processes to corporate practices. We think it's a great opportunity for corporations to really assess their potential negative impacts on the rights of local communities where they operate and take steps to mitigate them. Participatory Human Rights Impact Assesments are becoming increasingly relevant to prevent harm and to build better relationships between corporations and communities.

Here's a very interesting resource you can check. 'A Collaborative Approach to Human Rights Impact Assessments', was produced by the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment, the Danish Institute for Human Rights and the Sciences Po Law School Clinic. PODER was part of a multistakeholders forum organized by these institutions in Paris in December 2016 to give imputs for this project: https://www.humanrights.dk/publications/collaborative-approach-human-rights-impact-assessments

8 Examples of practice incl. working with civil society

This report (from a UN Forum in 2014) provides a good insight into both: a) Embedding human rights into company policies, practices and processes; and b) cases of collaboration between civil society and business to address specific local human rights issues. Of course, these are three years old but I think the lessons and examples are valuable to help think about the types of action/activity being undertaken.  The cases that were presented and are mentioned here are: 

  • Vale and Human Rigths Watch - Relocation of communities around a mine in Moambique 
  • Nestle and Oxfam America - Child labour and women's rights in West African Cocoa Farms
  • Inditext and CCOO de Industria - From global agreement to local application / From unilateralism to mutual responsibility 
  • Microsoft and Ranking Digital Rights - Privacy and Freedom of Expression in China 
  • Total S.A --- Establishing policy commitment and the role of CEOs and senior leaders 
  • Novo Nordisk A/S - Corporate-wise human rigths impact and risk mapping 
  • ABB - Capacity building and human rights training 
  • BG Group - Effectiveness criteria around operational grievance mechanisms 


UNGPs as tactic?

Seeing the UN Guiding Principles (UNGPs) language allover these posts - do participants of this conversation find the UNGPs helpful for (1) engaging corporations in the BHR movement, (2) for the implementation of corporate HR practices, or (3) for both?

I am wondering: In case a Rana Plaza like tragedy happens, how does it help companies to say: we engaged in a HR due diligence process as suggested by the UNGPs...

What are the actual industry-specific standards that companies are committing to when they engage in "due diligence"? To what kind of standards can we hold companies to account? After all, "due diligence" is not a standard that enables corporate accountability.

Is referring to the UNGPs mostly tactical to get companies engaged in the debate? A debate that could eventually lead to defining concrete standards? 

UNGPs as tactic?

Hi Dorothee, I think they are interesting questions (for my own sense of this sess my article on page 19 of this journal) - but I also sense that enteirng into a dialogue about the value or not of the UNGPs to drive corporate beahviour and accountabiity is not exaclty linked to the questions about if, how, under what conditions and to what effect businesse should be utilised by civil society in human rights movements. This central inquiry certainly might be linked to UNGPs etc. but I think the starting point is different. It seems like we are only scratchng the surface here but the core question seems to be something like "Acceping that full corporate accountabiltiy is perhaps elusive today, do we  think there are any circumstances in which activists / civil society should ally with corporations to hold State's accountable, or not?"