The intersection of business enterprises and human rights movements

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The intersection of business enterprises and human rights movements

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

  • What role does or can businesses play in human rights movements?
  • How can human rights movement affect the overall image of the company?
  • What are the effects of societal expectations and civil society pressure?
  • What can business enterprises gain from their involvement in human rights movement?
  • How should business balance the risks and benefits of continued engagement?
  • Share stories of success. 
Understanding linkages as basis for action and strategies

While considering "business" and "human rights (incl. labour rights)" in the same context is not a new phenomenon, in the past decades we have seen an increased clarity on the the linkages between human rigths and business. I think this increased clarity can play and important role in helpfully informing how anyone - whether activists, communities, government leaders, even consultants - engages with business to create a change in service to the human rigths. At one level, copanies have impacts on rights through their own operations and activities, and are expected to take postive steps to manage this. This is what the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rigths (UNGPs) seek to address. On another level, companies may choose to stand up for causes, issues and human rigths movements that may have very little to do with their own operational and business realties. Its probbaby best to think about this as a spectrum and there are never black and white distinctions. But possible implications for how to engage business include:

If engaging companies in human rights campaigns and movements where the issue(s) are connected to business products, services, operations, supply chains etc...

  • It is fair and correct to raise that expectations and standards already exist around private sector engagement 
  • It is likley easier to find a "business case" for action and sustained effort
  • One can anchor into existing company commitments, policies and public reports (whether internal or external voluntary commitments) 
  • There is probably someone in the legal, sustainability, ethics functions already working on the issue  
  • There are probably examples of competitors and peers engaging on the issue - so you can demystify the issue
  • Because companies not acting can lead to operation, reputation and market access risks, it may be possible to leverage investors and others to apply pressure or create incentives

If engaging companies in human rigths campaigns and movements where the issue(s) are less obviously conneted to core business, and are instead more about standing up for concerning/worrying broader societal trends...

  • You are probably appealing far more to senior leaders and their voices - maybe even in their personal capacity 
  • The "pitch" may be more about enlightened self interest and the moral role of business in society 
  • It may mean engaging with corproate foundatoins and less functional/core business parts of the company 
  • Companies may find it compelling to be invited into platforms that involve leaders from civil society, academia and governments 



What are the UN Guiding Principles - Link and a short video

I mentioned the UNGPs in my last post. Here is a link

Can CEO Activism Spark Sustainability Transitions?

Hi everyone, this came across my desk/email today...It is a Harvard Business Review rpeort - link here. The abstract is here and seems hugely pertinent for this important discussion...  

"Creating sustainability transitions will require more than companies taking proactive measures in their own operations and supply chains. Fostering significant change will also require business leaders to harness their power to call for public policy solutions, a challenging proposition in a politically polarized environment. This paper focuses on how CEOs engage in the political process to encourage government policies that will foster sustainability transitions and address other social problems. Distinct from nonmarket strategy and traditional corporate social responsibility, the recent wave of CEO activism focuses on social issues unrelated to their core business, ranging from environmental issues to LGBT rights and race relations. Using two field experiments we provide evidence on how CEO activism can influence public opinions about government policies and consumer attitudes about the CEO’s company. We conclude by providing a roadmap for future research on this emerging phenomenon."

Political activity of corporations

Mark, thanks for posting the link to the Harvard Business Review article. CEOs standing up for human rights sounds great - but what if these CEOs set priorities that are in their private interest, and not in the public interest? After all, corporations lobby for all kinds of things, sometimes for what appears to be right, sometimes for what's wrong but typically we cannot say because this type of corporate political activity is hidden and intransparent. How can we hold corporations accountable when they become the de facto protectors of human rights? More on the topic of legitimate human rights advocacy here -

Indeed a real challenge...

Thanks Dorothe. Indeed. I fully agree. Your question is somethign Chris kicked off on another thread and I agree with you, and him when he notes "I believe we can do that without risking a further corruption of the system, but it's an issue that has to be treated with eyes wide open for risks of legitimating or greenwashing bad actors, having human rights language coopted and crowding out civil society voices". Thanks for the resource. Some further reflections that come to my mind are:


  • The point applies not only to individual companies but also industry and business associations. 
  • At the Global Business Initiative on Human Rigths we began to realise that what companies can and should do is share "practice-based insights" about the impact of public policy, legal and market changes to either enable or undermine responsible practices. But its a fine line to walk. 
  • I recall that some companies are begining to publish responsible lobbying policies - but I have to say I am unsure about hwo these manifest themsleves in practice esp. when business interests get threatened. Just one example here.