Interview with Gilles Goedhart, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Netherlands: "Corporate human rights defenders" are sorely needed

Ana Zbona, Civic Freedoms & Human Rights Defenders Project Manager, Business and Human Rights Resource Centre

Gilles Goedhart, Senior Human Rights Policy Officer at Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, makes the business case for companies to become advocates for equal rights and civic freedoms.

Resource Centre: You worked on Business and Human Rights for several years, before moving to the Dutch Embassy in Beijing. In your blog Breaking through the impasse: Corporate human rights defenders at the UN Forum, you said that creating a network of companies that are willing to act, willing to speak up when human rights are under threat in the countries where they operate, would be valuable. What  would be the value added of such a group?

Gilles: In our work, we are noticing some worrying trends internationally. One of them is the increasing difficulty for us to have a meaningful dialogue on human rights with other governments. The narrative that human rights are a western concept, that efforts to protect human rights are meant to undermine national sovereignty are gaining steam. Therefore, we are constantly looking for new methods and partners to help convey our messages in terms of human rights protection, and the private sector can be one of those partners.

It might be more effective for companies to speak out than for foreign governments to speak out.

The added value of companies speaking out is that host governments have a very different relationship with them than with other governments. They have a strong interest in keeping investing companies happy. It might be more effective for companies to speak out than for foreign governments to speak out.

Resource Centre: Human rights defenders that are working on business and human rights, are, according to latest research, some of the most threatened ones. What are the best ways to protect such defenders, in the Dutch government’s experience? Would you emphasize any examples of cooperation with business, in that sense, or any examples of business action?

Gilles: In general, we try to keep open channels with human rights defenders and demonstrate our support to them whenever we can. But it depends on the circumstances. Sometimes, contacts between our Embassies and human rights defenders can give them a layer of protection. But sometimes it puts them in danger. We always try to rely on local civil society to judge what is most helpful. That goes for business action as well: businesses should always consult with local organisations about how best to support defenders. We haven’t really had any specific cooperation with companies in this area yet, but the S Group case is probably the best illustration of what could be accomplished.

Resource Centre: Some of the inspiring examples – S Group, adidas, Virgin, B&Js – are the actors you, along with ISHR and BHRRC, brought together at an event at the UN. In the blog about the event, you said these companies were not perfect, but that they were part of a growing movement of ‘corporate human rights defenders’ that was willing to join forces with civil society and stand up against repression and that at a time when human rights were under threat from all directions, this is a movement that was sorely needed. What is the government role in fostering more such corporate human rights defenders?

Gilles: Our Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation held a speech for the International Organisation of Employers, and published an op-ed encouraging companies to become corporate human rights defenders. We are currently considering how we can make this notion more concrete in a couple of pilot countries. We would then try to identify together with businesses active in those countries, and with local and international civil society organisations, the ways in which we could cooperate to support human rights defenders and civil society space.

Collective action is always stronger and less risky than individual action.

It should remain up to individual companies whether or not to take action. It will never be part of their core business. So there has to be intrinsic motivation. But many companies probably don’t even realise that they could play a positive role speaking out for human rights. That’s why it’s important to make the efforts of companies such as S Group visible, to inspire others. Creating a network will also make it easier for companies to act. Collective action is always stronger and less risky than individual action.

Resource Centre: What is, in your opinion, the business case for businesses to become advocates for human rights defenders and for civic freedoms?

Gilles: Strong rule of law and predictability. Freedom of expression for advocates helps businesses to do their due diligence. If freedom of expression and association are stifled, it is hard for companies to know what’s actually going on in their supply chains. Also, a closed society with little room for people to express themselves is not conducive to the innovation and creativity that are necessary for competitive business. The most important motivating factor, perhaps, are the values of the top management: whether or not they think human rights are important in more general terms. So there’s a business case and then there are more personal factors.

Resource Centre: Do investors have a role to play in motivating companies to be more proactive on human rights in general, and on protection of defenders and civic freedoms in particular?

Gilles: Yes, because they have the biggest stake in making sure that there is a predictable and strong rule of law climate in countries in which they invest.  Laws themselves are, in some countries and in some cases, at odds with international standards. But often the biggest problem are not the laws themselves, but the lack of enforcement or enforcement in arbitrary ways.

Resource Centre: In your blog, you said that an important reason for lack of cooperation between companies, civil society, and governments is the lack of trust and understanding, yet that each of these actors has a clear role to play in order to make progress.  In the world where there is a big power imbalance between companies, civil society and governments, and where civic freedoms are increasingly under threat, what can companies do to increase trust with civil society?

Gilles: Speaking out goes a long way. Statements and policies such as the one adidas published help to build trust. They show civil society that they are dealing with a company that has good intentions. Apart from policy statements of course, it helps to actually speak out on specific issues. For example, the way Unilever spoke out against anti-LGBT legislation in several American states.

It would be disingenuous to brand your company a “corporate human rights defender” and not do your own due diligence properly.

The baseline for building trust has been set by the due diligence standards in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). Corporate human rights defenders have to manage their own value chains responsibly. It would be disingenuous to brand your company a “corporate human rights defender” and not do your own due diligence properly – that would undermine the credibility of the whole concept and would ruin trust between civil society and businesses. The track record of companies that choose to speak out has to be spotless or at least very good.

Resource Centre: How can companies best cooperate with governments and civil society in urgent cases of defenders or civic freedoms under threat? What are the first steps to take?

Gilles: Assuming that the urgent case does not involve the company’s own suppliers, the first step should probably be to engage with civil society – find out what the main concerns are and how to act most effectively. NGOs will have a better idea of what’s going to be effective. After that, it’s a case-by-case question: sometimes public statements work best, sometimes private statements… In many ways, it is similar to the way diplomacy works. Public statements are not always the most effective tool. Silent diplomacy is often more effective, and the same may apply to corporate advocacy.

Resource Centre: Would corporate human rights defenders be backed by the Dutch government? In other words, if a corporation chose to speak out for civic freedoms or for human rights defenders and the host government retaliated against that company, would the home government support the company?

Gilles: If a Dutch company gets in trouble for supporting human rights, then yes, of course we would try to help. Our Embassies always help Dutch companies to do business in other countries, so I don’t see how this would be markedly different. If they speak out and they are threatened to be thrown out by the local government, it would make a lot of sense for us to try and intervene.

If a Dutch company gets in trouble for supporting human rights, then yes, of course we would try to help. 

Resource Centre: Which issues should companies be speaking out on? Only the closing of the civic space and the attacks on human rights defenders? Or on other issues, as well, such LGBTI, gender equality?

Gilles: Businesses can make a very strong case in terms of equal rights for women and LGBTI people. Many companies want a diverse workforce because it has a positive effect on business and innovation. So there’s actually a clear business case for companies to advocate for equal rights and against labour market discrimination. This can be culturally challenging, but it can be done. For example, a few years ago, the Dutch embassy in Saudi Arabia teamed up with Dutch businesses and a local NGO for a public seminar about improving the position of women in the labour market.

There’s actually a clear business case for companies to advocate for equal rights and against labour market discrimination. This can be culturally challenging, but it can be done.

Resource Centre: Is there a place for "corporate human rights defenders" to become active on the European level?

Gilles: Sure. There are plenty of issues related to civic space within the EU. And for an innovative EU external human rights policy, working together with businesses would make a lot of sense. This policy is up for renewal in 2019, so who knows…

Follow Gilles on Twitter @GillesGoedhart