Positive action by companies to protect civic freedoms

Below is a selection of articles, reports, blogs, commentaries and corporate policies highlighting key actions taken by companies to protect civic freedoms.

The main elements of a safe and enabling environment for civil society organizations (CSOs) and human rights defenders (HRDs) are the respect for basic freedoms, strong compliance with the rule of law, removal of all obstacles for registration and operation, end to all forms of impunity, and free access to remedy and redress mechanisms. All these are the same elements that are conducive for healthy environments in which to conduct business and investments. The fates of CSOs, HRDs, and companies are closely intertwined.

Human rights, labour rights and environmental defenders, journalists, lawyers, and anti-corruption campaigners are key agents of change, and they contribute greatly to safeguarding human rights and the rule of law. As such, both companies and defenders have a shared interest in the full respect of freedoms of expression, association and assembly, characterised by non-discrimination, transparent and accountable government, and freedom from corruption.

However, the operating context for CSOs and HRDs has become, and continues to become increasingly restrictive and dangerous in many countries. These countries include those in which companies operate and invest. More and more companies understand that they can have a powerful voice in the protection of civic freedoms, especially where abuses are taking place linked to their industry and/or operations. Below are some of these recent examples of emerging good practices and drivers of such actions.


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Author: Libération (France)

« Airbnb demande à ses utilisateurs de signer un engagement antidiscriminations », 31 octobre 2016

Face à des cas récurrents de refus d'hébergement par des loueurs, pour des raisons notamment racistes, la plateforme de location a annoncé plusieurs mesures, dont l'élaboration d'une charte...

...Les utilisateurs de Airbnb souhaitant louer leur logement à d’autres devront le faire en traitant « chacun avec respect, sans jugement ou préjugé, et sans distinction de race, religion, origine nationale, ethnicité, handicap, sexe, identité de genre, orientation sexuelle, ou âge »...

...Le refus de signer cet engagement conduira à ne plus pouvoir « héberger ou réserver sur Airbnb »...

...Dans son document publié en septembre, Airbnb a également annoncé la mise en place d’une équipe spécifiquement consacrée à ces questions...

En décembre 2015, une étude de chercheurs de l’université de Harvard avait montré que, aux Etats-Unis, les personnes dont le nom avait une « consonance afro-américaine » avaient 16% de chances en moins de voir leur demande de location acceptée... 

Sur son site, Airbnb dispose d’un formulaire pour signaler une discrimination.

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24 October 2016

Human Rights Defenders act as a form of unpaid due dilligence for companies, so it makes sense to defend them, says Duncan Green

Author: Duncan Green, strategic adviser for Oxfam GB and author of ‘From Poverty to Power’

"Why/how should corporates defend civil society space? Good new paper + case studies", 19 Oct 2016

I saw some effective academic-NGO cooperation last week...The occasion was the launch of Beyond Integrity: Exploring the role of business in preserving civil society space...[T]he authors went looking for cases where businesses had got involved in defending civil society from attacks by government, and identified four really interesting cases...They interviewed a number of...players in each case. Some points that emerged: The importance of individuals and organizations that bridge the corporate and civil society spheres...Long term partnerships can help retain access to those networks even when people move on...The business case for acting to defend civil society space varies according to the sector and country, but overall, human rights defenders act as a form of unpaid due diligence for companies, keeping them alert to risks emerging within the system. So it makes sense to defend them. However, company agency is difficult and can easily backfire into nationalist accusations of foreign meddling....An issue will be more legitimate if it directly affects core company operations (staff, shareholders, brand, communities where they operate).

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14 October 2016

Ben & Jerry’s using its platform to amplify the voices of the unheard should be an example for other companies

Author: Kayla Stewart, Upworthy

"Ben & Jerry's just explained systemic racism in a mic-dropping statement", 7 Oct 2016

In a [recent] statement, Ben & Jerry’s team broke down why black lives matter. Their commitment to social justice and political responsibility isn’t new. The ice cream tycoons have long worked toward addressing systemic injustice with social consciousness. In April 2016, the co-founders were arrested outside the U.S. capitol while taking part in a “Democracy Awakening” protest...” They’ve also made strides in ensuring that the farmers who help produce the ingredients...are treated fairly. And in January 2015, they committed to using fair-trade certified ingredients, such as sugar, coffee, and bananas. Ben & Jerry’s has also been...a vocal proponent of LGBTQ rights. (In 1989, [they were] the first major company in Vermont to offer health insurance to same-sex couples and employees’ domestic partners.)...Their support of the Black Lives Matter movement is an example for companies like Air Academy Federal Credit Union, who dropped Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall for peacefully protesting police brutality and injustice. Instead of cowering to those who are uncomfortable with reality, Ben & Jerry’s is using its platform to amplify the voices of the unheard and ask that the status quo be changed.  This matters because when major companies, celebrities, politicians, and other recognizable faces go against the grain and stand up against inequality, they become up-standers that can ultimately affect real, positive change in the communities that need it most.  

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14 October 2016

New report highlights how companies have stood up for individuals and civil society organisations

Author: London School of Economics & Charities Aid Foundation

Beyond Integrity, a new report produced by CAF, in collaboration with the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), examines how some companies are going above and beyond their traditional role to protect civic space. Key findings [include]: [p]rivately held dialogues between key stakeholders and host governments can be more effective at initiating positive action than a public challenge, [l]everaging formal and informal cross-sectoral networks is instrumental in convincing corporations to act on behalf of civil society, [f]irms in consumer-facing industries are responsive to large-scale social movements that raise awareness regarding human rights abuses and [p]rivately owned companies with strong ethics and values tied into the core business model, led by engaged leaders, are likely to respond to civil society...Our case studies highlight how companies have championed and stood up for individuals and civil society organisations.

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7 October 2016

Ben & Jerry's choose not to be silent in the face of injustice with a statement supporting Black lives matter movement

Author: Ben & Jerry’s

Black lives matter. They matter because they are children, brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers.They matter because the injustices they face steal from all of us — white people and people of color alike. They steal our very humanity. Systemic and institutionalized racism are the defining civil rights and social justice issues of our time. We’ve come to understand that to be silent about the violence and threats to the lives and well-being of Black people is to be complicit in that violence and those threats....[W]e do believe that — whether Black, brown, white, or blue — our nation and our very way of life is dependent on the principle of all people being served equal justice under the law. And it’s clear, the effects of the criminal justice system are not color blind.We do not place the blame for this on individual officers. Rather, we believe it is due to the systemic racism built into the fabric of our institutions at every level, disadvantaging and discriminating against people of color in ways that go beyond individual intent to discriminate. 


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13 September 2016

Commentary: "Why Corporations Should Learn to Love Civic Activists" (Freedom House)

Author: Mark P. Lagon and Katharine Nasielski, Freedom House

"Why Corporations Should Learn to Love Civic Activists", 23 Aug 2016

Multinationals have a lot to gain from partnerships with civil society groups, and a lot to lose if activists are not allowed to do their work...In 2015, the Chinese government proposed a law that would regulate and restrict the operations of foreign nongovernmental organizations...in China... [H]uman rights organizations...won vocal support from a striking partner: American business. Forty-five entities...signed a virtually unprecedented letter arguing that foreign nonprofit organizations play an integral role in facilitating business operations in China...[T]his effort marked a turning point for understanding the relationship between civil society and business...The same democratic attributes that earn a country a designation of Free are key elements of a strong business environment, including low corruption, strong rule of law, and political stability...NGOs that advocate on labor and environmental issues should be seen...as a public good that helps businesses to operate freely and successfully...Partnering with civil society around the world can clearly be a boon to corporations...Given the global trend of increasing pressure on NGOs by autocratic regimes and illiberal democracies over the past decade, the multinational business sector should waste no time in coming to civil society’s defense.

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10 August 2016

Report includes examples of business support to civil society's efforts in Guatemala, Australia

Author: Ben Leather, Tamsin Webster & Tess McEvoy, International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)

"Protecting our space: Human rights defender strategies to protect civil society space", 2016 

In Guatemala...businesses were engaged as part of the national strike...with many...agreeing to close during the strike. HRDs engaged businesses by showing them that high level officials...were embezzling their taxes, thereby causing economically incentivised outrage.... Even large multinational restaurant chains were convinced to get on board, using social media to declare that they would close their branches…. In Australia, HRDs were  prevented access to immigration detention centres...[T]hey managed to advocate for access by using their relationships with ethical investors in the businesses operating the detention centres... In another...example, HRDs who were shareholders in one of the country’s largest superannuation (pension) funds, HESTA, successfully advocated for HESTA to divest its shareholdings in Transfield, a company involved in the operation of Australia’s offshore detention centres…[Transfield previous response is here]

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8 August 2016

Interview with S Group on company's decision to testify on behalf of human rights defender in Thailand

Author: Tobias Webb, Innovation Forum

Should business defend environmental and human rights campaigners?, 2 Aug 2016

…Given the speed campaigns can run at in social media and increased expectation that business support human rights in their scope of influence, business leaders may need to get used to more actively using their voice against unjust arrest of individuals legally making efforts to support the worker and other human rights…[At] Innovation Forum we published this piece which shows how a company is trying to help a campaigner. As a follow up, [we] asked Lea Rankinen, [of the] S Group, the company taking the action, to offer…more insight. “We in S Group feel that the work of Civil Society Organisations is of great importance in developing working conditions and human rights in Thailand and others countries as well. To achieve transparency in supply chains we also need open and thorough surveys and dialogue. Such work should never be punished. It is in the interest of companies, too, to have a functioning civil society…Andy Hall asked us to give a testimony and as a responsible company we decided to testify…. To testify in the trial was… an issue which we…discussed at executive level… I think this case is actually very big change from respecting human rights to promote human rights…No matter what the result is, I hope this will be an example to other companies too to stand up in similar situations…"...[refers to Natural Fruit]

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8 August 2016

Virgin founder Richard Branson decries human rights abuses surrounding Philippine President Duterte’s war on drugs

Author: Richard Branson, Virgin Group

“Duterte’s war on drugs is not the answer”, 4 Aug 2016

…Duterte openly called on police and others to kill anyone involved in the drug trade, from drug traffickers and dealers to people who use drugs. This unprecedented and brutal call for people to take matters into their own hands has had devastating and shocking consequences.

Since the President’s inauguration, more than 400 people, alleged to be involved in the drug trade in some way, have been murdered by police or vigilantes, who have been empowered and emboldened by the President’s call for extrajudicial murder…

…To me, and many others, these are clear and unacceptable violations of international human rights standards the Philippines signed to uphold. Given how systematic and widespread these extrajudicial killings are, I wonder how long it will be until someone points out that what has been unfolding are actual crimes against humanity…

…Fighting fire with fire won’t work. The Philippines must reverse course immediately and choose evidence-based policies that put people first, reduce harm and put an end to these atrocities.

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29 July 2016

Case of Activist supported by Finnish company testifying against a former supplier shows how progressive business landscape is changing

Author: Innovation Forum editorial team

"Thai court case that's redefining corporate-activist relationships", 29 July 2016

The case of an activist being supported by a Finnish company testifying against a former supplier…shows how the progressive business landscape is changing. The…case concerns Andy Hall, a human rights campaigner [that] carried out some field research on behalf of…Finnwatch. The resulting report found human rights violations on the part of Natural Fruit Co, a Thai company that supplies…Finnish retailers…Natural Fruit [went] after Hall, who lives in Thailand. It filed criminal defamation charges against him in 2013…[Hall has] been backed up by Finland’s S Group, a…retailer that sourced from Natural Fruit. Although the Finnwatch report was a potential corporate embarrassment, S Group’s…Jari Simolin, testified in Thailand in defence of Hall…Travelling around the world to give court testimony…is something new, says Phil Bloomer…[BHRRC]. “We are seeing a rapid rise in intimidation and attacks on human rights defenders in too many countries. S Group has shown leadership and courage: it takes guts to be honest about abuse in your own supply chain, even more to defend the activist that exposed it.” Rankinen says that S Group does its own supply chain diligence, but the Finnwatch report provided valuable further information…[J]ust as Finnwatch alerted S Group, so S Group felt it should step in when Hall was threatened. For other companies, “I hope that this could be an example,” Rankinen says.

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