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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24 April 2017

India: Procter & Gamble's ad raises awareness of issues transgender women face

"Touching Ad Normalizes Transgender Motherhood In India, Where The Issue Is Stigmatized", 24 Apr 2017

This commercial is redefining India’s traditional family. The touching short film above, which Procter & Gamble’s Vicks created, tells the true story of a young orphan in India named Gayatri who was adopted by...Gauri Sawant, a transgender woman and social activist who lives in Mumbai... In 2014, India legally recognized transgender people... but the marginalized community still has to fight for basic rights, including the right to legally adopt a child. Many transgender women like Sawant work around the law by informally adopting the orphans of sex workers[.] Sawant saved Gayatri from being trafficked into the sex industry...after the...girl’s mom...died of AIDS[.] Gaytari and Sawant’s emotional story was turned into an ad for P&G’s “Touch of Care” campaign in an effort to raise awareness of the issues Sawant and other transgender women in India face. “Vicks has always been about the gentle touch of a mother’s care...” P&G executive...Darbari said in a statement. With the campaign, “we are going a step further and expounding the importance of care beyond just the traditional perception of family...The campaign shows how people who, though not connected by blood, end up being family through care itself.” And Sawant was the perfect spokesperson for the cause.

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7 April 2017

USA: Twitter sues federal govt. to protect identity of govt. critic

Author: Alex Johnson, NBC News

"Twitter Sues Feds to Keep Anti-Trump Admin User ‘ALT_USCIS’ Anonymous", 6 Apr 2017

Twitter sued the federal government on Thursday to protect the identity of the person or people behind an anonymous account highly critical of Customs and Border Protection [CBP]. [L]awyers for Twitter disclosed a summons the social media company received last month from CBP and... the Department of Homeland Security, demanding that the company turn over everything it knows about the anonymous account @ALT_uscis. The summons... seeks user names, login records, phone numbers, physical addresses and IP addresses of anyone associated with the account, which tweets sharply critical comments about U.S. immigration policy and President Donald Trump...The CBP summons doesn't state any reason for the demand... Twitter said CBP was obligated to demonstrate that some criminal or civil offense had been committed and that outing the account holders' identities was the least restrictive way to advance the investigation...Twitter's lawyers wrote, "Permitting CBP to pierce the pseudonym of the @ALT_USCIS account would have a grave chilling effect on the speech of that account in particular and on the many other 'alternative agency' accounts that have been created to voice dissent to government policies."

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7 April 2017

USA: Twitter sues govt. over request to reveal identity of account, citing free speech

Author: Dave Lee, BBC News

"Twitter sues US over anti-Trump account", 6 Apr 2017

Twitter is suing the US government after it demanded it reveal the identity of an anti-Trump account. The @ALT_USCIS profile was an anonymous profile account criticising President Trump’s immigration policy. The account claimed it was being run by federal employees at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. Twitter has requested a court block the Trump administration’s request, calling it a matter of free speech... "The rights of free speech afforded Twitter's users and Twitter itself under the First Amendment of the US Constitution include a right to disseminate such anonymous or pseudonymous political speech,” the company argued. It added that the government "may not compel Twitter to disclose information regarding the real identities of these users without first demonstrating that some criminal or civil offense has been committed"...In January, when Donald Trump became President Trump, several so-called "alternative" accounts for US government services began appearing online...According to the filing, the government sought to use a power given to the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) - one typically used to obtain records relating to imported merchandise - to get detailed information on who was behind @ALT_USCIS.

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28 March 2017

Blog: Shrinking civic freedoms - How does this affect businesses, and what role can they play?

Author: Mauricio Lazala, Deputy Director, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, in World Economic Forum Agenda

"Civil rights are under attack. Here’s why the business world should care", 27 Mar 2017

Indigenous people of Cauca department, Colombia, march in protest over land rights. © 2004 Gerardo Chaves, Courtesy of Photoshare

In many countries around the world, civic freedoms have been shrinking: laws to stifle dissent have been passed, rising populism has stirred xenophobia, and those who dare to speak truth to power have faced intimidation and even violence...How does this affect business, and what role has – and should – the business world play? While many of these increasing restrictions come from governments, in some cases the business world is guilty of helping erode the civic space... These businesses are exposing themselves to substantial risks and are on the wrong side of history. [T]here is a strong business case for supporting a healthy and vibrant civic environment. [B]oth civil society and business need the same sort of environment in which to thrive. Luckily, there are companies that understand they can play a positive role in protecting civic activists and civic freedoms – and several of them are doing so... What these companies realize is that they cannot, and do not want to, ignore the dismantling of civic freedoms in many parts of the world, both for self-interest and moral reasons. Other businesses would do well to follow their example. [Refers to Microsoft, S Group, Tiffany & Co.].

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17 February 2017

USA: Facebook CEO's manifesto on what co. can do to tackle fake news, decrease polarization & engage more people in civic process

Author: Olivia Solon, The Guardian

"Mark Zuckerberg pens major Facebook manifesto on how to burst the bubble", 17 Feb 2017

Mark Zuckerberg has written a...riposte to...growing anti-globalization sentiment. The 5,700-word manifesto...outlines the challenges...and the measures that Facebook can take to address them, [ranging] [f]rom climate change and pandemics to terrorism and inequality...“Facebook stands for...building a global community. When we began, this idea was not controversial. Yet now, across the world there are people left behind by globalization, and movements for withdrawing from global connection." ...Zuckerberg avoided making reference to...Donald Trump and Brexit...CEO says...Facebook is now shifting its focus to “developing...infrastructure for community – for supporting us,...keeping us safe,...informing us,...civic engagement, and...inclusion of all”...“ [W]e’re starting to explore ways to use AI to tell the difference between news stories about terrorism and actual terrorist propaganda...” ...He [elaborated on] “fake news” and sensational click-baity headlines,...which...[lead] to increased polarization...In the “civically-engaged community” section, Zuckerberg talks about how to get more people to engage in the civic process...[and] developing tools to remind people to register to vote and...organize protests...He notes that “major advances in AI” would be needed to understand [if] text, photos and videos...contain hate speech..., but that some of this will be possible in 2017. You can read the full post here

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10 February 2017

Facebook implements new policies to combat racial discrimination in advertising

Author: Alex Hern, Guardian UK

“Facebook stops advertisers illegally discriminating by race”, 9 February 2017

Facebook has updated its advertising policies to ban discrimination based on…personal characteristics, including race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or age. Accompanying new policies is a section aimed at educating advertisers about [permitted] ad targeting…, both in terms of Facebook’s own policies and applicable national laws…Facebook plans to use new…“machine learning”… technology… to identify…offenders. [This] follows accusations that [Facebook]… offered tools that allow advertisers to break American anti-discrimination laws, through an… “ethnic affinity” profiling…ad-targeting feature... Although Facebook emphasise[s]…the feature, is not the same as racial profiling, a…wave of negative publicity arrived in October 2016, when ProPublica reported that… [it] could be used to exclude particular groups from advertising for home sales. That is explicitly banned under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, due to America’s long history of segregation. Now, if Facebook’s tools think that a user is attempting to implement “multicultural advertising segments” targeting unlawfully, it will [en]force… [a] manual review, with a Facebook employee explicitly checking…compliance. And for housing, employment and credit adverts…the company is asking advertisers to explicitly certify their compliance with relevant laws.

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3 February 2017

Leadership, leverage & solidarity by companies who support humans right defenders will pay long-term dividends, says Intl. Service for Human Rights

Author: Sarah Brooks, International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)

"Business can and should ally with those defending human rights", 1 Feb 2017

Global businesses and grassroots human rights activists may seem like strange bedfellows.  But as attacks on basic democratic freedoms and the rule of law intensify around the world, they may have more shared values and interests than one might think....[B]usinesses are driven by...bottom line...But...many business leaders are coming around to the idea...that long-term success...is linked to...transparency, certainty, stability [a]nd a social license to operate... [B]usiness should see human rights defenders [HRDs] as priceless allies....They are the canaries in the coalmines, pointing to when governance failures become real financial, legal, and reputational risks to business [and are] witnesses to corporate abuse...[Business] has a[n] ability to...defend space for civil society through...leverage, leadership, and partnerships...[Businesses] can use the leverage provided by access, personal relationships and market share to push back on authoritarian impulses...[P]rogressive businesses also need to show leadership... For the financial survival of civil society, seeking support from businesses might be an option—if it is on equal footing...The leadership, leverage and solidarity shown by companies who see support to civic freedoms and HRDs as part of core business will pay long-term dividends [refers to adidas, FMO]. 

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31 January 2017

Blog: "Calling all business executives: Stand up for American values"

Author: Irit Tamir, Advocacy Manager, Oxfam America's Private Sector Department

...While a few corporate leaders, primarily out of Silicon Valley, noted their concern over the impact of the ban [on legal immigrants and refugees from seven predominantely Muslim countries from entering the USA] on their employees, an overwhelming number of corporate leaders have remained shockingly silent.

President Trump—who campaigned on his business acumen—has convened a group of leading corporate executives in a Strategic and Policy Forum to provide him with advice and counsel. Of the 19 executives who serve in this agenda-setting role, only two have spoken up about the ban (companies have taken varying approaches to criticizing the ban). It has been reported that Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, is seeking a consensus on changes to the immigration ban among fellow forum members, but the time to speak up is now. And not just about tinkering with the ban to make it less restrictive of green card holders –the whole thing needs to go. The silence from any executive is unconscionable, but from those on the Forum in particular...

When several states sought to pass bills that would limit LGBT rights, Fortune 500 companies led the fight to stand up for human rights. This included Walmart in Arkansas, Disney in Georgia, and PepsiCo and GE in Mississippi, all of whom sit on President Trump’s forum and will have the President’s ear on Friday when he meets with them...

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30 January 2017

USA: In response to Trump’s immigration ban, Starbucks CEO announces company will hire 10,000 refugees worldwide

Author: Phil Wahba, Fortune

"Starbucks Has a Response to President Trump's Immigration Ban: Hire 10,000 Refugees", 29 Jan 2017

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz sought Sunday to reassure employees anguished about President Donald Trump's immigration ban... "I write to you today with deep concern, a heavy heart and a resolute promise," Schultz wrote...to all...employees. "We are living in an unprecedented time, one in which we are witness to the conscience of our country, and the promise of the American Dream, being called into question." Trump's executive order, issued on Friday and later blocked in part by federal judges, prohibits citizens from Muslim-majority [countries] from entering the United States for at least 90 days [and] refugees from Syria indefinitely. Schultz...last year called for more civility in the election campaign... Schultz proclaimed himself "stunned" by Trump's...win. He has rarely shied away from weighing in on political debates, trying to prompt Americans to debate race relations [and] asking gun owners not to bring weapons into Starbucks...Schultz...said the company has been in direct contact with employees affected by the immigration ban. Starbucks will redouble its efforts to hire people fleeing war, violence, persecution and discrimination...and hire 10,000 refugees worldwide in the next five years...The CEO also said Starbucks is reimbursing employees who are part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

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24 January 2017

Bangladesh: Apparel firms call on govt. to protect workers' rights & rectify abuses during recent protests

Author: Steering Committee members of the Accord on Fire & Building Safety

"Letter to PM Hasina on Response to Ashulia Wage Protests", 19 Jan 2017

We write as the Steering Committee members of the Accord on Fire & Building Safety in Bangladesh to express our great concerns regarding the Government's response to the recent RMG industry unrest and wage protests in Ashulia. The Accord is an agreement of nearly 220 global apparel companies and retailers with global and Bangladeshi trade unions representing garment manufacturing and retail workers...We are deeply concerned, however, by recent detentions and termination from employment of individuals with union affiliation and who promote workers' rights. We have received credible reports that since late December 2016 at least fourteen such persons have been detained or arrested; that eleven of these remain in police custody; that 2-3 of have been subject to beatings and/or threats; and that approximately 1500 workers have been terminated from their employment at several Ashulia located RMG factories. Accord signatories are concerned that as many as 700 more persons face court allegations and potential arrest allegedly under the auspices of the Ashulia unrest. We respectfully request that your good Office take immediate action to ensure that RMG workers' rights are protected and that any associated cases of unjust detention, employment termination, and/or fundamental rights violations be urgently rectified consistent with the law and ILO conventions. [Refers to PVH, H&M, Inditex, LC Waikiki, C&A & Otto Group].

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