There were twelve people around the board table at a meeting in 2015. Four were international representatives from the military industry and private security, four were diplomats from different nations and ranks, and the four others were from civil society organizations from different regions. Separating them was more than a table, three languages and two interpreters inside an isolated booth. How was it possible that all parties were able to discuss issues of human rights, military conflict, security companies and responsible business together?
Somehow the conversation was working. It took years of interactions and hard work but, over time, the parties developed a deep respect for each other, despite their differences; a shared commitment to advancing human rights in one of the the most sensitive sectors of activity that exist; a commitment underpinned by the recognition that they had different but complementary roles to play at this same table; and an understanding of the need to recognize the existence of the other in order to be able to achieve systemic change in a reality already shaped before they enter that conference room.
Building trust and a shared narrative to engage in constructive conversation is extremely difficult. Some will say that a relationship of trust between civil society and private companies is not only impossible but also not desirable; that good faith is not found in sectors of activity where human rights violations can and do occur.
Sharpening our tools for change
It’s been 10 years already since adoption of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. To ISHRwe have invested countless hours in conversations with private companies, civil societyand regulators on their implementation, as well as on the need to fill the regulatory gaps, in particular with regard to the protection of human rights defenders.
The enactment of legislation in regional and national levels requiring companies to carry out human rights due diligence, such as the EU Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directiveas well as negotiations on a binding international treaty on business and human rightscreates a window of opportunity for NGOs to be creative, ambitious and innovative in testing new advocacy strategies to change business conduct and advance human rights.
Despite an understandable stubbornness legacy of mistrust between civil society and business, there is momentum for human rights organizations to engage productively with business, responsible investors and other private actors who wield growing market power , leverage and are subject to new human rights legislation. At the time of this writing, global companies are becoming increasingly relevant players in international conflicts. In other words, companies could become powerful allies in advancing human rights agendas with governments or in relation to public opinion.
lost in translation
It is no mystery that business and civil society speak different languages and engage from radically different perspectives when referring to human rights issues.
It is true that corporate activism is on the risewith some companies support important causes and campaigns such as LGBTQ+ rights, anti-racism, equality and non-discrimination. However, business is not founded to promote and protect human rights, even though we may wish it were otherwise. Instead, companies view human rights issues through the prism of their production and business models. This does not mean that workers or companies do not care about human rights. They care, especially in some sectors and corporate culture.
As civil society, we need to identify and understand how best to engage our strategic targets and audiences. If we want to constructively engage companies, trade associations or investors on human rights issues, we need to recognize who our interlocutor is. The core business of companies is the starting point for analyzing any human rights issue: their business, employees, customers and supply chain.
Businesses tend to focus on identifying and mitigating risk. It is increasingly recognized that human rights defenders can play a vital role to sound the alarm about problems within an organization’s operations or supply chain. As a general rule, the “UN talk” does not work with corporations. Civil society should avoid jargon when engaging with the business community. Business representatives seek examples and clarification of the human rights issues that concern them and how they are relevant to their operations.
Human rights in private companies
Civil society should not automatically welcome the fact that a company has a person with “human rights” written in their title. Unfortunately, this often means that a position has been created for compliance or reputation management purposes, to quietly address human rights issues or to engage (read: manage) civil society relations. In contrast, companies that take human rights seriously embed the subject in all functions and departments, striving to embed human rights in the corporate philosophy.
To effect change, civil society must strive to better understand the complexity of a particular company, its economic sector, its activity, its internal governance, its values and its corporate culture. Each company has its own systems and structure, progressing differently on its human rights journey.
At the micro level, the individual backgrounds, relationships and motivations of human rights personnel within the company have a great bearing on how issues are passed on to the company. At the systemic level, NGOs need to understand how international business, economy, investment and trade.
Lessons learned and scars taken
For NGOs that view engagement with business actors as a human rights tactic, and it will not and should not be all NGOs, ISHR sees risks to be avoided and opportunities to be seized then. that we continue to learn every day.
Civil society must understand and use the market. As companies must comply with human rights and sustainability regulations, NGOs and advocates can play a key role in risk assessment or due diligence processes, directly influencing business behavior. We must know “the enemy” and know ourselves. As civil society, we need to build our technical capacities to understand and benefit from international business, economics, investment and trade. We won’t change business dynamics if we don’t understand them.