Utilizing Businesses as part of Human Rights Movement Building

Conversation Details

Dates of conversation: 
Monday, March 27, 2017 to Friday, March 31, 2017
Conversation type: 
Type of tactical goal: 

Businesses and human rights are to a large extent interdependent: businesses are able to play a positive or negative role in building human rights movements, and the position that a business takes can influence its brand in the same way. In January 2017, Uber experienced a backlash on social media that called for users to delete the app in response to the company’s decision to turn off surge pricing and continue service to the airport during the New York City taxi drivers’ strike against President Trump’s executive order on immigration. Thousands of Twitter users adopted the #DeleteUber hashtag to decry Uber’s actions, and many consumers turned to Lyft for future service, which fiercely opposed the executive order and announced a one-million dollar donation to the American Civil Liberties Union. As demonstrated in this case, businesses can impact the human rights of their employees, customers, and communities. It is important to explore the innovative ways in which businesses can participate in human rights movement building. Conversation participants discussed the tactics and strategies used to integrate businesses, both locally and internationally, in human rights movements.  

Thank you to our featured resource practitioners who led this conversation:

  • Dorothee Baumann-Pauly, NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights
  • Chris Jochnick, Landesa
  •  Fernanda Hopenhaym, PODER
  • Mark Hodge, Executive Director of the Global Business Initiative on Human Rights

The Intersection of business enterprises and human rights movements

Businesses have the opportunity to engage in human rights campaigns by finding issues that are directly connected to the business’ products, services, operations, supply chains, etc. In such cases, the intersection between human rights and businesses can be strengthened by “anchoring in the issues into existing commitments, policies, and public reports” as one participant suggested. In the case that human rights campaigns are not directly related to a corporation’s operations, engaging human rights issues may be a part of a strategy to appeal to senior leadership, civil society, academia, and governments.

One participant pointed out the difficulty in discerning the “hidden and nontransparent corporate political activity” that motivates CEOs to involve a corporation in human rights campaigns. It is important that a corporation’s involvement in  a human rights campaign does not “legitimate or greenwash bad actors, or allow human rights language to be co-opted by corporations in a way that crowds out civil society voices,” as one participant stated.

Engaging businesses in human rights movement

Several participants stated that keeping a critical distance between corporations and human rights campaigns is essential. Finding the middle ground that allows human rights activists to benefit from a corporation’s resources and networks while managing the risk of cooptation is ideal. Groups such as Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network, and the Behind the Brands campaign do a good job of striking that balance. According to one participant, there are three critical elements to building a balanced relationship between corporations and human rights campaigns: 1) A declaration that there are no permanent friends or enemies among companies. 2) Transparency about any significant engagement with companies. 3) Avoiding personalizing attacks between corporations and activist campaigns.

Corporations must also evaluate several considerations when choosing to collaborate with human rights organizations, as one participant articulates: “corporations must understand the internal and external constraint of collaboration, apply reasonable timelines, be willing to have tough and confidential conversations behind the scenes, and help devise roadmaps for improvement and good practice.” Partnerships between HR organizations and corporations also benefit from mutually agreed upon definitions of what “due diligence” is and to what concrete standards companies are to be held.

How different types of enterprises engage in human rights movements

As one participant stated, “companies exert enormous influence through their lobbying, marketing, and business relationships.” Corporations have unique resources with which to support human rights movements, such as responding to the pressure shareholders, implementing human rights-based oversight and regulations, and helping civil society groups gain access to political processes. Another key supporting role that businesses can play in human rights work is “pushing for strong oversight and regulations, and helping civil society groups gain access to political processes.”

Examples of Tactic implementation

Oxfam partners with companies like Starbucks to campaign targets and campaign targets like Newmont mining become allies with such corporations (e.g. in supporting tougher oversight – Dodd Frank 1504).

NYU Stern’s School of Business researched Bangladesh’s garment industry and found evidence of over 7000 production sites for apparel, more than twice the number of factories that is commonly assumed. Corporations must collaborate with academic researchers to avoid insufficient and ill-defined fire prevention and safety measures.

Teaching business students to study the process that resulted in industry-specific Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives, like the Fair Labor Association.

PODER’s incorporation of human rights due diligence processes to corporate practices.

Pepsi publicly acknowledged the human right to water.

Coca-Cola publicly declared zero tolerance for land grabs and pushed for stronger land rights provisions at a key UN-guided process.

Resources shared by participants:

§  Vale and Human Rights Watch - Relocation of communities around a mine in Mozambique 

§  Nestle and Oxfam America - Child labor and women's rights in West African Cocoa Farms

§  Inditext and CCOO de Industria - From global agreement to local application / From unilateralism to mutual responsibility 

§  Microsoft and Ranking Digital Rights - Privacy and Freedom of Expression in China 

§  Total S.A --- Establishing policy commitment and the role of CEOs and senior leaders 

§  Novo Nordisk A/S - Corporate-wise human rights impact and risk mapping 

§  ABB - Capacity building and human rights training 

§  BG Group - Effectiveness criteria around operational grievance mechanisms 

Teaching Business and Human Rights Forum: A forum that pools course syllabi and teaching resources related to BHR, and connects over 300 lecturers of BHR at law and business schools.

Conversation Leaders

Dorothee Baumann-Pauly's picture
Dorothee Baumann-Pauly
NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights
fernanda.hopenhaym's picture
Fernanda Hopenhaym
ChrisJ's picture
Chris Jochnick
Mark Hodge's picture
Mark Hodge