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Protect human rights defenders say major brands

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Protect Human Rights Defenders, major brands, protect civic freedoms, statement, Business and Human Rights Resource Centre‘Business enterprises, including investors, have a duty to respect human rights and human rights defenders.’

A group of major brands has called for the protection of human rights defenders and civic freedoms, both of which are under attack around the world.

In a statement the group said:

‘The protection of civic freedoms and respect for the rule of law are vitally important for both civil society and business.

Free, open societies enable well-functioning markets, stable financial systems and good governance.

In contrast, efforts to limit civil society and civic freedoms undermine open societies, foster corruption, limit competition, critical thought and innovation.

By some estimates only 3 per cent of the world’s population live in countries where freedom of expression, association and assembly are fully upheld.

Many reports document increasing restrictions of fundamental human rights, and repression and violence against civil society and human rights defenders.

2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. We take this opportunity to affirm the crucial role of human rights defenders and our firm commitment to the protection of civic freedoms.

Only where human rights and the rule of law are protected and respected can civil society actors do their critical work.

This is not just the responsibility of governments.

In line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, business enterprises, including investors, have a duty to respect human rights and human rights defenders.

Fulfilment of this duty enhances the private sector’s ‘social license’ to operate and can help respond to the challenges of our time, including rising inequality, xenophobia, discrimination, climate change, and polarisation.

Therefore:

We recognise that defenders are important partners in identifying risks or problems in our business activities, encouraging due diligence and in the provision of remedy when harm occurs. When they are under attack, so are sustainable business practices.

We are exploring how policies and practices can be strengthened to ensure we respect and do not interfere with the work of civil society and human rights defenders.

We strongly encourage governments to protect civic freedoms everywhere. This includes ensuring that civil society and human rights defenders are free from abuse, harassment, intimidation, physical attacks or from limitations on their rights to freedom of speech, assembly, association and movement individually and collectively

We will work to find effective ways business can positively contribute to situations where civic freedoms and human rights defenders are under threat.’

This statement was developed through the Business Network on Civic Freedoms and Human Rights Defenders and is supported by Unilever, adidas, Primark, ABN AMRO, Anglo American, Leber Jeweler, Domini and the Investors Alliance on Human Rights.

Remarking on this, Ana Zbona, Civic Freedoms and Human Rights Defenders Project Manager with the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) pointed out that since 2015, the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre have tracked more than 1,300 attacks on activists working on human rights issues related to business.

Nearly six in ten countries are seriously restricting people’s freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression, according to CIVICUS.

Civil society organisations are under pressure and human rights defenders, including trade unionists, anti-corruption activists and journalists are increasingly threatened, attacked or killed.

Human rights defenders, civil society organisations, international organisations and progressive governments have been insisting for years that this situation is unacceptable; that if civic freedoms which allow citizens to propose solutions to social problems, and to push governments to respect and protect human rights, are eroded, so are any prospects for sustainable development and just and inclusive economic growth.

Now, these voices have been joined by a group of powerful allies: well-known brands and investors who are vocal about how they, too, depend on the rule of law, accountable governance, stable investment environments and respect for human rights.

And consumers do reward such behaviour and are encouraging companies to play a more ethical role in society – to have an opinion and stand up for the things their customers care about.

One study, for example, found that “three-quarters of consumers would stop purchasing from a company if it shared a different perspective on these social justice issues.”

On the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the statement sends a clear message that the current wave of attacks is intolerable for leading companies and investors.

The next step is the practical implementation of these commitments.

While hesitance or even scepticism on the side of civil society is understandable, this statement should be a signal that business is not homogenous and that some can be partners on these issues.

Governments should work with these and other leading businesses to act on their own commitments to protect civic freedoms and human rights defenders, and do so multilaterally, for example through the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Meanwhile, other companies from all sectors should quickly catch up, and take on this increasingly inescapable agenda – it is their short and their long-term interest to do so.

According to 2017 research, 94 per cent of Gen Z respondents believed companies should help address critical issues as did with 87 per cent of Millennials, 83 per cent of Gen X and 89 per cent of Baby Boomers.

And Maria Anne van Dijk, global head of environmental, social and ethical risk and policy at ABN AMRO, one of the signatories, when asked why they decided to support the statement, said: ”ABN AMRO is very happy to receive positive signals from clients after sharing our support for this statement.

“Many of our clients – especially NGOs – experience restrictions on their civic freedoms as well as access to financial services.

“This problem can only be effectively addressed in collaboration between governments, civil society and business.”

For more information on these issues, see this guidance document released by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre and the International Service for Human Rights, and these recent reports by The B Team and Rights CoLab.

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