As part of global governance, companies are expected to defend civic space

Anna Triponel

February 1, 2021

There is a troubling global trend towards closing of civic spaces and repression of fundamental freedoms, exacerbated by challenges like growing illiberalism, crackdowns on trade unions, violence against human rights and environmental defenders and a worldwide pandemic intensifying pressures on all of the above. In this challenging context, companies have both an outsize risk of contributing to this trend and an outsize opportunity to influence positive change. A new Chatham House paper outlines these factors and points to actions for companies, including working collaboratively, acting collectively, acting contextually, taking credible and tangible action, and “building back better” with purpose.

The International Law Programme and Asia-Pacific Programme of policy institute Chatham House put out a paper on The Role of the Private Sector in Protecting Civic Space summing up the conclusions of a series of roundtables and webinars with private sector actors, civil society organizations and other key stakeholders.

Some of the key takeaways of the report are highlighted below:

  1. “Drivers of engagement”
  • Companies have a “normative responsibility” under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights “to avoid causing, contributing, or being linked to human rights harm (including to human rights defenders) through their business practices.”
  • There is also a business case for protecting civic space and civil freedoms: “Civil society organizations and human rights defenders play critical roles in protecting and expanding civic freedoms, which benefit all sectors of society. Conversely, the restriction of these freedoms can lead to political volatility and instability for businesses. … In order to prosper, business depends on an open environment in which laws are respected, employees have the right to speak up, and business can operate without fear of government interference.”
  • Some participants argued that there is also a moral case for companies to promote free and open civic space.
  1. “Challenges for business in engaging on civic space issues”
  • Barriers for companies to take action include “firstly, a poor understanding of the implications for civic space of their actions; and secondly, an inadequate awareness of the needs of civil society.”
  • Companies may be unwilling to take action or speak out on risks to civic space beyond their own supply chains and operations, but civil society actors point out that they “are often unaware of the power, influence and leverage potential of business in relation to the preservation and defence of a healthy and open civil society.”
  • There are also barriers to open and constructive collaboration between civil society organisations and businesses, namely a lack of trust and transparency.
  • Many companies also need to change their corporate culture. The report cites one participant who asked “’How do you shift the corporate emphasis from risks to values?’ In reply, it was observed that it is fundamental for companies to develop a new governance framework. This requires a shift ‘from thought leadership, and ad hoc actions, to principled action.’”
  1. “Catalysts for change”
  • Internal catalysts for companies to take action can include: corporate leadership’s willingness to engage on issues of civic freedoms; pressure from investors and shareholders; and pressure from employees to speak up or take other actions to protect civic space.
  • External catalysts include: industry bodies and multi-stakeholder initiatives that facilitate collaborative approaches to acting on these issues; social movements like Black Lives Matter and global pro-democracy protests; and a new awareness of “pre-existent fissures in society” thrown into sharp relief by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  1. “Spotlight on the tech sector”
  • The tech sector has been at the center of conversations about civic space and fundamental freedoms, both as a promoter and facilitator of those freedoms and as a complicit actor in censorship or, at worst, a direct contributor to the breakdown of free and open civic space.
  • Participants pointed out “that there is an important role for regulation of dominant tech companies, in order to uphold civic integrity, make companies think beyond the attention economy, and increase the transparency and accountability of their operations.”
  • They also agreed that tech companies have a special responsibility to take action to address the adverse human rights impacts of their products and services in light of decreasing global democratisation and the crucial role that technology plays in allowing civil society actors to safely conduct their work.
  1. “The way forward”

The report highlights some of the key ways to advance positive progress on protecting civic space:

  • “Work collaboratively” with peers and across sectors. Companies can partner with civil society organisations working to protect human rights defenders and preserve civic space; they can join multi-stakeholder initiatives on these topics; and they can engage directly with governments.
  • “Act collectively” and use leverage to put pressure on governments restricting civil and political rights.
  • “Act contextually.” In other words, “There is no ‘one size fits all solution’ as to how companies can protect civic space. Strategies for opening up and supporting civic space need to be carefully tailored to the political and cultural context.”
  • “Move beyond rhetoric to credible action” by making robust, measurable commitments and taking “tangible actions” to protect civic space.
  • “’Build back better’ with purpose.” In the context of the post-pandemic recovery, “corporate governance needs to evolve from one based purely on profit to one that considers a healthy and shared civic space to be a fundamental part of its own value system, and an anchor for the stability, sustainability and ultimately profitability of business.”

Read the full report here: Chatham House International Law Programme and Asia-Pacific Programme,  The Role of the Private Sector in Protecting Civic Space (February 2021).

“In practice, companies will need to be pragmatic about how and when to act or speak up in response to a specific civic space issue or situation. Companies sometimes assume that statements or actions must be direct and public. Many are beginning to move beyond such assumptions and instead are recognizing that a spectrum of statements and actions may be undertaken privately or publicly, individually or collectively, directly or indirectly as the issue evolves.”                      

        Bennett Freeman, former SVP of Sustainability Research and Policy, Calvert Investments, and former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, and Harriet Moynihan, Senior Research Fellow, International Law Programme, Chatham House, The Role of the Private Sector in Protecting Civic Space (February 2021)

“While companies are understandably averse to taking critical public stands that may risk damage to relationships with host country governments with commercial and legal consequences, the risks of inaction deserve equal attention. In many cases, companies may conclude that the risks – and the likely costs – of inaction may be more difficult to anticipate, mitigate and manage than the risks of action.”                        

Bennett Freeman, former SVP of Sustainability Research and Policy, Calvert Investments, and former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, and Harriet Moynihan, Senior Research Fellow, International Law Programme, Chatham House, The Role of the Private Sector in Protecting Civic Space (February 2021)

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