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19/9/2018
Shared space under pressure: business support for civic freedoms and human rights defenders, cover
Business and Human Rights Defenders: a new guidance published by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre and the International Service for Human Rights

Business and Human Rights Defenders: a new guidance published by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre and the International Service for Human Rights

The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) and the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) have published “Shared space under pressure: business support for civic freedoms and human rights defenders”, a new guidance on business and human rights focused on human rights defenders.

The work of human rights defenders and civil society is vital to peace, justice, fairness and sustainability. It is also essential to promote transparency and combat corruption. Nonetheless, according to the authors of the guidance, the data analysis from around the world shows there is a concerted attack in many countries on the essential freedoms and the rule of law on which business and civil society depend. And the defenders and organizations who expose the risk of abuse by companies in their operations and supply chains are under particular attack.

It is time for responsible business to act to defend civic freedoms and protect human rights defenders (HRDs).

Business and civil society operate in and benefit from a “shared space” defined by common, fundamental elements. The rule of law and freedom of expression, association and assembly are essential to the realization of all human rights, to good governance and accountable institutions. These elements are also critical to stable, profitable and sustainable business environments in which companies thrive and economies prosper.

The guidance represents a major step forward for business action. It is a clear and practical guide to realistic action by responsible companies, investors, industry associations and business leaders. It is informed by both the pragmatism of the market, and the principles of freedom and fair play. It is also the result of over 90 interviews with business leaders, investors, civil society advocates and other international experts who gladly volunteered their insights.

The document encourages companies to focus on this increasingly inescapable agenda. It urges them to engage and to act − carefully but deliberately − in their own interests and in the mutual interests that they share with civil society.

The guide advises companies as they address the challenges as well as opportunities to support civil society and HRDs. It explains the normative framework, the business case and the moral choice that should inform company engagement and action. It focuses on factors companies should consider when deciding whether, and if so how, to act in response to certain issues and situations. It identifies risks for both action and inaction − and observes that managing the risks of inaction may be greater than managing the risks of action for many companies. And it spotlights examples of how companies are acting across countries and sectors, as well as new initiatives and critical actors in the arena.

One of the most important and urgent opportunities for responsible business is to support basic human rights and civic freedoms and those who defend them. This agenda should be compelling for companies in three distinct yet complementary contexts: first and foremost, the normative framework that makes clear the company responsibility to act when certain factors pertain, complemented by a business case, and a moral choice in other circumstances.

There are two rationales leading to company action on behalf of civic freedoms and HRDs:

  • A normative responsibility to act consistent with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) if the company has caused, contributed or is linked to a human rights harm or adverse impact through its direct operations or relationships;
  • a discretionary opportunity to act, even if one of these factors pertaining to the UNGPs do not apply, by drawing on the business case, making a moral choice, and weighing the potential costs of action versus inaction.

Responsible companies should not only evaluate the risks of action, but also assess the risks of inaction. In many cases companies may conclude that the risks – and the likely costs – of inaction may be more difficult to anticipate, mitigate and manage over the long term than the risks of action.

The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights were developed by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises. The Special Representative annexed the Guiding Principles to his final report to the Human Rights Council (A/HRC/17/31), which also includes an introduction to the Guiding Principles and an overview of the process that led to their development.
The United Nations Human Rights Council endorsed the Guiding Principles in its resolution A/HRC/RES/17/4  of 16 July 2011. The UNGPs provided the first global standard for preventing and addressing the risk of adverse impacts on human rights linked to business activity, and they continue to provide the internationally-accepted framework for enhancing standards and practices with regard to business and human rights.

The International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) is an independent, international non-governmental organization which promotes and protects human rights by supporting human rights defenders and strengthening human rights standards and systems.

The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) works to advance human rights in business. It tracks over 7000 companies, and helps the vulnerable eradicate abuse. The resource centre provides guidance materials and examples of good practice.

Further information and the full version of the guidance are available at the following links.

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