With Freedom at Stake, Business Cannot Afford to Stay Silent

02/28/2018
Ngozi_Civic Rights Web

By Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
Chair of Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance and Former Finance Minister of Nigeria and Former Managing Director of the World Bank

The world is facing a crisis of freedom. In growing numbers, authorities are restricting and denying fundamental human and civic rights. Governments are going to increasing lengths to silence citizens, passing laws to stifle opposition and repress both freedom of movement and political movements. People are suffering and without means of changing their condition.

Today, only two percent of the global population lives in countries with open civic space. And those defending this space are under threat. From 2015-December 2017, 850 attacks were documented on defenders working on human rights and business. These ranged from murders  to brutal assaults and harassment.

Civic rights aren’t just important for protecting citizens’ participation in their government and society, but also in helping ensure open and direct lines of communication and support between governments and people. This is invaluable in the face of crisis. We see this clearly, and devastatingly, in the wake of attacks like the kidnapping of more than 100 schoolgirls by militants in Dapchi, Nigeria. This heinous act is a fundamental denial of their basic human rights and freedoms, and is part of an alarming trend that is not just concentrated to one area of the world.

With global suppression of civic and human rights surmounting, both the public and private sectors are at a crucial moment to take action. At The B Team, this sense of necessary partnership is clear. At World Economic Forum’s annual meeting last month in Davos, several B Team Leaders participated in a panel entitled Standing Up for Social Progress. During this discussion, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, Sharan Burrow, posed the question, “Why do Paul Polman, Andrew Liveris and I work together on The B Team? To create a new dialogue.” What the world needs is a new dialogue: one that brings the private and public sectors together to stand up for what is right.

But why should business care? When people are free to succeed, business succeeds. Open and free societies are healthy operating environments for companies. Threats to openness are also threats to private sector vitality. Corporates are beginning to realize this. More than 34 percent of executives believe ten percent or more of their operating income is at stake due to government action. And they’re right; the continued repression of citizens’ voices is costing us. From 2015-2016, government internet shutdowns across the globe cost countries USD $2.4 billion.

With so much to lose, business cannot afford to stay silent.

There is progress and positive action, and we’re seeing more companies use their voice. Tiffany & Co. and Leber Jeweler joined forces to speak out against the detainment of Rafael Marques, an investigative journalist helping uncover human rights abuses in diamond supply chains in Angola. Hearing the strong stance of these companies, an Angolan judge drastically reduced Marques’ sentence.

And others are joining them in taking a stand. Microsoft is speaking up on the need for international protection against state-sponsored cyber attacks and taking the US government to court on censorship and privacy protection. Adidas has developed and published a policy around human rights defenders, detailing actions the company’s taken in Vietnam, Cambodia and China. BHP spoke out against a proposed bill limiting funding for environmental groups’ political advocacy efforts in Australia. And more and more people want to work with companies like these, especially younger generations.

While the private sector is beginning to step up, it is not alone in this fight. Civil society organisations are partners in this effort and companies should view them as such. Both civil society organisations and businesses need open and free communities to thrive. Whether it’s petitioning governments, developing policies or collaborating with workers and NGOs, many companies are starting to take a stand and seeing the benefit of doing so. Emerging partnerships between business and NGOs are helping make progress on several key issues.

Unilever has worked with several organisations including the OECD, ILO and Oxfam to eliminate human trafficking through its supply chains. The Kering Group has worked with several NGOs including Civic Nation and HER Fund to help put an end to gender-based violence and repression. Safaricom continues to advocate for children’s rights working with the  Clinton Global Initiative and the International Finance Corporation to socialise this as best business practice. Civil society organisations are also recognising the need for partnerships and laying out guidelines for better ways of working together.

The rise of CEOs taking a stand on social and political issues is promising, but we can’t let the momentum stop here. We must continue to open and build this dialogue for the health and future of our societies, communities and economies. The freedoms of people around the world are on the line. And the time to act is now.

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