Fighting for human rights makes both moral and business sense

Fighting for human rights makes both moral and business sense
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpRosenstein expected to leave DOJ next month: reports Allies wary of Shanahan's assurances with looming presence of Trump States file lawsuit seeking to block Trump's national emergency declaration MORE’s speech at the U.N. General Assembly made little mention of democracy, human rights and rule of law — traditional American values — except to attack the U.N. Human Rights Council and the International Criminal Court.

This was a lost opportunity to use a global platform to address creeping authoritarianism around the globe that threatens not only American security but also U.S. companies in their operations abroad. 

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Authoritarianism is on the rise globally, in places previously thought safe for democracy. The nonprofit CIVICUS ranks the space for non-profit organizations to operate — “civic space” — and notes that it continues to close around the globe, with not only China and Hungary, but also Belgium and the Netherlands, recently downgraded in the rankings.

Simultaneously, attacks on individuals defending human rights and the environment are increasing, including in global supply chains.

Attacks on civil society are a harbinger of growing repression and eroding rule of law — the canary in the coal mine. When the dissenting voices are silenced, this enables corruption in all its forms to flourish, leading to kleptocracy and politically influenced courts.

This is not only extremely bad news for human rights defenders, it is bad for responsible business. Business is playing a role in fighting this creeping authoritarianism and has a vested long-term interest in doing so. U.S. foreign policy should reflect this. 

Western companies have spent decades developing robust management systems to function responsibly and in accordance with laws, including the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). Companies also increasingly commit to respect human rights, as articulated in global standards such as the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Meeting such commitments is highly challenging, however, in repressive environments. Meanwhile, less savory businesses from authoritarian and corrupt states are well-prepared to adapt and flourish in such ecosystems, and Western business finds it hard to compete. 

Now, companies are engaging publicly to protect civic space and maintain an ecosystem in which they can operate responsibly, as outlined in a new report by the Business and Human Rights Resource Center.

A consortium of American footwear and apparel companies wrote to the Cambodian government, criticizing a crackdown on workers in their supply chains who were seeking a higher minimum wage.

After the Cambodian government moved to shutter the independent press, companies sent further letters declaring that an active and independent civil society and press was in the interest of business.

In Germany, CEOs of major brands such as BMW and Daimler have engaged with their employees to combat xenophobia and racism after far-right riots against immigrants erupted in eastern Germany.

Daimler’s CEO tweeted, “Everyone of us is now called upon to stand united against radicalization. Because radicalization has never solved any problem.”

An array of U.S. companies with activities in Myanmar (Burma) made public statements condemning Myanmar’s international crimes against the Rohingya minority in an effort to change the government’s actions, with some initiating boycotts of the country’s products.

As these examples show, business can provide a vital voice at a time of rising authoritarianism and should continue to speak out on behalf of embattled civil society and democracy. But business cannot take the place of a vibrant U.S. foreign policy that supports our fundamental values. 

The Trump administration has shown little appetite for integrating human rights and other traditional American values into its foreign policy, preferring a transactional, realpolitik approach. But is that approach really what’s best for the United States?

The administration should incorporate human rights into its foreign policy because it’s the right thing to do. But if that is not sufficient reason, it should do so because it helps maintain a democratic ecosystem.

Respect for human rights and rule of law across the globe not only helps to counter Russian and Chinese influence and strengthen U.S. security but also ensures that American companies flourish in the long run.

Where these values are under siege, this imposes real costs not only to democratic principles but also to responsible business. Human rights and democratic values are our country’s competitive advantage on the world stage. 

Amy Lehr is the director of the human rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. She worked in the field of business and human rights for over a decade.