On Human Rights Day, remembering that criticism is not a crime

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“The 21st century is witnessing the emergence of new economic and political forces, which, like others before them, will face the responsibility of promoting development at home and abroad while at the same time being held accountable for their actions. Human rights defenders will play a crucial role in this process, by pointing out flaws and benefits in current and future policies and actions. Yet, despite the benefits they bring to society, in some parts of the world they are facing increased harassment, persecution and restrictions on their activities, especially freedom of speech.

On this Human Rights Day, I call on Governments to acknowledge that criticism is not a crime, and to release all those people who have been detained for peacefully exercising their fundamental freedoms to defend democratic principles and human rights.”

This was the closing message from Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in her statement to mark the 62nd anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the United Nations.

Reading her words made me think just how relevant they are to the ongoing international debate on business and human rights. CAFOD has been one of the development organisations taking part in the consultation led by the UN Special Representative on Business and Human Rights Professor John Ruggie and his team. Again and again partner organisations, especially those in Latin America, have highlighted a worrying trend that citizens who protest against large scale private sector projects have been arrested and in some cases physically abused, tortured or even killed. For these people, often part of indigenous communities, access to justice can seem extremely remote.

A useful element of John Ruggie’s reports to date has been his analysis of the “governance gaps” that globalisation has created in relation to business and human rights. There are now over 80, 000 companies operating trans-nationally, with more than 800 000 affiliates. Transnational corporations are global players, wielding huge economic and political power, but international human rights law has not yet caught up with this reality.

John Ruggie’s mandate comes to an end in June next year and a key question for us is how will the framework he has developed and the Guiding Principles which he is now finalising lead to a reduction in human rights abuses by businesses? Will discussions in Geneva affect the lives of ordinary people in countries such as Peru, Indonesia, Mexico, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Philippines?

A particular challenge is what can we offer poor and vulnerable groups in terms of access to justice when their state is unable or unwilling to protect them from corporate abuses?

There are no easy answers, especially when social protestors are declared criminals. However CAFOD believes that a realistic approach requires us to recognise that home countries and host countries both have a role to play in ensuring that multinational companies respect human rights wherever they are operating. For example, one practical measure would be making sure that companies based in the UK are required to report on their human rights impacts and risks abroad. In our view, a key ingredient in the success of the ‘protect, respect and remedy framework’ will be the state requiring all businesses headquartered in its territory to act responsibly abroad.

Anne Lindsay, Lead Analyst Private Sector

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