Can greater transparency help people hold big corporations to account? Some new tools that may help

March 13, 2015

     By Duncan Green     

My former boss Phil Bloomer seems to be having fun in his new role running the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. Here BHRRC researcher Eniko HorvathEniko Horvath profiles 2 new interactive platforms on company virtues/vices and how they can help the struggle for corporate responsibility.

In Mexico, the Federal Electricity Commission sued activist Bettina Cruz, for her peaceful advocacy on the social and environmental impacts of wind farms.  Last month she was acquitted, but only after several years of harassment through the courts.  She says the judicial system is being used to intimidate and stop the work of human rights defenders.

In Thailand, Natural Fruit brought several lawsuits against British citizen Andy Hall after he exposed alleged forced labour at its factories.  Many Thai activists face similar lawsuits.

These are just two examples of the implications of the power imbalance between civil society and economic interests.  In June 2011, the UN Human Rights Council endorsed a set of Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights that clarify the duties and responsibilities of States and businesses to protect, respect, and guarantee remedy for corporate human rights abuses.

Yet, space for meaningful discussions and constructive debate around companies’ human rights impacts is at risk in many places around the world.

Increased transparency of company and government actions can serve as a powerful tool to restore this imbalance.  Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has recently launched two new interactive platforms that reveal company and government actions and lack thereof.  Here are three ways in which transparency can empower civil society, and lead to real improvements in corporate accountability:

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Strengthen evidence:  Whether there has been “adequate” progress on business and human rights since the UN Guiding Principles were endorsed can lead to heated debates.  Over 600 civil society groups have joined some governments in calling for a binding treaty on business and human rights.  With the first meeting of an intergovernmental working group tasked with drafting this treaty coming up mid-2015, civil society can now point to concrete evidence of the progress that has been made, and where gaps remain. The platforms we launched are based on information provided by 94 companies and 41 governments about actions they have taken to enhance human rights protections – many provided information specifically on their implementation of the UN Guiding Principles in their responses, providing rich material for analysis.

Bolster advocacy: Transparency exposes actors that are falling short in their engagement with business and human rights.  The platforms profile 87 companies and 60 governments that failed to provide respond to requests for information, at all.  Importantly, most of these companies and governments also do not communicate about their practices publicly elsewhere.  For example, key economic players including Canada, China, India and Russia are among governments that provide little public information on actions to improve business respect for human rights and remedy for abuses. Companies in these countries have also remained similarly quiet.  This public illustration of their silence is an opportunity for civil society to engage the international community – from investors to diplomats – in giving them a wake-up call that they are lagging behind.

Transparency is also an opportunity to reward governments and companies that are leaders in the field and to highlight opportunities for improvement for others.  The interactive databases give civil society the opportunity to compare actions by region or issue, and arm them with specific examples of good practices that they can hold up to their governments as they advocate for further action.  Some specific examples are highlighted in this briefing.

41% of governments provided information for our Action Platforms.  Some key players remained silent.

41% of governments provided information for our Action Platforms. Some key players remained silent.

Inspire research: By revealing current practices, the platforms expose gaps where further research and guidance may be needed.  For example, practices around holding companies accountable in home countries for abuses committed abroad is an area in which few governments are engaged, suggesting a rich topic for research.  Furthermore, the misalignment between governments pointing to economic interests as impediments to action while companies cite a lack of political will, also suggests that there is a need for research around better coordination between business and government to drive change in a collaborative way.

Information is power.  But only for those to whom it is accessible. Transparency can extend this power to citizens and civil society around the world, helping them to hold their governments and companies to account for abuses. Although there is a long way to go, transparency is the first step to driving meaningful change for people affected on the ground.

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March 13, 2015
Duncan Green