Speech minister Ploumen on international business and human rights

 Speech by the Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, Lilianne Ploumen, at the International Business and Human Rights Conference (Diemen, 19 April 2017).

Check against delivery.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I’d like you to think about where the following quote comes from:

‘We will […] petition governments, alone or in concert with other actors, where we feel the rights and freedoms of human rights defenders with whom we are engaged have been impinged by the activities of the State.’

A quote from a human rights organisation, perhaps? Or even from a progressive government?

It is not. The quote comes from a statement by Adidas, the sportswear company. A statement devoted entirely to human rights defenders. Adidas is striving to be what I like to call a ‘corporate human rights defender’.

In the past few years, business and human rights have been at the core of my ‘aid and trade’ agenda. We need to be very clear on this: sustainable development without respect for human rights is an illusion. We cannot call economic growth ‘sustainable development’ if people’s rights are being trampled to make it possible. 

We were one of the first countries with a National Action Plan on business and human rights. Dutch companies should uphold the same high human rights standards wherever they operate. Even in countries whose governments fail to enforce those standards.

Last year, we concluded groundbreaking agreements with the garment and banking sectors, and recently we added the vegetable protein and timber sectors to the list. These voluntary agreements enable companies to conduct proper due diligence, with the help of the government and civil society. And to solve problems collectively if they can’t solve them alone.

We did all this because we believe that it’s the right thing to do, from both a moral and a business perspective. In fact, the two are closely intertwined: in this information age, public opinion and the moral considerations of shareholders and consumers directly influence business calculations. And more and more companies are no longer satisfied with merely doing no harm. They want to actively do good. 

That brings us to the next frontier of business and human rights: the concept of corporate human rights defenders. Let me offer a few examples of both the best and the worst of corporate human rights conduct.

In 2013, Andy Hall, a researcher for the Finnish NGO Finnwatch, exposed terrible abuses in the pineapple and tuna industries in Thailand. The Thai company Natural Fruit, which was implicated in the report, responded not by improving the situation for its workers, but by suing Andy Hall. Since then, Andy has been the target of numerous civil and criminal cases in Thailand. But he got help from an unexpected quarter. The Finnish supermarket chain S Group had already stopped sourcing from Natural Fruit, because it had refused independent audits. And when Andy was dragged before the court, S Group came to Thailand to testify in his defence. And like S Group, the tuna companies in Thailand also showed themselves to be corporate human rights defenders. Two industry associations paid Andy Hall’s bail so that he could at least await his trial in freedom.

Both S Group and the tuna companies realised that without space and freedom for civil society, it’s impossible to know exactly what goes on in your supply chains.

A similar case occurred in Angola. Journalist Rafael Marques spent years documenting torture, killings and forced displacement linked to the country’s booming diamond mines. Marques was prosecuted on 24 charges of defamation, which left him facing up to nine years in prison and more than a million euros in fines. In this case, Tiffany’s and several other prominent diamond traders urged the authorities to drop the charges. They stated that Rafael’s reporting was ‘fundamental not only to Angola, but to the world at large’. They intervened, even though they had no operations in Angola themselves. In the end, Rafael was convicted, but thanks to the corporate pressure he received a suspended sentence of ‘only’ six months.

The need for companies to defend human rights is not unique to developing countries. Last year, the US state of North Carolina passed the so-called ‘bathroom bill’, which required people to use only the public toilets that correspond to their sex at birth. This was a blatant attempt to discriminate against transgender people. Under the new law, men were not allowed in the men’s room, nor women in the ladies’ room, if they happened to be transgender. The opposition from US corporations was overwhelming. 68 companies, including IBM, General Electric and Nike, said the bill was discriminatory, and that it undermined their ability to retain a diverse workforce. The Associated Press calculated that the bathroom bill would cost North Carolina 3.7 billion dollars in lost business. Under mounting corporate pressure, the same Republican majority that adopted the bill repealed it again last month.

Something similar happened in the state of Georgia. Its governor vetoed a bill that would have allowed companies to withhold services from gay and transgender people. The veto came on the heels of strong criticism from business leaders, including Unilever’s CEO, Paul Polman. 

Being a human rights defender is a dangerous business – many activists meet a fate worse than Andy Hall’s in Thailand, or Rafael Marques’ in Angola. In Ecuador, eight members of the Women's Front for the Defence of Mother Earth were beaten and detained for protesting peacefully against the Río Blanco mining project. Last year, the courts and the Ombudsman rejected all of their complaints. And it gets worse. In 2016 at least 281 people were killed worldwide, often for protesting peacefully against new business projects in their communities. All too often, companies are complicit in the persecution of these human rights defenders.

Fortunately, as we’ve seen, there are also companies on the other side of the fence. Companies like S Group, which dare to make a stand. Companies that are not just concerned with their own value chains, but are willing to advocate for human rights more broadly. Both because they believe it’s the right thing to do and because they know their customers expect no less of them.

Indeed, the business case for human rights is increasingly clear. Last month we saw the launch of the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark, a project supported by the Netherlands. This benchmark ranks the world’s largest companies in terms of their performance on human rights. It has been embraced by a coalition of investors representing the staggering amount of 5.3 trillion dollars. That‘s roughly six times the GDP of the Netherlands. And it’s proof that more and more investors are now judging companies on their human rights performance.

Ladies and gentlemen, although we’ve made enormous headway in terms of Dutch companies’ respect for human rights, traditional human rights diplomacy between states is not moving in the right direction. States that used to be standard-bearers for human rights are shifting to more populist priorities. And states that have long been cautiously sceptical of human rights are now increasingly defiant, portraying them as a ‘Western agenda’ and dismissing all criticism by foreign states or NGOs.

And that is where you come in. Corporations can be uniquely effective when it comes to human rights advocacy. The countries you operate in have a strong interest in your investment and your procurement. In short: in your business. Let those governments know that freedom of expression is important to you. That there’s a clear correlation between space for civil society and ease of doing business. That legal certainty for companies and human rights for citizens go hand in hand. That you need the engagement of civil society in order to manage your supply chains responsibly. And that if an activist exposes modern slavery, it is the slavery that needs to be suppressed, not the activist.

Let me be clear: what I’m proposing is not easy. Going beyond human rights in your own value chain is the next frontier in business and human rights. It means going beyond the standard set by the UN Guiding Principles. And I’m not claiming that it’s easy to speak out for civic freedoms, or for individual human rights defenders.

There are risks involved. Above all, you will have to overcome distrust and convince others of your legitimacy. Activists may ask: how do we know companies will speak up for the right people? How can we be sure this isn’t simply window-dressing? Shareholders may say: isn’t this a lot to ask? Can we trust the board to make the right calls on issues that have never been our core business?

The best way to deal with these risks is to build on the experience of others. That means working together with governments and NGOs. Or in policy-speak: taking a ‘multi-stakeholder approach’, similar to what we’re doing through our sectoral agreements. Engaging with civil society will help you understand the local context. By welcoming the scrutiny of others, you can discover any blind spots and prevent accusations of being selective. And your own government may be helpful too. Dutch embassies stand ready to advise Dutch companies on how to take a stand. This, after all, is the bread and butter of our human rights diplomacy – public as well as silent. We know from our own experience that these are not easy calls to make. But we can at least help companies decide whether speaking out publicly or behind the scenes would be more effective.

For our part, we have been keen to encourage the growing movement of corporate human rights defenders. With Dutch backing, the first steps have been taken towards the creation of a strong network of multinationals willing to collectively raise their voices in support of human rights defenders. This network is maintained by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre. Today, I am delighted to announce that ABN AMRO has become the first Dutch member of this network. And I expect many more to follow.

You too can join the ranks of the corporate human rights defenders. Because you know that, in the end, respecting human rights pays off. I know that’s what you want. And you know it’s what your customers and shareholders want – even if some of them don’t know it yet. So don’t just do no harm. Do good.

Thank you.