International Corporate Accountability Roundtable

Shared Space Under Pressure: Business Support for Civic Freedoms and Human Rights Defenders-Guidance for Companies By Bennett Freeman

Launched in September 2018, the Shared Space Under Pressure: Business Support for Civic Freedoms and Human Rights Defenders report and executive summary sets forth a challenging new agenda for business and human rights. The report responds to the growing pressure on civic freedoms and civil society around the world—and the  increasing attacks on human rights defenders.   It also reflects—and seeks to reinforce—the emergence of corporate activism with leadership coming from both CEOs and company employees alike.

The report encourages companies to act in support of the “shared space” of civic freedoms—including freedom of expression, assembly and association—that not only enables civil society to hold governments and private sector actors accountable but also underpins profitable and sustainable business environments.   It offers an analytical and operational decision framework for companies as they determine whether and if so how they should act.   It sets forth the normative responsibility for companies to act in certain circumstances, consistent with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.   It defines the business case and the moral choice that companies should consider in other instances where there is a discretionary opportunity to act.   It advises companies to be pragmatic and flexible as they consider possible forms of action across a spectrum of options: publicly in the media or privately behind the scenes; collectively together with other companies or indirectly through multi-stakeholder initiatives.   It urges companies to consider the long-term risks of inaction as well the short-term risks of action.  It describes examples of recent company statements and initiatives from different sectors and regions that demonstrate the growing willingness of business to support civic freedoms and human rights defenders around the world.   Finally, the report encourages civil society to look to some companies as potential allies even as it challenges business to defend the “shared space.”  It calls on both business and civil society to overcome, where possible in their common interest, the legacy of mistrust that persists between them in many communities and countries at a time when many democracies are becoming illiberal and autocracies are acting with greater impunity. 

The report was commissioned by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre and International Service for Human Rights and authored by Bennett Freeman, a longtime leader and innovator in the business and human rights field (since serving as U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor from 1999-2001).  It draws on over 90 interviews with company and industry associations representatives, responsible investors, civil society advocates, human rights defenders, as well as leaders of multi-stakeholder initiatives, academic experts as well as government and UN officials. 

Shared Space Under Pressure has been presented at over two dozen conferences and dedicated events as well as at policy think tanks and universities: the UN Human Rights Council and the UN Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva, the World Economic Forum in Geneva and Davos; events with Coca-Cola in Atlanta, the International Council on Mining, Minerals and Metals in London; Global Canada in Toronto and Microsoft in New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Brussels; CSIS in Washington and the Royal Institute for International Affairs (Chatham House) in London; the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights at Oxford and the NYU Stern School of Business  plus (upcoming)  the Carr Center for Human Rights at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.  Additional dedicated events are planned in Stockholm in May and Amsterdam in June, plus panel discussions at conferences in Wilton Park, Tunis and Paris (also in June).

An article based on the report was published in January 2019 by the World Economic Forum Agenda series, highlighting late 2018 company actions to support the “shared space” and identifying specific decision factors that companies should consider as they face challenging issues and situations where they be compelled to take a stand.