The relationship between companies and civil society can often be acrimonious, yet in the current geopolitical environment, they share more interests in common than one might think. This is the key insight that underpins new guidance authored by Bennett Freeman and others for the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre and two partner organizations on the role that companies should play in protecting the “shared space” they occupy with civil society.
This “shared space,” which is defined by the rule of law and respect for human rights—especially for the freedoms of expression, association that are so crucial to good governance—is now under threat from a rising tide of authoritarianism and lawlessness as never before in the post-Cold War era. Businesses and civil society actors (ranging from NGOs to human rights defenders) operate in this “shared space,” and the shared benefits of securing it give rise to a business case for doing so. Specifically, businesses have much to gain from the stability and predictability that a secure shared space affords their operations. Moreover, businesses can reap considerable reputational and other benefits from working to protect the shared space for civil society actors that are under threat, such as greater security for their social license to operate.
Yet securing the shared space is more than a matter of business convenience. The guidance suggests that it can be a moral imperative that extends out of the business responsibility to respect human rights, as recognized in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. On this view, the responsibility of businesses to avoid causing, contributing, or being directly linked to adverse human rights impacts is but a floor rather than a ceiling, and therefore moral and business considerations should give rise to corporate actions to secure the shared space for all.
The new guidance suggests that the case for company action is strongest when the threats to the shared space are severe, the benefits of action outweigh those of inaction, and the company’s business operations are contributing in some way to the erosion of the shared space. Yet the guidance is flexible in refraining from prescribing any particular form of corporate action when the conditions are appropriate. Depending on the circumstances, the shared space might be better secured by a company quietly lobbying its home government to sanction the human rights abuses of another, rather than by loudly proclaiming its support for actors on the frontlines who are threatened.
The very idea that companies and civil society both operate in a shared space that companies have strong reasons to secure is a mark of just how far the conversation on corporate social responsibility has come in the last several decades. We are a long way from the once-once-prevailing orthodoxy that the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits. In today’s environment, corporate inaction in the face to threats to the rule of law and to respect for fundamental human rights can be costly mistakes. Yet responsible businesses can more easily avoid such missteps by embracing the decision-making framework that this timely new guidance provides.