Government’s Role

How Not to Respond to Human Rights Leadership: A Primer for Business

Commentary, 01 April 2015

By Salil Tripathi, Senior Advisor, Global Issues, IHRB

When she was appointed Sweden’s Foreign Minister in 2014, Margot Wallström said she would uphold feminist values and champion Sweden’s commitment to international human rights standards. Nothing surprising about it; Sweden ranks high on international gender rankings, and the country has often been on the right side of history when human rights were at stake – its principled opposition to apartheid being one prominent example.

Wallström’s commitment to human rights has been at the heart of a growing diplomatic row with Saudi Arabia in recent weeks over her public criticisms of the Saudi government’s human rights record. The dispute began when Wallström spoke out for Rafi Badawi, a Saudi Arabian blogger, who runs a website called Free Saudi Liberals, and who has been sentenced to flogging and imprisonment for “insulting Islam.”

“This cruel attempt to silence modern forms of expression has to be stopped,” she said.

In response, the Saudis protested, saying Wallström was interfering in the country’s internal affairs, and prevented her from speaking at an Arab League summit at which Arab foreign ministers also criticised Sweden. Saudi Arabia then withdrew its ambassador to Sweden (since restored) while Sweden cancelled a defence cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis, in turn, blocked business visas for Swedish nationals and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation issued its own criticisms of the Swedish government. The Swedish King has since sought to smooth ties with Saudi Arabia.

Following Wallström’s remarks, a group of Swedish business leaders also spoke up – but not to defend the Foreign Minister for taking a stand on human rights. Instead, they publicly raised concerns about the economic consequences of her statement. Thirty-one chief executives, from companies including H&M, Ericsson, and Volvo – wrote to a leading newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, arguing that the Swedish trading relations with Saudi Arabia should be retained.

“Saudi Arabia is Sweden’s eighteenth largest export nation and fourth largest outside Europe. It is our single-most important trade partner in a growing Middle East,” they said. Swedish exports to Saudi Arabia last year amounted to $1.3 billion.

To be sure, Saudi Arabia is a major arms importer, and Sweden is a major arms exporter. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Swedish arms exports have grown rapidly in recent years.

While the CEOs’ letter was rather straightforward, enumerating the economic impact of the government’s decision, other commentary was less subtle. When I was in Stockholm in mid-March, I was told that some commentators – in print and on television – called Wallström’s activism “immature” or “naïve.” Swedish friends rightly asked whether the CEOs’ response would have been the same had the foreign minister been a man (Carl Bildt, Wallström’s predecessor, frequently spoke out on human rights without inviting criticism from Swedish business). On my Facebook page, friends in Sweden said Wallström was expressing her personal view, not that of Swedish society. That, I presume, would be news to the majority of Swedes who do care about human rights – more so, than in many other countries I have visited. 

Wallström agrees that Sweden’s ties with Saudi Arabia are important, but so is the country’s commitment to its own values, and to international human rights standards. By speaking out against the position of their minister, Swedish CEOs are sending a different message – that their companies’ commercial future is more important than respect for international standards.

To be fair, Swedish businesses are neither alone, nor the first to raise such concerns. Last year, when Hong Kong erupted with protests during the umbrella revolution, with Hong Kong’s citizens demanding a more genuine, participatory democracy (in which they help select who should run for office in Hong Kong, and not Beijing), some business voices criticised the protestors as being unrealistic. The big four accounting firms – EY, KPMG, Deloitte, and PwC – took out advertisements in Hong Kong’s major newspapers, stating that they opposed the democracy movement, and warning that their multinational clients may quit the city if protests continued. The statement was signed jointly, and with a disregard for irony that would have made George Orwell smile, said that the Occupy Central movement was posing a threat to Hong Kong’s rule of law. 

True, sovereignty rests with states. But that Westphalian notion is based on the assumption that the state is itself playing by the rules. The whole doctrine of international human rights, while affirming that states have the primary obligation to protect human rights, also recognises that too often they fail to do so. That is not a culture-specific argument; human rights abuses have occurred on each continent. No country has a perfect record. That said, human rights activism – and human rights advocacy – relies on free expression as a critical part of efforts to improve state performance in ways that ensure the equal rights of all are protected.

The mistake these companies – the 31 Swedish companies and the big four accounting companies – have made is to confuse respect for another nation or culture with respect for its current government. So what could these companies have done differently? One option is of course to say nothing publicly that might undermine respect for human rights anywhere in the world. Companies have the right to sell their products to any country against which there are no sanctions, they also have the responsibility to undertake due diligence of the potential human rights impacts of their actions. Would arms exports to a country with the human rights record of Saudi Arabia advance human rights? Saudi Arabia is not the only growing market for arms exports in the world.  

Again, while companies speak out on matters of public policy when their interests are at stake, their view represents only one of many that governments should consider when it decides on a course of action. Whatever they say, by definition, represents their narrow interests, and not necessarily the nation’s broader interests. Sometimes they do coincide, but often they may not.

In both the Saudi and Hong Kong cases, the effect of public intervention by companies was to put in question their own commitment to international human rights principles and standards, and thereby affirm the positions of the governments involved. In such cases, public silence is a more effective option, whatever their private views or lobbying efforts may be. Otherwise, the implication is that certain industries – and businesses, such as the arms industry – are beyond criticism. Shouldn’t companies’ lobbying policies be consistent with their human rights commitments?

Companies can and do lobby privately, and there are cases where oil and mining companies have intervened on behalf of human rights with governments, for example, to seek release of political prisoners and to broker conversations between governments and armed groups. The effect of those interventions has led to greater protection of human rights in many cases. Multistakeholder initiatives like the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights in fact call upon companies to raise human rights issues with governments, even if such conversations are difficult.

There are other examples these companies can learn from. When the Indian Supreme Court ruled against an earlier Delhi High Court decision decriminalising gay sex, and in so doing set back advances made in sexual equality, several Indian businesses took out advertisements in India defending gay rights and equality.

Likewise, in recent days leading American business leaders, including Apple’s CEO Tim Cook, have eloquently spoken out against an Indiana law that would allow private businesses to discriminate on grounds of religion - which is another way of restricting advances in protecting the rights of LGBT individuals in the US. The Indiana Governor has now said the legislature will “clarify” the meaning of the new law. In this instance, their economic interests coincided with their responsibility to respect human rights – because most companies like to do business in places where all people, including their staff and customers – are treated fairly.

As companies that do business around the world have found out, if they are unpopular with communities, human rights activists, dissidents, and others, it is, in the vast majority of cases, not because they are profit-making entities, nor because they are foreigners, but because their interests are aligned too closely with the interests of a ruling class or elite not sufficiently accountable to the people. It is that collusion that the dissenting communities and human rights defenders oppose, because it feeds the power inequities that create conditions for human rights abuses. It strengthens the powerful against the powerless.

People with umbrellas can challenge a government that once sent its tanks against students only because of their moral power, just as the blogger only has his imagination and keyboard to fight a mighty government. They rely on the support of international well-wishers, just as modern businesses rely on international finance and capital to keep their businesses functioning. Defending and supporting human rights must mean more than happy workers or primary healthcare clinics and schools in communities or consumers using modern technology around the world, important as these are to be sure. Supporting human rights also means standing up when it matters and staring back, even when short-term economic pain may result. And if that is difficult, better to stay out of the debate, rather than bowing or kowtowing to the powerful. 


Until her appointment as Sweden’s foreign minister, Margot Wallström was a member of IHRB’s international board of advisers. She has been Special Representative to the UN Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict. She has also been a Commissioner at the European Union for Environment and for Institutional Relations and Communications.

Salil Tripathi is IHRB’s senior advisor, global issues. These are his personal views.

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