“Taking a Stand”: MENA Rights Group’s Director calls on businesses to protect human rights defenders at New York event

18 November 2019

On October 29, 2019, MENA Rights Group’s director Inès Osman participated in a panel discussion, “Taking a Stand to Protect Human Rights Defenders”, organised by the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) in New York. 

The discussion, moderated by Chris Jochnik, President and CEO of Landesa, focused on the challenges faced by companies in ensuring that their operations do not undermine the work of human rights defenders, and identified ways they can more actively promote civic freedoms.

Among the panellists was Bennett Freeman, board member of the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB), and lead author of the Business and Human Rights Center’s “Shared Space Under Pressure: Business Support for Civic Freedoms and Human Rights Defenders”. While speaking about companies responsibility to act, Freeman explained that companies should consider the discretionary opportunity in both the business and the moral case in considering whether to act. Nicole Karlebach, Global Head of the Business & Human Rights Program for Oath: A Verizon Company, provided additional insight from a company’s perspective and cited concrete examples of good practices at Verizon. 

Inès Osman spoke of the impact of corporations on human rights defenders in the Middle East and North Africa. Putting it into context, she explained that due to the complete shutdown of fundamental rights and freedoms offline, civil society has naturally turned to online platforms to organize and exchange. At the same time, however, online platforms have also become new tools for targeting and surveilling civil society, as technology companies have an incredible capacity to influence online civic space. For example, companies can sell cybersurveillance technology to governments in the region, which can then be used to spy on journalists, political dissents and human rights defenders.

In a region mostly governed by authoritarian leaders, in which there is no rule of law, Osman also highlighted that companies’ inaction on these issues has contributed to creating a climate of mistrust—leading people to believe that companies are condoning practices and are, in some cases, even complicit in human rights abuses perpetrated by governments. Because of this reality, Osman called on companies and investors to speak out publicly against human rights abuses against civil society in order to restore a climate of trust and bridge the gap between civil society and the private sector.

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Photos of the event are available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/johanneswberg/albums/72157711559813932/with/48984201122/.

 

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