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BHRRC: Businesses across the Middle East must put human rights above the bottom line

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In December 2013, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre launched its first briefing on Business & Human Rights in the Middle East and North Africa.  

Download full briefing in English [PDF]

Press release: "Businesses across the Middle East must put human rights above the bottom line"

New report lifts the lid on the business practices of dozens of companies operating across the Middle East

London, 10 Dec 2013 - Companies operating across the Middle East must uphold human rights according to a new report by an international human rights organisation.

The new report, released today by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre to mark Human Rights Day, looks at how Middle Eastern companies and international firms operating in the region across a range of sectors are meeting – and failing to meet – their responsibility to respect the human rights of workers and communities.

The report highlights positive steps taken by some companies, such as an initiative by the founder of delivery company Aramex and involving telecommunications firm Zain, in Jordan, to generate youth employment.  Efforts by recruitment agency Glowork to empower women in the workplace in Saudi Arabia and beyond, and strong policies and practices for migrant workers in Qatar implemented by construction firm OHL and aluminium smelting firm Qatalum were also singled out to be strong examples of good practice.

But the new report also flags a string of abuses, including the alleged involvement in torture by private security firms in Iraq; the creation of pollution that harms the right to health; and the denial of workers’ freedom of association.  Cases in the briefing include a protest against Orange in Jordan, alleging it helped the government temporarily shut down 300 online news websites; allegations that Saudi Aramco dismissed workers for participating in political protests; and concerns that companies involved in the Bahrain Grand Prix were turning a blind eye to human rights abuses by the Bahrain government.

Executive Director of the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre Phil Bloomer said: “For too long, human rights have been ignored by too many businesses operating In the Middle East and North Africa.  Sacking female employees for being pregnant or failing to pay migrant workers for months of labour are things that we still see too frequently.

“But there is hope that the tide is turning, and scrutiny of business conduct is on the rise in many countries.  There are now international guidelines on human rights that apply to the private sector.  Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were on the UN Human Rights Council when it unanimously endorsed the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in 2011; and Jordan and Turkey co-sponsored the resolution endorsing them.  Urgent action by companies and governments is necessary.”

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has been tracking reports on companies’ human rights impacts since 2003.  If a company has not yet responded to allegations from civil society, it first invites the company for a response before disseminating the concerns.  To date, it has approached companies operating in the Middle East and North Africa 147 times and the response rate is nearly 70 per cent overall. (see notes for editors below for further details).

Bloomer says this indicates an encouraging level of engagement by many companies on human rights issues – but too many are still choosing to remain silent.

Allegations related to a broad range of issues such as restrictions on the freedom of speech; the sale of arms used for human rights abuses; the selling of surveillance software – and attacks on privacy; migrant labourers’ working conditions and abuses by private security companies.

Rania Fazah, Middle East Researcher for Business & Human Rights Resource Centre and a co-author of the report, says: “While the international spotlight is, understandably, on the situation of migrant workers in Qatar, we are keen to show that human rights issues connected with business in the Middle East affect many other sectors too. 

“With increased scrutiny coming from all angles, companies can no longer say that they are unaware of their human rights responsibilities.  Prudent companies will realize that it makes business sense to avoid being directly or indirectly involved in abuses.”

The report ends with specific recommendations to companies and to governments in the region.  The Resource Centre says there are several basic, practical first steps that could be taken by companies wanting to prioritise avoiding abuses.

These include implementing ethical recruitment procedures and adhering to international labour rights standards.  The organization is also calling on companies operating in the  technology and media sectors – key for enabling freedom of information in the region – to act in accordance with principles of access and freedom of expression; respect for privacy; and non-repression. 

The report also highlights how governments have an important role to play in ensuring companies – both private and state-owned – uphold human rights.  Its recommendations to governments include enacting and enforcing laws to ensure that companies in their territory do not abuse human rights; encouraging their firms overseas to respect human rights; enhancing freedoms of expression and association; and strengthening protections for workers.

Excerpts from the Report on Bahrain

Political clashes and government repression of opponents in Bahrain

The Bahraini government continues to clamp down on its opponents representing the country’s Shia majority. Human rights groups spoke out prior to the 2012 Bahrain Grand Prix, saying that the event risked legitimising serious human rights abuses in the country. The Resource Centre invited teams, sponsors and partners involved in the race to respond to these concerns and disappointingly only 29% of the 52 firms approached responded. As the Resource Centre’s Director at the time, Chris Avery, stated in its press release: “Seldom have we seen a response rate this low from a group of companies anywhere in the world. And of the responses that were received, seldom if ever have we seen such a high proportion that completely fail to comment on the human rights concerns that they were asked to address.” (Note: As explained in the introduction to Annex 2, these 52 approaches to companies regarding Formula 1 in Bahrain for responses are not included in our overall figures for company responses / non-responses to allegations given that it would produce skewed findings given the proportionally large number of companies contacted regarding one issue in one country).

The Centre has also obtained responses from public relations companies to Bahrain Watch’ concerns about their work to help raise the profile of the government of Bahrain in the western media, and from BAE Systems regarding the UK’s plans to sell the company’s Typhoon jets to Bahrain despite is human rights record.

http://business-humanrights.org/Documents/Middle-East-briefing-2013#130988

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