The following is a guest blog written by Conor Seyle, Deputy Director of Research and Development at the One Earth Future Foundation (OEF). OEF’s ‘ Responsibility to Protect and Business’ program focuses on the under-appreciated role that the private sector can play in assisting the state and civil society actors in the prevention of mass atrocities. This blog explores this dynamic, with a focus on the relationship between the private sector and civil society organizations, offering some concrete recommendations for overcoming traditional barriers to cooperation for the common interest of preventing atrocity crimes.
For many working to advance the causes of peace and human rights, the idea of cooperating with the private sector is met with skepticism at best, and hostility at worst. One illustration of this mistrust can be found in an article published in 2000, which spent eleven closely-argued pages describing the various ways that corporations could be complicit in human rights abuses. Typically, this suspicion comes from both awareness of the way that corporations have contributed to human rights violations in the past, and a concern that businesses are profit-motivated to the exclusion of all else. This analysis is unfortunately short-sighted.
It’s certainly the case that businesses are profit-motivated: Milton Friedman once famously declared that “The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits,” but this self-interest can also lead companies to support peace and stability. In particular, when considering the case of the crimes considered collectively under the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) and the enormous impact that these crimes can have on stability and economic activity, this provides a compelling reason why the private sector should be willing and able to play a role in reducing conflict and supporting peace.
These practical reasons are in addition to the very human pressures that business leaders will be under to support peace and the reduction of atrocities. The four mass atrocity crimes that are specifically called out under RtoP are seen to be among the most abhorrent. Many business leaders are likely to share the general agreement that anything that can be done to stamp them out should be attempted.
The Case of Kenya and other Precedents
One key example of private sector action is found in Kenya. Following the post-election violence of 2007-08, in which intertribal violence led to more than 1,300 deaths, Kenyans were left deeply traumatized. In addition to their personal shock, the reverberation of the crisis was also felt in the pocketbooks of Kenyans: GDP growth dropped by more than three quarters. As a result, in the lead up to the 2012-13 elections, a number of Kenyan institutions began to strategize on what they could do to prevent a reoccurrence of conflict. OEF interviews with members of Kenyan business and civil society have pointed to the key role played by the Kenya Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA).
KEPSA members were interested in preventing a reoccurrence of violence for both personal and economic reasons, and as an umbrella association of private sector actors, KEPSA was able to take steps to prevent conflict as a collective force. KEPSA organized a coordinated messaging campaign to promote a sense of a unified Kenya and to drown out any messages supporting factionalism. In addition, KEPSA members participated directly in the politics of peace through legislative advocacy, supporting the country’s first public presidential debates, and through private diplomacy directed specifically at the presidential candidates encouraging them to support peace.
This illustrates several significant roles that private sector actors may be unusually well-suited to play in the prevention of RtoP crimes. To the extent that business leaders in a country are seen as primarily profit-motivated, this projects a sense of neutrality and detachment from the underlying political dynamics of the conflict. For similar reasons, public messaging campaigns and advocacy by private sector actors can add weight and legitimacy to an existing movement towards peace. In addition, because of the key role of telecommunications in organizing modern conflict, telecommunications companies can have a more direct role to play: in Kenya, telecom giant Safaricom deployed a series of filters designed to block text messages with messages of hate and the incitement of violence.
At this point, many readers may respond with skepticism: if the value of businesses and business leaders is so obvious, then why aren’t they already at the table? The fact is, many already are – in addition to the case of Kenya, a 2000 report by International Alert documented the role of the private sector in resolving conflict in South Africa, Northern Ireland, and the Philippines, as well as elsewhere. However, this phenomenon is by no means widespread and universal.
A study of multinational corporations operating during the Israeli-Lebanon war found that many of the business leaders interviewed felt a real commitment to peace and an awareness of how damaging conflict was to their business. The primary reasons they weren’t stepping forward to participate in peacemaking came down to three issues: a perception that it wasn’t their role, a perception that they wouldn’t be welcome at the table, and a sense that they didn’t know what they could specifically do to help. In short, even the business leaders who wanted to do something weren’t sure they were welcome, and didn’t know exactly what they could do to help.
Civil Society’s Bridge-building Role
This suggests that there is a clear, and pressing, role for civil society organizations (CSOs) interested in peace and the prevention of mass atrocities: acting as a bridge between private sector actors and peacemaking processes. There are a few concrete recommendations that we can make at this stage:
- Start to think of private-sector actors as partners. Right now, the absence of private-sector entities in many peacemaking processes is a result of mutual confusion and inaction from both parties. CSOs can help to fight this just by considering local industry and multinational corporations operating locally as stakeholders that should be reached out to. One of the most important things CSOs can do is simply start to consider the idea that private sector partners will be valuable, and develop the necessary associated outreach.
An important part of this outreach will be to develop concrete recommendations for what businesses can do. While many companies are likely to be responsive to the idea that peace is supportive of their interests, they’re also likely to be just as much at sea about what they can do as many CSOs will be. Consider several roles: history suggests that some of the most powerful roles are as a convener, direct engagement in private diplomacy, and public messaging campaigns to help develop peace movements. However, these roles will need to be fit to the specific local context of the conflict: there’s no one-size solution to violence, and in the same way, there’s no one path for private-sector engagement.
- Work with and through business associations. The experience of KEPSA in Kenya illustrates the power of business associations rather than individual companies. Many of the concerns of private-sector businesses have to do with a perception that they will be punished by the market or by competitors for time and money spent on things other than business activities, or a concern about getting involved in political activity outside their core interests. Business associations neatly solve these problems: they are by their nature political actors already, and have the ability to be the face of a movement in a way that can allow individual businesses to play a positive role without worrying about the potential negative publicity that might accrue.
- Avoid the trap of thinking about the private sector only as a funder. The thief Willie Sutton supposedly said that he robbed banks “because that’s where the money is,” and it’s easy for civil society organizations to look at well-funded companies from the same utilitarian point of view. Business leaders are used to being approached to invest in new projects, and they’re likely to look on new requests for funding with a jaundiced eye. In addition, limiting their role to simply funders robs CSOs of the ability to tap into the diverse political and direct benefits that businesses can offer to peacebuilding. CSOs interested in business engagement are likely to have significantly more impact if they focus on operations and activities that private sector entities can do instead of just treating them as funders.
In some ways, bringing businesses into the fold as proactive contributors to peace and the prevention of RtoP violations will require a shift in thinking from both civil society and businesses. I was at an OSCE workshop on peace in Ukraine in late 2014, and I asked one of the other attendees why there were only civil society organizations and not businesses in the room. She gave me a quizzical look and replied “oh, those guys only care about making money.”
The idea that this is exactly the reason why they would want to help resolve the conflict as soon as possible hadn’t yet percolated through the discussion. Changing that is an issue of changing cultures, which is never easy. If it can be accomplished, though, then this could represent a new and major step forward in resolving potential and ongoing conflicts that are ripe for the commission of atrocity crimes.