Promoting Sustainable Business Practices to Protect Human Rights in Africa

By: Charles Kojo Vandyck

Investment in Africa is burgeoning, with some African countries recording the highest gross domestic product (GDP) growth rates in the world. Africa is experiencing a sustained period of economic growth due to emerging prospects and investments in the extractive, agriculture, technology, and telecommunication sectors. This growth is cemented by democratic values and practices that are quickly becoming assimilated within governing and civic institutions.

African citizens are increasingly demanding accountability from political leadership and the commercial enterprises that they engage with and work for. Institution-building and democratic reforms are leading to real progress in human rights in many countries. For the first time in 25 years the number of Africans within the extreme poverty bracket is declining. More children are in school and fewer children are losing their lives before the age of five. This picture reaffirms the narrative that “Africa is rising.” The opportunities on the continent seem limitless.

Nonetheless, the space for citizens to engage on socio-economic and political issues within the continent is shrinking at an alarming rate. People power is under attack. In Africa, this situation directly threatens job creation and business growth. Progressively, it has become universally accepted that the promotion of human rights is the responsibility of all stakeholders. It begins with the state, which has the primary responsibility to protect human rights of all individuals in its territory, and extends to business, which exercise the responsibility to respect them. It has become essential to ensure that businesses comply with existing laws and more importantly extend their influence to advance the realization of human rights.

Africa’s Industrialization Paradox

Currently, the presence of business in Africa has spurred on the growth of small markets, the expansion of supply chains, and rapid industrialization. This development has come at the price of committing human rights violations especially in African countries where governments rely on revenues from the extractive industries and manufacturing. It causes instability and volatility in revenue inflows, making the planning and budgeting of government expenditures challenging. Many countries in this situation run the risk of overspending on poorly planned projects, and of severe cuts when prices or production fall. Unstable revenue inflows in government spending can damage long-term economic growth by causing volatility in exchange rates, inflation, investment patterns and business activities.

This reality is also pronounced in other sectors such as food, beverage, agriculture and telecommunications. In Nigeria and South Africa, oil and mining businesses have been highlighted as pervasive human rights offenders. In the Niger Delta in Nigeria, the exploration and development phases are characterized by a lack of consultation with community members. This has often led to limited participation of community citizens in subsequent phases. During the development stage, these companies openly violate the right to land through expropriation, the displacement of communities, and the disruption of their lives. They also violate the right to food as the land taken is often used for food production. Other rights such as those to a safe environment, health, and life are also violated. These violations occur largely because of judicial and legal constraints and the lack of government commitment to safeguarding the rights of its people, despite Nigeria’s constitution protecting these very rights.

These sectors have also seen increasing levels of infractions on worker’s rights and appalling working conditions. As such, the continent’s trade unions have engaged with businesses to ensure that hours of work meet international standards of decent work conditions. In addition, trade unions review collective bargaining agreements for provisions that violate labor laws and propose amending these provisions.

Notwithstanding, South Africa is a leading light on the continent on these issues and is seen as a benchmark in terms of constitutional protection and judicial enforcement of rights. In South Africa, courts have protected socio-economic rights by adjudicating constitutional and other challenges to state measures that are intended to advance those rights. South Africa’s legal architecture is more progressive. The South African judiciary is more committed to addressing violations of human rights, including socio-economic rights. The framework within which the judicial enforcement of these rights can be appreciated is highlighted in the following constitutional court decisions: Soobramoney vs. Minister of Health; Government of the Republic of South Africa vs. Grootboom; Minister of Health and Others vs. Treatment Action Campaign and Others; and Khosa vs. Minister of Social Development.

In addition, a vexing issue that is often globally highlighted is the operations of companies in African countries that have non-democratic and authoritarian regimes or experience occasional conflicts. Questions remain regarding whether private businesses can make a meaningful contribution to development in conflict situations or in the absence of democratic government. A natural consequence of conflict in Africa is widespread corruption. Increased corruption has led to an unpredictable enforcement of business and trade regulations, enabling some businesses to evade taxes, licensing restrictions, or customs duties that they must pay. However, there have been attempts by multinational companies such as Coca Cola and Unilever, for instance in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), as part of their corporate social responsibility and in alignment with the UN guiding principles on business and human rights to provide jobs to ex-combatants and vulnerable youth, support peace advocacy groups, and intentionally source raw materials through sensitive trade relationships.

Despite businesses’ occasionally positive developments and activities, there are still insufficient safeguards to ensure that human rights are being protected throughout the value chain of many mining and manufacturing mining entities on the continent. This situation needs to change. Promoting civic engagement with the private sector and sustainable business practices should continue to be pursued.

The Promise of Sustainable Businesses

Sustainable businesses are enterprises that generate respect for human rights across their value chains. This type of business does not only use a percentage of its profits to promote a social cause through corporate social responsibility, but it also safeguards human rights within its operations and the communities where its products or services are used. These commercial enterprises minimize negative impacts on the local environment, community, society, and economy. They pursue the equilibrium between people, profits, and the environment, and promote and preserve progressive environmental and human rights policies.

The opportunity for sustainable growth and innovation in African businesses that address social, economic and environmental challenges would result in saving around $350 billion a year in revenue and cost. Companies are being challenged to create new revenue streams by improving and transforming their business models in a way that addresses access to markets, health, education, energy and finance.

Businesses in Africa can help address many challenges including the basic needs of Africans like food, water and housing to more sophisticated necessities such as information, communication, and technology. Business has a very important role to play in research and development to cultivate new ideas that can respond effectively to the tragic levels of inequality and human rights abuses.

The Role of Civil Society

The challenge for civic activists is to convince African governments to align business operations with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. These principles provide a common framework for companies and industries to shape their basic policies around human rights and due diligence processes. These principles consist of three pillars: the state duty to protect human rights; the corporate responsibility to respect human rights; and access to remedy for victims of business-related human rights abuses.

Experts argue that the only way these guiding principles will become relevant for victims of business-related human rights abuses is when states and businesses implement their duties and responsibilities. Civic activists and civil society organizations (CSOs), including trade unions and professional associations, can play important roles in working with companies to realize their responsibilities to respect human rights. In order for this to be effective, CSOs must amplify and incite the institutionalization of these principles on the continent.

An essential strategy for CSOs would be to trigger conversations about the UN Guiding Principles through multisectoral convenings and forums. CSOs could work at a regional level through the trade and investment clusters of the various continental and regional economic institutions and forums such as the African Union (AU), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC) and the East African Community (EAC). This would provide a broader platform for governments to exchange ideas, best practices, own the principles, and take steps to domesticate the various components into policies, national action plans and laws.

A critical role will be for trade unions and professional associations to develop mechanisms to monitor and track whether businesses operating in Africa have human rights policies and procedures, and subsequently ensure that these policies effectively address risks to human rights and prevent adverse human rights impacts in accordance with the Guiding Principles. This process would involve the identification of human rights abuses and assessments of companies’ response mechanisms.

The outcomes of the assessments will provide the evidence that organized labor can use and share to promote advocacy in relevant national, regional, and international policy spaces. This coordinated and deliberate approach will help ensure businesses respect human rights, and will make companies, states, and CSOs in Africa aware of the existence and meaning of the Guiding Principles and the corporate responsibility to respect human rights.

The purpose of this strategy of civic engagement at a regional level is to ensure that sustainable business practices become a priority for the AU and its member states. The African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights has been dealing with cases involving the impact of business on human rights. Examples of some of these cases include the Social and Economic Rights Action Center (SERAC) and Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) vs. Nigeria (Communication 155/96) and PEN International, Constitutional Rights Project, Civil Liberties Organization and Interights (on behalf of Ken Saro-Wiwa Jnr.) vs. Nigeria Communications 137/94-139/94- 154/96-161/97. However, the African Commission’s decisions are not binding and are in the form of recommendations, which are often not complied with.

Therefore, it is imperative that civil society at large promotes the development of a comprehensive continental regulatory body that establishes rules and effective accountability mechanisms that makes abuses costly and risky for commercial enterprises to support the efforts of the Commission. This integrated approach would produce solutions at the continental, regional, and national level. The AU may also consider developing regional regulatory guidelines to address the national legislative gaps, which have left victims disarmed in their fight for justice. It would be a transformative step in ensuring the balance of power between people’s rights, profits, and the environment.

Charles Kojo Vandyck is a social justice advocate who works to strengthen civil society and citizens’ participation in development processes.