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Dying to Be Heard

By September 9, 2020No Comments

“You should go to them.”

These words, spoken by mother, approximately five years ago set me down a path that changed the way that I think about businesses’ role in humanity. A few years ago, I was fortunate to have a book that I co-edited, When Business Harms Human Rights: Affected communities that are dying to be heard, featured at the United Nations’ Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights. Since 2012, the Forum has taken place every year in Geneva, Switzerland. It is free and open to anyone with an interest in business and human rights. It has become a gathering of speakers from around the globe — a chance for people in civil society, businesses, governments and academics (like me) to gather and discuss the issues and challenges that arise when businesses and societies intertwine.

The fact that our book was selected to be on the program was an incredible honour and my mom — being the proud mother that she is — insisted on coming along. At the end of the first night, walking back to our hotel from the Forum, I asked my mom what she thought. My mom, keen as ever, went right to what was bothering her. “Where are the communities?” she asked, “I didn’t really see them there.” She was right. During the conference, we heard from think tanks, non profits, and many, many a corporation, but only rarely did we hear from the people they served. We did not hear a mother who wanted better sanitation in her village, or from girls who demanded better educational opportunities, or from human rights defenders who were putting their lives on the line, every single day, for their community.

Even though civil society often appears as representation for the voices of communities during the Forum, there is a dearth of stories by the people most directly affected. The Forum was awash with people exuding professional eagerness and an energy to “do good,” and yet, on the rare occasions when the affected communities were allowed a chance to speak (often at the end of panels when “interventions from the floor” provoked flurry of movement from scores of people hoping to be acknowledged) their passionate pleas for justice were often met with awkwardness from the professionals in the room.

This inability to incorporate real human need and dignity is something that many of us in the field acknowledge but, in that way where you accept something as a fait accompli and try your best to find alternate solutions.

I patiently explained this to my mom: that it was a sad but unavoidable fact that the groups that are often hardest hit by negative business impacts are also the poorest communities on Earth. For instance, the people living in the shadows of colossal mines earn less than a dollar a day, while the average corporate revenue may be over a billion a year. I pointed out that, even for people who have more income, Geneva is an incredibly expensive city and that, while the Forum itself is free, the cost of traveling there and finding lodging makes the journey a prohibitive one for most members of affected communities. And then Mom spoke those words: “You should go to them.” And this project — Dying to be Heard — was born.

Why Dying to be Heard? Because, like it or not, the people who toil for their dignity, for their community, for their humanity, often do so with the explicit understanding that the weight of their sacrifice may be their life. Because the recent uptick in the death of human rights defenders is something that we should never ignore. Because the truth of the matter is that it’s easy to forget the reason why we’re engaged with business and human rights: to hear and respond to the stories of those most affected. Because we must ensure that we empower their words to lead to action.

Photo by davide ragusa on Unsplash

It is bitterly ironic that many of us have gone into this work to make a difference in the lives of people living in affected communities. But what sort of a difference can we really make if we don’t talk to them about what we do? If we don’t hear from them about what works and what doesn’t? If we don’t build on what is already proud and self reliant?

There are stories of people who have faced businesses that have created incredible difficulties for the world where they live — either intentionally or not. Stories of callous executives and negligent employees who seem to have forgotten that at the heart of business is humanity and that humanity is the driver for enterprise. In the work that I have done (in the edited volume that was born that night in Geneva) my co-editors and I present some of these stories. It includes the story of Monica dos Santos, a 31-year-old dental hygienist who had lived in a small Brazilian town all her life. She describes the terror the day a mining dam burst, not knowing which of her loved ones had survived the devastation. She describes how her life has been completely uprooted since she lost her home and all of her belongings. But she also describes the sense of hurt and betrayal she and other Atingidos(the Affected) feel from their relationship with the corporation.

The stories we included are not comprehensive, not representative, and they might not even be the most important stories out there. Instead, they are a symbolic sampling of the various challenges that communities, victims and survivors face in working with (or sometimes in spite of) a business to achieve the goal of bettering their lives.

In the end, the focal point of the business and human rights movement should always stay with the human beings. Their stories should power us, motivate us, and enlighten us. It is my hope that, in thinking about all the ways that businesses intersect with society, you can find your place in these stories. If you’re unhappy with the way your story is going, you can take action: take a knee, raise your voice, don your mask, and be heard. If you think you’re helping others, take time to listen to the voices of that community to make sure your work is meeting its mission. Too many times we don’t hear the stories of people until they are no longer with us. Too many times, we have ignored the cries from different sectors of society as they intersected with businesses and we have turned our back. You can lift up your voices and be heard. And businesses? I hope you’re listening.

No one should have to die to be heard.

Jena Martin, J.D., LLM, Law Professor at West Virginia University, is the co-editor of When Business Harms Human Rights: Affected communities that are dying to be heard with Karen Bravo and Tara Van Ho. She has expertise in business and human rights and served as senior counsel at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission where she honed her skills that enable her to advise corporations regarding the impact of their internal decisions on external stakeholders. Martin is a Standpoint Consulting Affiliated Consultant.