Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements
What does Target 16.10 mean for businesses?
Similar to other targets under SDG 16, there are several themes under Target 16.10 that are significant both collectively and independently. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) together with the International Labour Organization (ILO) and United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) are responsible for the themes within Target 16.10. These themes are underpinned by core UN instruments including the International Bill of Rights which comprises the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Target 16.10 has a significant impact on all businesses and on the communities in which they have an interest or operate. To be sure, these instruments are foundational to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) and as such, are foundational to business’ responsibility to respect and support human rights and fundamental freedoms — and indeed to the overall focus of SDG 16 on peace, justice and strong institutions and to this target in particular.
Public access to information and the rise of disinformation
A key dimension of good governance is the ability for the public to freely access information on which to base personal decisions and to make political choices, among other things. According to UNESCO, as many as 127 countries have adopted access to information laws in 2020 compared to only 14 countries in 1990, reflecting its growing importance worldwide. The right to information held by public authorities and reflected in relevant legislation is a critical component of freedom of expression and Government accountability and transparency. Consistent with Targets 16.4, 16.5 and 16.6, this target requires there to be greater transparency in the flow of information to the general public with respect to such things as making public procurement public; ultimate beneficial ownership of complex corporate structures; and the quantity and quality of information that is released in the public interest. And if we have learned anything from such scandals as Operation Car Wash, Panama Papers and the disinformation arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is that dissemination of information that is accurate and timely not only protects the public but also builds trust in public and private institutions.
Protection of fundamental freedoms and the civic space (including environmental, human rights and labour and activists and journalists)
The protection of fundamental freedoms is a core tenet of the International Bill of Rights and, by extension, the UNGPs as it relates to businesses. While fundamental freedoms may be interpreted differently in various contexts and countries, the United Nations generally relies on the International Bill of Rights to define its scope which has been largely inspired by “The Four Freedoms” — the freedom of expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. The Four Freedoms were proclaimed with the creation of the United Nations 75 years ago and they are as true today as ever before.
Fundamental freedoms are inclusive of, and dependent on, one’s ability to express themselves — individually or collectively — in response to economic, social, environmental or political issues. As noted in the introduction to this Framework, the civic space is coming under increasing pressure. One only needs to read the headlines to see that there has been a rise in civil unrest and dis/misinformation and a decline in the rule of law and public trust in institutions.
All of these events have resulted in a significant clampdown on the freedom of assembly and expression online by way of internet shutdowns and on the streets by way of excessive force with an increase in attacks and killings of activists and journalists who dedicate their lives to shedding light on important issues in developed and developing countries. The situation has been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic with some Governments placing excessive restrictions on fundamental freedoms under the guise of public health and safety.
In the line of fire
- In 2020, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre found that there were 604 attacks on human rights defenders on business-related human rights issues, up from 572 attacks in 2019.
- The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported a record of 274 journalists in jail and 32 journalists have been killed in relation to their work in 2020.
- In 2016, Civicus reported that 3.2 billion people live in conditions where the civic space and civic freedoms are constrained and this number is rising each year, particularly in light of events in 2020.
- The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) Global Rights Index 2020 highlights that 56 countries denied or constrained freedom of speech in 2020 and that 74 per cent of countries excluded workers from the right to establish or join a trade union.
- The 2021 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) shows that journalism, the main vaccine against disinformation, is completely or partly blocked in 73 per cent of the 180 countries ranked by the organization.
- A 2018 study by Science magazine showed that falsehoods and disinformation are 70 times more likely to be retweeted on Twitter than the truth and will reach 1,500 people six times faster than the truth.
Businesses have a vested interest in the types of issues these sacrifices are being made for with activists and journalists serving as “the canary in the coalmine” and exposing the civil, economic and political risks that limit a business’ ability to operate in a free, open and secure society. These issues include, but are not limited to, bribery and corruption and other forms of organized crime (Targets 16.4 and 16.5); gender inequality (SDG 5); indigenous rights and racial and social inequality (SDG 10); child and labour rights (SDG 8 and Target 16.2); climate justice and environmental protection (SDG 13); and the protection of democratic processes, including freedom of the press (or “the fourth estate”), the right to assembly and the right to vote. All of these efforts seek to protect the rule of law and access to justice for all (Target 16.3) and ensure we are all governed by accountable, effective, inclusive, participatory, responsive and transparent institutions at all levels — including public and private (Targets 16.6 and 16.7).
The business community is increasingly recognizing the value of the civic space in defending fundamental freedoms and strengthening the enabling environment. To be sure, Governments, civil society and businesses have an interest in ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to participate in, promote and protect not only those fundamental freedoms but also the rule of law and accountable governance — as well as peace, justice and strong institutions on which they depend. This convergence of interests is highlighted in the OHCHR report Civil Society Space: Engagement with International and Regional Organizations, which focuses on the roles played by different organizations to support civil society space. The normative responsibility to act in certain circumstances (consistent with the UNGPs) and the discretionary opportunity to act in other situations informed by the business case is set forth in the guidance Shared Space Under Pressure: Business Support for Civic Freedoms and Human Rights Defenders.
How should businesses implement Target 16.10?
The role of businesses in achieving Target 16.10, particularly in this moment, is crucial for a variety of reasons ranging from access to information and the internet to the protection of privacy and other fundamental freedoms.
Access to information and the internet
The meteoritic rise in social media and the steady decline of traditional media has presented a new age of disinformation and hate speech (and fueled hate crime and other forms of violent extremism). With the proliferation of where the public sources its information, the information, technology and communications (ICT) sector serves as a critical gatekeeper and as such, bears a special responsibility to ensure that this information is accessible, accurate, impartial, responsible and timely. Interestingly, the Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report on COVID-19 highlighted that following the recent crisis, many people are turning to a broader range of businesses — including their employers or service providers — for trusted information and solutions that affect their lives and livelihoods.
Another important dimension worthy of consideration by businesses is that of equitable access to the internet. According to the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) 2020 Affordability Report, billions of people from around the world are kept offline by the cost to connect and other impediments to access. A4AI calls for Governments to develop effective national broadband plans to make internet access more affordable and enable more people to connect. Businesses can play a critical role in supporting Governments to provide underserved communities with access to the internet and open untapped markets for talent and trade.
Conversely, there is the more ominous issue of Governments shutting down the internet for those who would otherwise have access in order to restrict their rights to freedom of information, expression or assembly online or on the streets. ICT companies grapple with the dilemma of being legally obligated to comply with such requests by a Government, and some Governments are going further to reform cybersecurity laws in order to impose further restrictions on such freedoms. The Global Network Initiative (GNI), a multi-stakeholder initiative of ICT companies, civil society groups, investors and academic experts, implements standards to protect freedom of expression and the right to privacy in the face of Government requests for user data. GNI and other business leaders have openly condemned such shutdowns, restrictions and reforms. This focus leads to another key theme under Target 16.10 that businesses can implement with respect to the protection of fundamental freedoms.
Protection of privacy and other fundamental freedoms (including the civic space)
In addition to the ICT sector, businesses across many sectors are now increasingly in possession of sensitive personal information, including certain demographic data, consumption habits, political persuasion, health data, sexual orientation and a host of other personal attributes. Businesses are increasingly expected, and in some jurisdictions (such as the European Union) are required — to take measures to protect the fundamental right to privacy (and the right to be forgotten) of their customers, employees and communities.
Given the events of recent years and 2020 in particular, businesses are increasingly recognizing the importance of the civic space as a condition precedent for thriving markets and societies. As noted, there are multi-stakeholder standards such as the GNI, Ranking Digital Rights ("RDR") and operational decision-making frameworks such as the Shared Space Under Pressure: Business Support for Civic Freedoms and Human Rights Defenders to guide businesses in understanding what role they can play to respect and support accountable governance, rule of law and civic freedoms — and ultimately contribute to the achievement of Target 16.10.
Here are some ways businesses can take action
Culture and board/management oversight
Establish a strong culture of ethical leadership that promotes the protection of the civic space and encourages all employees and stakeholders to exercise their fundamental rights and freedoms. This commitment should apply at all levels of the organization and to all personnel across various jurisdictions.
Education and policies
Develop policies and facilitate training for all employees and suppliers that create awareness of/adherence to and respect for access to information and protection of fundamental freedoms, including relevant local laws and international norms. And, conversely, develop, implement and monitor policies (e.g. social media) that seek to address hate crime and speech. If the laws are weak in a given jurisdiction, businesses are encouraged to apply the higher standard wherever possible.
Develop, implement, monitor and adequately resource internal grievance mechanisms through which employees and external parties can report concerns regarding any adverse business conduct. This effort should include providing access to effective remedy for adversely affected parties.
Avoid taking action that serves to undermine access to/freedom of information and fundamental freedoms, including lobbying Governments to develop laws/regulations that favour the business but hinder the environment, human rights or transparency.
Board/management oversight, culture, strategies, policies, operations and relationships
Lead, promote and support advocacy efforts that call for the development of and/or adherence to legal frameworks that serve to protect and respect civic freedoms and promote access to/freedom of information. Support civic freedoms and human rights defenders under threat consistent with the normative framework set forth in Shared Space Under Pressure: Business Support for Civic Freedoms and Human Rights Defenders (consistent with the UNGPs).
Lend expertise in building the capacity and necessary infrastructure of local/national governments to provide access to the internet. See A4IA. Support capacity building for civil society organizations and human rights defenders to undertake their vital work.
Collective action and partnerships
Work with Global Compact Local Networks, business associations, civil society organizations and, where relevant, the home country embassy to promote and protect civic participation and access to information in a given jurisdiction. See the Business Network on Civic Freedoms and Human Rights Defenders plus GNI for digital rights issues related to expression, privacy and emergency situations related to network shutdowns.
Institutions, laws and systems at the international, national and municipal levels
Here are some ways businesses are taking action
Business Network of Civic Freedoms and Human Rights Defenders
The Business Network of Civic Freedoms and Human Rights Defenders is an informal network of companies convened and facilitated by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, the B Team and International Service for Human Rights (ISHR). The Business Network issued a public statement on Human Rights Day 2018 calling for the protection of civic freedoms and respect for the rule of law, pointing out that both are vitally important for civil society and businesses. The statement was supported by AngloAmerican, ADIDAS, Unilever, ABN AMRO and the Investor Alliance for Human Rights. The Business Network also operates the Business, Civic Freedoms and Human Rights Defenders Portal, which offers businesses documents detailing international standards, ideas for action, case studies and tools and resources. (Source)
- Business Response to Military Coup in Myanmar
Further to the United Nations response to the military coup in Myanmar, the business community was urged to speak out against the attack on democratic processes and human rights violations, including efforts to limit access to the internet and restrict freedom of assembly and expression as well as the killing of protestors. Businesses issued statements raising concerns regarding these actions. (Source)
- Business Response to Murder of Jamal Khashoggi
Following the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, many business leaders declined to attend the annual Future Investment Initiative, known at “Davos in the Desert”, given serious questions about the circumstances surrounding Khashoggi’s death. (Source)
- Business Response to United States Capitol Riots
In the hours and days following the insurrection at the United States Capitol on 6 January 2021, Chief Executive Officers from across the business community issued statements condemning the violence and defending democratic governance and the rule of law in the United States. In addition to such statements and grave concerns expressed by the United Nations and others, many businesses announced changes to their political contribution policies, with certain companies refusing to contribute to specific candidates who opposed the certification of the President-elect while others paused all political contributions. The shock of the events at the Capitol — and the threat posed to American democracy — sparked an unprecedented response from the business community in defence of democratic institutions and processes which was extended in April to support full voter access and inclusion at the state level. (Source)
- Business Support of #BlackLivesMatter
Following the 25 May 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Chief Executive Officers and other American business leaders issued statements condemning the killing, anti-Black violence and police brutality. They also committed to addressing systemic inequalities within their own operations and the communities they operate and serve. (Source)
- Business Working Together to Tackle Disinformation
Social media platform Twitter will collaborate with two of the largest international news providers, Reuters and the Associated Press (AP), to debunk disinformation on its messaging site. The news agencies will help Twitter give more context and background information on events with a high volume of tweets, hoping to ensure accurate and credible information is rapidly available when facts are disputed. Material from Reuters and AP would work to improve information credibility on the platform when Twitter's Curation team "doesn't have the specific expertise or access to a high enough volume of reputable reporting." (Source)
Some industries that could/should contribute to achieving Target 16.10
Similar to the rule of law, access to information and protection of fundamental freedoms are inherently relevant to all industries and are essential for profitable, sustainable business and investment environments. When those elements of the shared civic space come under pressure or attack, economic and political risks intensify and diminish a business’ ability to operate, innovate and expand.
Some intersections with Target 16.10 and the Ten Principles, UNGPs and SDG16+
Similar to the rule of law, access to information and protection of fundamental freedoms are inherently relevant to all aspects of the Ten Principles of the UN Global Compact and all of the Sustainable Development Goals.
- Business Response to Military Coup in Myanmar