The business of human rights

One of the reasons the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has spawned so many events this month may have something to do with the venue. The declaration was signed in Paris–who wouldn’t want to commemorate the cornerstone of international freedoms in the City of Lights?

For CPJ and its partners in the Global Network Initiative (GNI), the event in question took place in the shadow of a blue-lit Eiffel Tower. There, key business, civil society and trade union leaders had gathered for the Business and Human Rights International Seminar to discuss how companies balance doing business while respecting and promoting fundamental rights and freedoms.

Mary Robinson speaks at the Paris seminar; CPJ's Robert Mahoney is third from left.
Mary Robinson speaks at the Paris seminar; CPJ’s Robert Mahoney is third from left.

This is a critical audience for the fledgling GNI, which is seeking to establish a bridgehead in Europe. Currently, the corporate makeup of the initiative is limited to U.S. tech giants Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft. The initiative seeks to keep the Internet open for users such as journalists and bloggers by resisting government actions that curb freedom of expression or invade privacy.

Representatives from the four main groups that compose the GNI–companies, investors, human rights organizations, and universities–answered questions from the business leaders about how the initiative would work.

As a fitting backdrop to the discussion, the forum coincided with the publication of CPJ’s annual imprisoned census, which showed that online journalists have overtaken print to become that largest group behind bars. The Internet and new mobile communications technologies have opened infinite possibilities to journalists and commentators in countries that were once informational black holes. But repressive governments have not been slow to harness those same technologies for the filtering, censoring, and surveillance of Internet users. CPJ showed that of the 125 journalists in jail worldwide, 45 percent had worked online.

Introducing the speakers, Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and one-time head of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, welcomed the initiative and urged more companies to join it. “I would like to see more European take-up,” she said.

There have been talks with telecommunications companies such as the U.K.’s Vodafone and France Telecom as part of efforts to broaden a corporate base. The initiative has also seeking participation from companies in Asia and the Americas.