How activism is evolving to hold government and business accountable

Mid shot of audience members applauding Image: iStock


By Nechama Basserabie



Even where government and business make concrete commitments to human rights, it is often left to activists to hold them accountable.


Human rights activists are increasingly adopting innovative approaches and turning to new platforms to secure accountability for human rights violations, with the additional aim of bringing human rights challenges to the level of collective social concern, and especially in the business domains including mining, big data, AI and modern slavery in supply chains.


At Innovate Rights 2019, the first conference hosted by the Australian Human Rights Institute at UNSW Sydney, a panel of industry leaders and thinkers will discuss the emergence of innovative strategies in business and human rights activism.


Director Professor Louise Chappell says many of these have dominated our news feeds this year.


“Even though we are surrounded by new forms of activism, traditional forms of protest like the recent school climate strike, still garner wide attention,” Professor Chappell said. “What’s new is the online dimension, and the ability to quickly gather support from all corners of the globe.


“I’m looking forward to this conversation at Innovate Rights that will explore the many creative ways that activists are inspiring companies to change their practices, and learning what works best.”


Shareholder action, online petitions and social media campaigns are three prominent examples of activist strategies being used to make hold business and policy-makers more accountable for decisions that impinge on human rights.



Shareholder action


Shareholder action in Australia is growing and is only expected to increase, particularly in relation to corporations’ climate change commitments and compliance with privacy laws.


Shareholders’ willingness to hold directors to account on a broad range of issues suggests that increasingly, profit maximisation is no longer the only concern to investors.


In late 2017, Guy and Kim Abrahams – two shareholders in the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) – challenged the bank on a breach of its disclosure requirements under the Corporations Act, claiming that CBA had failed to include information relating to the risk climate change posed to the company’s financial position in its 2016 report.


Though the case was dropped before it went to court, CBA responded by acknowledging in its 2017 annual report that “climate change is both a risk and opportunity for our business, for our customers and for the community”, as well as making other climate-related commitments.


This month, the Responsible Investment Association of Australasia released a report which identified Australia and New Zealand as world leaders in responsible investment approaches.


RIAA acknowledged that this positive outcome was in large part because investors are increasingly waking up to the connection between profitability and positive environmental and social impact, driving new expectations of corporate governance.



Online petitions


Probably the best-known online petition platform, reports that human rights was one of the top five categories of petitions created between 2015-2017, with 631,416 petitions created on in 2017 to draw attention to human rights issues.


A petition calling for the Australian Parliament to recognise marriage equality proved the most popular in 2017, attracting 329,373 signatures. In late 2018 the #kidsoffnauru petition garnered widespread support and resulted in the evacuation of 11 children remaining on Nauru, as well as the #backthebill campaign aimed at securing the transfer from Nauru of men, women and children requiring urgent medical attention.


Online petitions are a democratic, accessible and clearly effective way of calling for industry and government to honour their human rights obligations.



Social media campaigns


#MeToo, #TimesUp and #BlackLivesMatter are immediately recognisable examples of social media campaigns that have been used for political engagement and accountability.


Internationally, the #whomademyclothes hashtag has been used to promote ethical and sustainable fashion and call brands that have poor rights practices to account.


Social media activism has the ability to unite a group of people with disparate backgrounds around a common cause in a short space of time.


Even so, some experts warn that despite the benefits of social media activism – raising awareness, creating space for movements to emerge and galvanising collective action – it may only deliver a “temporary shock” to those who wield power in organisations and government.


Another factor to consider is “brand activism”, with businesses themselves often co-opting social causes and incorporating them as part of their branding strategies, Nike being a significant recent example.



Nechama Basserabie is a final year student at UNSW Sydney studying a Bachelor of Art Theory/ Laws. She is the Student Editor of Human Rights Defender magazine Volume 28 Issue 1, Business and Human Rights.