Talking is silver, taking action is golden

Experiences with business dialogues

By Maren Leifker, Business and Human Rights Officer at Bread for the World

One thing is certain: dialogues between civil society organisations and companies on human rights issues are very much in vogue. It takes place both in an institutionalised form in so-called multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSI), in which political representatives generally also take part. The number of MSIs in Germany has risen sharply in recent years. Examples of this are the Textile Alliance, the Cocoa Forum and, since February 2020, the “car dialogue” initiated by the Ministry of Labour. There are also numerous dialogue processes between individual or several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and companies, some of which are supported by critical shareholders or investors.

Some – such as the campaign Plough Back the Fruits, in which South African and international organisations work together to improve the human rights situation at the Marikana platinum mine in South Africa – also have a transnational component. While these dialogue formats were initially characterized by mutual skepticism and lack of transparency, openness has increased in recent years. Nevertheless, the exchange has reached its limits due to the lack of binding rules for corporate human rights due diligence.

Much scepticism at the beginning

Following the massacre that took place at the Marikana mine in 2012, in which 34 miners were shot dead, BASF, the mine’s main customer, initially kept a long silence. Only after public pressure from the Plough Back the Fruits campaign, which ensured that those affected had their say at shareholder meetings, did management finally react. A BASF delegation traveled to Marikana and an audit was commissioned to review the human rights situation on site. However, the South African organization Bench Marks Foundation, which has been fighting for years for the rights of those affected by the massacre, was not heard and the results of the audit remained under wraps.  There was also the partial impression that the exchange with NGOs served only as a fig leaf to refer to in sustainability reports or at shareholders’ meetings.

Change of heart in companies

Even today, it cannot be said that NGOs and companies meet on an equal footing. Recently, however, a change of heart has become noticeable in some companies. Driven by the debate on binding rules for human rights due diligence, companies are realizing that respect for human rights is not only good to cultivate of one’s image, but will become a compliance issue in the near future, to which sufficient personnel and resources must be dedicated. The approach of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which provides for consultation with potentially affected groups and other stakeholders, such as trade unions and international NGOs, plays a special role in this context.  This is the only way to ensure that the measures taken by companies to prevent human rights violations do not ignore the interests of local civil society. Only if the target group has been involved in the development of complaint mechanisms, for example, will it consider them legitimate and use them to report grievances. At the same time, companies can benefit from the experience and expertise of NGOs. More and more companies are therefore specifically seeking an exchange with NGOs in order to have them check how they meet human rights due diligence requirements.


However, the dialogues are reaching their limits because there is a lack of a legal framework that clarifies the human rights obligations of companies and which NGOs can invoke if a full announcement in an initiative is not followed by consistent action. A supply chain law would enshrine these obligations and at the same time motivate more companies to participate in dialogues, as they would serve as feedback for practical implementation of human rights due diligence.