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What Can Entrepreneurs Do to Fight for Human Rights? Karen Hanrahan Explains

TIPS FOR ENTREPRENEURS: UNDERSTANDING HUMAN RIGHTS

“I spend most of my time shaping US government policies, influencing foreign governments and businesses, providing support to human rights advocates and civil society, and crafting solutions that will increase protection of human rights around the world,” explains Karen Hanrahan, an Obama administration appointee who serves in the State Department as the deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

“Every day on the job, I have the opportunity—and the responsibility—to educate, to influence, to support, and to mobilize voices to advance human rights around the world.

“Almost every one of the foreign policy issues you see today is impacted by an issue of human rights and democracy—including the battle against ISIS and other terrorist groups, violence in the West Bank and Gaza and Africa, Russia’s actions in Ukraine, protests in Hong Kong, and more.”

Why does Hanrahan feel that advancing human rights is a critical aspect of US foreign policy? Scroll down to read more.


Be Inkandescent: What do you like best about your job?

Karen Hanrahan: The best part of my job is getting to work with the courageous advocates who defend human rights around the world, even under the most dangerous conditions.

Sometimes these are organizations and professional human rights advocates, but increasingly I’m seeing individual citizens taking action and joining with others to demand their rights and better governance. It is these local voices on the front lines that I work hardest to support.

I’m also working more and more with large companies to try to synchronize efforts to advance certain rights, including labor rights and the rights of women and girls. Businesses play a key role in the treatment of citizens abroad—both in their own workforces and in the broader communities and countries where they do business.

Some of these companies have integrated solutions into their businesses models, from hiring more women and other minorities and outsourcing ethically, to institutionalizing strong labor practices and ensuring their private security services are well-trained and that they protect human rights.

But there is a long way to go to leverage all that such businesses can do in this realm. For example, Bangladesh has proven to be a challenge for many major apparel companies over the past two years. Poorly run and unsafe factories, some of which are used by global brands that most of us buy, have resulted in thousands of deaths.

I’ve worked with a number of companies to build a collective effort to make factories safer and to protect workers, goals that also protect the brands of these companies. More recently, I’ve been engaged with a number of companies in Myanmar to try to get responsible investment practices in place from the start as US companies begin to invest in that country.

Be Inkandescent: In the decades that you have been working on human rights issues, have you seen any improvement?

Karen Hanrahan: When I look at the human rights movement historically, I see great progress over the past century. Even over the past few decades, particularly now when people are so connected, I also see progress.

I’ve seen more people who are learning about their rights and demanding them from governments; I’ve seen more laws and constitutions enacted that enshrine human rights protections; I’ve seen women and girls gain status in governments and societies; I’ve seen accountability mechanisms bringing former leaders to justice for war crimes and atrocities; I’ve seen an increasing number of everyday citizens organizing and demanding justice and more democratic governance; and I’ve finally seen, under this administration, greater attention being given to the rights of LGBT individuals.

At the same time, the world is full of challenges, and there is much work still to be done. Women and girls—and children in general—continue to suffer severe abuse, discrimination, and injustice. I am troubled by the rise in the number of new laws that limit free speech and attempt to weaken civil society. I’m also troubled by the conduct of security forces around the world that regularly commit human rights violations, increasingly in the name of fighting “extremism” or “terrorism,” and often fuel such problems. Conflict and terrorism generate major abuses, and I do not think we have figured out how best to address such violence in a sustainable way. We have much work to do to understand how to prevent terrorism and conflict.

Be Inkandescent: Our audience of small-business owners are often altruistic in their thinking, but when it comes to human rights, the topic seems so overwhelming. What are some steps that SBOs can take to help make a difference?

Karen Hanrahan: The first thing businesses can do is to examine their own business models, products, services, supply chains, and practices to ensure they are not part of a human rights problem. Sometimes companies are not even aware that they are buying components from or outsourcing to another company that exploits its labor or gets materials in unethical and abusive ways. Large and small companies are already finding ways to integrate socially responsible business practices into their business models.

Another great way to contribute is to help raise awareness among your customers, suppliers, and others about human rights issues relevant to your industry. Also, look for campaigns to stop global slavery, protect women and girls, or other causes, and contribute in any way that you can—financially, or by spreading the word, contributing products, sponsoring events, etc. If you’re feeling ambitious, join forces with others in your industry to try to make a difference on an issue.

There are also well-established human rights organizations that always need funding and sponsorship, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, as well as niche organizations that cover a narrower set of issues, such as the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Be Inkandescent: What do you see as the future of human rights—domestically and abroad?

Karen Hanrahan: I am optimistic about the situation of human rights in the world. The human spirit cannot be held down for long. An increasing number of people are engaged in human rights issues around the world, particularly young people. But given the tough challenges that remain—from autocratic rulers and conflict to widespread discrimination and corruption—strong leadership is needed. The United States must continue to play that leadership role, but so must average citizens.

The future of change lies with ordinary people. Particularly in a world that is increasingly connected, change will be driven by organized, popular movements of individuals who know their rights and demand protection of those rights from their governments. These kinds of movements cannot be ignored for long.

Along with citizens, I think that businesses will also play an increasing role in human rights. As the world has become increasingly interconnected, business is affected by the stability, prosperity, and the human condition in other countries. Thus, companies have already been getting smarter and more creative about their role influencing positive change. And I can’t talk about the future without mentioning technology.

I think there is great untapped potential in the use of technology to empower people and to help address human rights abuses. We’re already seeing great things being done to track trafficking networks, to permit anonymous reporting and information sharing, to allow visibility in places that have historically been impossible to see, and more. At the same time, we are seeing some worrisome trends in technology, such as unmanned aerial vehicles, biological weapons, and robotic technology—all advances that need to be debated and regulated.

Be Inkandescent: How does the United States rank when it comes to human rights? Are other countries more active in defending human rights around the world?

Karen Hanrahan: The United States remains a global leader in the promotion and protection of human rights. It ranks high when it comes to human rights, but it does not have a perfect record. Fortunately, many organizations and institutions in the United States, including the press, act as watchdogs and work to hold our government accountable.

These include organizations that seek to influence foreign policy. My colleagues and I hear regularly from American organizations—from churches and NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) to organized citizen groups—that try to influence us to take stands and make policies that support the human rights agenda. We are regularly questioned by our free press about the decisions we make and the stances we take. The questions they ask often help direct our attention to a particular political prisoner or abusive situation.

Be Inkandescent: Talk a little about your background. What inspired you to want to work in the field of human rights, and what gives you the most hope about what you are seeing worldwide in this area?

Karen Hanrahan: I was fortunate to know at a relatively young age that I was interested in international justice. I’ve always been attracted to working on protracted conflicts and problems in the world that seem impossible to solve. And I’ve been motivated by the people I’ve met along the way who show tremendous courage and leadership in fighting for freedom.

My mother taught me at a young age about social justice and equality. She introduced me to figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Betty Friedan, and others. This and some formative travel experiences, including to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, instilled in me a clear sense that I wanted to be part of the human rights movement. The educational and professional choices I’ve made since then have been driven by this desire to be part of the historical movement that is advancing equality, justice, and freedom.

Do you have questions for Karen Hanrahan? Send her an email.

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