From compliance to conscience: Businesses and human rights in Russia
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Originally published in the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

Under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, companies must engage in meaningful dialogue with relevant stakeholders to assess human rights risks, but this becomes especially crucial amid severe violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, as seen in Russia’s actions in Ukraine. However, when B4Ukraine, a coalition of Ukrainian and international civil society organisations, reached out to 125 companies with business operations in the Russian market, only 40% of the companies responded, and 15 companies agreed to meet.

These figures indicate that 60% of the contacted companies are seemingly unconcerned with fulfilling even the minimum responsibilities prescribed by the internationally recognized framework on business and human rights, which emphasizes engaging with relevant stakeholders. However, a deeper analysis unveils a more profound problem: companies are largely failing to meet their obligations to respect human rights, exercise heightened human rights due diligence, and adopt a conflict-sensitive approach.

Following the onset of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, some businesses publicly condemned the war and extended support to Ukraine. While these gestures were certainly welcome, the fact remains that, 500 days into the war and nine years after the illegal annexation of Crimea, numerous major players continue their operations in the aggressor state.

These companies cite essentiality, concern for the safety of their Russian employees (who they believe should not be held responsible for the war), and the complex administrative and legal framework (expected to expand due to Kremlin’s retaliatory measures) as reasons for their continued presence.

However, there is increasing concern companies are using these excuses to maintain market share and continue profiting in the Russian market.

For example, Mondelez, the American snacking giant known for brands like Cadbury and Milka, asserts that it focuses on “basic offerings” and that their products are “shelf-staples”. In many instances, the way ‘essentiality’ is defined by company like Mondelez is self-serving. When questioned on this point, the company provided only dismissive two-sentence responses, lacking deeper insights into their definition of essential goods, how they applied it in particular circumstances of the war against Ukraine, and which products have they continued or stopped producing.

Mondelez is far from the only company under scrutiny - this is true for other fast moving consumer goods and food and beverage companies like Mars, Nestle, or PepsiCo. To determine whether Oreo’s, Lay’s chips, and Snickers are ‘essential’ items, companies must show evidence of heightened human rights due diligence, ask the relevant questions, and consider whether the harm of their decision to remain in the market while providing these goods (such as financing a war) does not outweigh the benefits of exiting. Therefore, you can argue these companies are flouting the ‘essentiality’ justification to prioritise profits and market share over ethical and responsible business conduct while contributing to the financing of the war.

Furthermore, while companies express concern for the safety of their employees in Russia, it is crucial to delve deeper into how businesses are actively safeguarding their workforce from the Russian legislation that imposes conscription obligations on companies. How many summons have these companies delivered? How many of their employees have been drafted, sent to the battlefield, or killed? These are questions that we asked to which we never received a direct answer.

The lack of clear responses to these questions indicates a disregard for Ukrainian suffering and the potential role of these companies in contributing to it.

Despite this, all of the companies confirmed they are compliant with sanctions. While this is true, businesses fail to realise that compliance is not synonymous with responsible business conduct. This situation demonstrates the need for comprehensive guidelines to ensure responsible business practices in conflict-affected areas, particularly aggressor states. It also highlights the complexities of balancing legal obligations with ethical considerations, as well as adhering to both the letter and the spirit of the sanctions. Companies must not merely use sanctions compliance as an excuse to stay in aggressor states like Russia; instead, they should strive to align their actions with globally recognised principles.

The toll of the military aggression in Ukraine is undeniable, with over 24,000 Ukrainian civilians killed and injured, and more than 95,000 documented war crimes. Throughout this period, none of the contacted companies have acknowledged that they operate within an aggressor state. They have failed to conduct heightened human rights due diligence and adopt a conflict-sensitive approach, not only since 24 February 2022, but since 2014.

Many companies have recognised this and exited Russia, thus taking a principled stance against the aggression, the human rights violations, and demonstrating a commitment to peace and justice. Others need more convincing. Therefore, we urge governments to issue business advisories for companies operating in Russia and any potential aggressor states in the future. On a broader scale, the international business and human rights framework should not solely rely on the voluntary actions of profit-driven companies but should instead implement obligatory measures to prevent corporate complicity in human rights abuses.

In the meantime, companies must recognise they are not passive observers or bystanders in this war. Continuing operations in Russia perpetuates the destructive war, implicating them, either directly or indirectly, in the pain and suffering endured by countless Ukrainian families. Are businesses willing to be complicit in the suffering of countless Ukrainians, or will they rise from compliance to conscience?

Nina Prusac, Business and Human Rights Consultant at B4Ukraine

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