Discussion: Getting down to business – comparing the enabling environments for the business and civil society sectors

Mar 25 2015

Singapore-500 At first glance, the business and civil society sectors may seem strange bedfellows for a comparative study. In the mind of the public and policymakers, these two entities appear distinct, warranting separate rules and treatment. The basis for this treatment seems to boil down to one dividing point: One exists to make a profit; the other is non-profit.

But beyond their dissimilar profit motives, are businesses and associations really that different?

Both are non-state actors, potential employers, providers of goods and services, magnets for investment, and possible platforms for mobilizing people and influencing policy. Both are crucial to economic and political development, both domestically and internationally. And both have potential to enhance the protection and promotion of human rights.

Despite these sweeping similarities, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of freedom of assembly and association Maina Kiai has observed over the past four years that many governments do, in fact, single out CSOs for special treatment – not all of it good.

The reasons for this difference in treatment are not always clear, and are often suspicious on their face. In some countries, for example, a business can be registered in a matter of hours, while NGO registration can take months. In others, it is forbidden to start a new association with the same broadly-defined “purpose” as a pre-existing association; no such regulation exists for businesses. And around the world, businesses – particularly large ones – frequently have superior access to the halls of power when compared to CSOs.

For his next report to the UN General Assembly (October 2015), the Special Rapporteur will explore the disparate treatment by governments’ and the international community of businesses and CSOs.

The report will survey law, practice and perception in a number of jurisdictions around the world, with a focus on identifying how CSOs and businesses are treated differently as legal entities, for better or for worse.

What’s your experience?

The Special Rapporteur will be convening a consultation in mid-May to discuss the issue with selected experts. But he would also like to hear your views.

Does legislation in your country favor one type of entity over the other, and should it do so? Is the problem one of practice, where enforcement and application of laws is uneven? Or is it an issue of perception – a generally difficult and menacing environment that discourages growth and development of either sector? What are the reasons for these disparities and how do they impact the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association?

Specific thematic areas to be examined in the report will include: (1) barriers/ease of entry; (2) barriers/ease of activities in general; (3) barriers/ease to expressive activities; (4) barriers/ease to solicit, receive and utilize resources; (5) barriers/ease to assembly rights; (6) barriers/ease in accessing international contacts and national decision makers.

How to submit information for the report

For more details on the report, please see our concept note. For specific questions that the Special Rapporteur is looking to answer, please see the following questionnaires:

Questionnaire for civil society

Questionnaire for governments

Questionnaire for multilateral organizations

Questionnaire for businesses

Completed questionnaires should be e-mailed to freeassembly@ohchr.org by June 7, 2015. You may submit your responses in English, French or Spanish.

Please be sure to provide as much detail as possible and to specify which countries you are referring to.

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