The world is seeing a worrying backlash against the freedoms of lesbian, gay, bi, trans and intersex (LGBTI) people. While great progress has been made towards inclusion in many countries, millions of people are living with the threat of arrest, harassment or physical violence because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
This is a challenge for global businesses. Increasingly, companies are working to curb discrimination and promote diversity in their workplaces, and this becomes difficult in countries that are hostile to LGBTI people.
Consequently, many Western companies do well at championing LGBTI equality at home, but less well abroad.
Other companies have found their voice in relatively supportive environments, but stay silent in contexts where the rights of LGBTI people are challenged.
There is often a dissonance between the values expressed by the leadership of a business and the actions (or inactions) of that business on the ground.
US-based coffee chain Starbucks was caught in the crossfire in Indonesia after religious leaders called for a consumer boycott in protest at the company’s public support for LGBTI causes.
With its share price falling, Starbucks’ local franchise responded with a statement in Bahasa Indonesia that was roundly criticised by many activists as an apparent attempt to distance the brand from the local LGBTI community.
Starbucks’ dilemma in Indonesia is a familiar one for corporate executives around the world.
Statements of support for LGBTI equality may ring hollow if they are not seen to be consistently implemented. To employees and consumers it may even start to sound like hypocrisy. After all, values are not really values if they are selectively applied.
Many in the international business community are keenly aware of the challenge of “walking the talk”.
In 2016 I was involved in a discussion with prominent business leaders and activists at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where the idea emerged to develop a set of global standards to guide the private sector’s approach to LGBTI issues.
Over the past year my office has consulted hundreds of businesses and civil society groups around the world to develop such a set of standards, which I officially launched last month.
The standards set out the actions companies can and should take to protect the rights of LGBTI people in the workplace and beyond.
They call for companies to have anti-discrimination policies in place, exercise due diligence and establish effective grievance mechanisms.
They urge companies to equalise staff benefits, and to take steps to eliminate discrimination against LGBTI customers, suppliers and distributors – and require the same of their business partners.
Perhaps most ambitiously, the standards challenge companies to actively promote LGBTI inclusion in the countries where they do business.
At the United Nations, we have always shared the view that the private sector can be a lever for positive social change. This belief helped shape the UN Global Compact in 2000, which brought businesses into the UN fold by encouraging adoption of socially responsible policies.
Corporate responsibility to respect human rights was later enshrined in a set of Guiding Principles on Human Rights and Business, adopted by the Human Rights Council in 2011.
UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres has said that businesses are our “best allies” in tackling some of the world’s most pressing challenges, and I believe this applies to human rights, including the rights of LGBTI people. Businesses of all shapes and sizes, all over the world, can be our allies in promoting LGBTI inclusion.
Global companies, in particular, can play a powerful role: by their nature, they have employees, customers, suppliers and operations in many countries, and so are uniquely placed to stand up for LGBTI equality.
There is a growing awareness companies can play a vital role in curbing discrimination and promoting inclusion in countries hostile to LGBTI people, by modelling good practice, as well as through dialogue and advocacy, and support for local community organisations.
And businesses can work to advance the economic and business case for LGBTI inclusion, as articulated by groups like Open For Business, a coalition of global corporations presenting evidence that open, inclusive societies are better for business.
These ambitious new standards already have some impressive early adopters, including Accenture, Baker McKenzie, BNP Paribas, The Coca-Cola Company, Deutsche Bank, Deutsche Post DHL Group, Dow Chemicals, EDF, EY, The Gap, Godrej Industries, Google, IKEA Group, The Lalit Hotels, Microsoft, Oath, Orange, SAP, Simmons & Simmons, Virgin and Vodafone.
Their commitment points the way forward, and I hope that over time, more companies will commit to applying their economic and moral force to help shift the landscape on this crucial human rights challenge.
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein is the United Nations high commissioner for human rights