Ethical Corporation speaks to Hugh Williamson, Human Rights Watch director for Europe and central Asia about New York Fashion Week, Uzbekistan and global supply chains
EC: You’re new to Human Rights Watch and used to work for the Financial Times. Why did you make the switch?
HW: I had eleven great years at the FT, as a correspondent and most recently as deputy foreign editor, but I’ve worked in the NGO field before and wanted to return. International campaign groups such as Human Rights Watch have an increasingly important role in our globalising world, also in relation to business, and I wanted to play a part in this.
EC: HRW has been in the news recently. Your group was part of the campaign that led to Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of the Islam Karimov, president of Uzbekistan, being barred from taking part in New York Fashion Week. HRW lobbied the businesses involved. Tell us what happened.
HW: Ms Karimova, who has her own fashion brand, is not just Karimov’s daughter. She also has an important role in the government, as ambassador to the UN in Geneva and to Spain. Uzbekistan is one of the most repressive countries the world with a terrible human rights record – widespread torture, no free speech, child labour in the cotton fields. We have been campaigning for years on these issues, along with other NGOs that have persuaded Gap, H&M and other companies not to use Uzbek cotton. This year we decided we would target her New York appearance as a way of drawing attention to her country’s terrible human rights record.
Although we work closely with NGOs that protest on the streets, our approach is to lobby those parties – in private or public – who have direct influence on a situation we want to change. The head of HRW approached senior management at IMG, the global services company that organises NY Fashion Week, pointing out Ms Karimova’s close ties to her government, and detailing the country’s rights record. We also wrote to the sponsors, including Daimler, parent of Mercedes Benz, the main sponsor.
Separately, we told journalists about Uzbekistan’s rights record and made the link to the upcoming catwalk show. There was strong press interest and IMG said it was “horrified” at the scale of abuses in Uzbekistan and cancelled her show, a decision backed publicly by Mercedes.
EC: What arguments did you use with IMG and Mercedes? How do you interpret their response?
HW: We argued that having Ms Karimova in the show represents a reputational risk to the whole event, as the negative publicity could be hard to manage. Equally, the companies would not want to be seen allowing her to launder her country’s image with the event.
You’ll have to ask them why they acted. In our view, we managed to increase the price of not acting to a sufficiently high level that the only sensible option was to cancel her show.
EC: What lessons did you learn from this episode?
HW: We learned that companies can make fast decisions if confronted with persuasive arguments. That’s refreshing. Governments remain a key target of our work, but their responses are – often by necessity – slower and more complex.
Another lesson: with authoritarian rulers, it’s worth targeting the ways they enjoy their power and wealth. It hits them where it hurts. If we can make it harder for an official representing a corrupt and abusive government to profit from their role or make it harder for kleptocrats to spend money or unduly burnish their image, that can help to press for reform and hold them to account. This episode made headlines in many countries – leading to one of the biggest stories on human rights in Uzbekistan for years.
EC: Does HRW have experience of lobbying other companies on business in Central Asia?
HW: Last year Philip Morris International, the tobacco company, committed itself to improving working conditions in a subsidiary’s operations in Kazakhstan, after we reported on a number of serious human rights abuses there, including hazardous child labour and bonded labour.
They also promised a new programme – globally, not just in Kazakhstan – to guarantee worker protections throughout their supply chain. We wait to see is if they deliver, but we are encouraged.
Currently we are investigating rights abuses occurring during widespread labour unrest in the oil industry in western Kazakhstan. For instance, an adviser to one of the labour unions has been imprisoned – unfairly in our view – for six years for simply doing her job. Hundreds of workers continue to protest on a daily basis, despite the arrests of dozens of oil industry employees.
Hugh Williamson joined Human Rights Watch in May 2011 as director of the Europe and central Asia division. He is based in Berlin.