Business-based reactions to anti-Diversity policies

The operator of London’s public transport network, TfL, has banned advertising from eleven countries that breach human (LGBT) rights. The reaction reaches far beyond the individual ‘Brunei case’ and affects global airlines and tourist boards. It raises the question how many more countries could be criticised for other anti-Diversity policies…

At first, it looked like a mostly symbolic move, when celebrities including Ellen de Generes, George Clooney or Elton John supported a global boycott of nine hotels tied to the Sultan of Brunei. The country had introduced anti-gay legislation and defended this against initial international criticism.* While human rights based boycotts aiming at correcting public or corporate policies had – over decades – mostly modest effects, the latest initiative of Transport for London, TfL, creates a new quality and dimension. It also raises a new question: How many countries have anti-Diversity policies in place that would merit some form of penalty?

How big businesses are negatively affected by anti-gay policies of their home countries

We are no longer talking about a call for boycott of a few individual luxury hotels. Transport for London has suspended advertisement from companies or public bodies from eleven countries that have death penalty (or the possibility of it) for consensual sex between same-sex adults, according to human rights organisations. This ban will mean that companies like Emirates Airlines or Qatar Airways or tourist boards like Pakistan Tourism will no longer be given the possibility to purchase advertising space on the London Transport network, where some 31 million journeys take place every day.

In addition to Brunei, 11 countries are affected: Afghanistan, Iran, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, UAE, and Yemen.

TfL has confirmed to media that their advertising partners have been asked not to approve any new campaigns from those states and their state-owned entities while a review is ongoing that the Mayor of London has requested. In addition, the Green party requested that these businesses should also be excluded from sponsorship opportunities the TfL will offer.

Human rights principle consistently applied in the public sphere

The TfL ban establishes a new business relevance of state Diversity policies on several levels: It not only affects one country that happens to be in the spotlight, it directly affects commercial business, and it not only targets the State itself but all companies from the respective countries. “The approach is as consistent as it is powerful”, The European D&I Engineer, Michael Stuber, comments “and it aims in a clever way at the corrective influence that iconic companies can have on their States”. A spokesman was quoted explaining the rationale for the City of London: “Given the global role London plays in championing LGBT+ rights, the Mayor has asked that TfL reviews how it treats advertising and sponsorship from countries with anti-LGBT+ laws.”

Which other areas could be addressed?

As a unique initiative, the TfL ban raises the question, why so many other public and private bodies with similar high standards or aspirations have done business with ‘these states’ and their companies over decades – and continue to do so? Such harsh political critique was only occasionally brought up by radical LGBT groups that, e.g., campaigned outside a gay/lesbian business fair in Berlin.

Another broader question refers to other anti-Diversity legislation that exists in many countries, resulting in difficult living conditions for women, ethnic minorities, religious groups or other societal groups including Roma and many more. Issues occur quite randomly for some countries (China more than many others) and for companies from some industries (automotive more than e.g. software) which shows the need to create some form of consistency. But which bodies could potentially provide robust information of the existing situation and, more importantly, who would be in the position to decide upon appropriate responses?

Some frameworks already exist that routinely check the policies and procedures of business partners, e.g. for vendors in large tenders or for publicly traded companies as part of financial analyses. Experts say it would be possible to apply similar processes when preparing business deals and that such would require substantial conviction, leadership and stance.

* Three days after this article was first published, Brunei issued a statement claiming that the enforcement of death penalty, including for gay sex, was suspended.

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