« Businesses are really important voices in the final push for abolition » : Celia Ouellette, founder of the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice , tells us about her committment against the death penalty

23 May 2022

Celia Ouellette, a British lawyer who has been an expatriate in the United States since she finished her studies, specializes in the defence of people sentenced to death. In 2017, she launched an initiative designed to challenge private sector actors on the justice issues, including the death penalty - the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice, of which ECPM is a partner. With Business and the Death Penalty featuring as the dominant theme for the World Congress in Berlin in November 2022, an the ongoing World Economic Forum on Davos, ECPM interviewed her about her motivations.

Celia Ouelette and Richard Branson
Celia Ouelette and Richard Branson

How and why did you came up with the idea of engaging the CEOs in the movement?

I think that some of it is need and some of it is opportunity. In America, which is where I spent my whole career, there has been a need to bring new and unusual voices into the movement, to depoliticise it, and demonstrate that different stakeholders in society can agree or disagree on things - but that one of the things that everyone agrees on is that the death penalty should be over.

When we look at countries like the US that are very influenced by economic actors (investors, trade representatives, business leaders), it becomes very important to have those voices be part of the push to change people’s minds. In the US, in spite of the work of a lot of people over a long period of time, support against the death penalty is too shallow. A lot of people sort of low-grade disagree with the death penalty, but aren’t quite ready to prioritise it or push it over the line. We were getting to these tipping points on this topic and we needed a strategy to light the fire in those moments and push us over the edge. We were often losing, not because people weren’t with us, but because people didn’t think that the time was now. We know that businesses are really important voices in the final push.

On the opportunity side: I founded the organisation in 2017, and I am not the first person that have had the idea that businesses would be really useful in any campaign, but especially in ending the death penalty. But I do think that it happened over a moment when businesses were increasingly realising that they needed to be involved in social issues, even political issues. Soon after the creation of the RBIJ, Nike released a campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, there was this increasing recognition that businesses have to take a stand on really important and tricky political issues. It was valuable because of their platforms and their audience, their scope, their voice – but it was also profitable for them. We’ve hit this moment when businesses are quite willing to listen, to see value in what we are asking them to do, as the consumer increasingly expects that companies will do the right thing.


What is your strategy to approach business leaders? Do you target them first in retentionist or abolitionist states?

Sometimes, you call out to businesses to adjudicate on the death penalty and partner with the ones that are against it. Another way is to reach out strategically to businesses and educate them on what is going on in their state with the death penalty. If they have a position on it, we offer the chance to be more actively engaged in that.

I think that originally a lot of our strategy was around European investment, because it was a time when France had just announced their lower vigilance, and there was this increasing pressure on business in Europe to have a much more nuanced approach to human rights issues and to be quite active on supporting positive initiatives around human rights. I think it was probably around 2017 also that a group of businesses spoke out about protecting human rights defenders.

A lot of states that rely on foreign investment are retentionist states in the US. On the more strategic side, a lot of the time we were looking at states that were actively considering an abolition campaign because that is the moment when businesses are very useful. For example, the state of Ohio and Utah are both considering abolition bills at the moment or in the next legislative cycle, and we are actively involved in talking to local businesses to know if they had a position and if they do, to know what they might want to do about it.

To sum up, on our bigger campaigns we have prominent business leaders that have big investments in states that have active campaigns, and others that a more generally committed to end the death penalty globally. Like Tony Fernandes of Air Asia, who has been pretty involved in some of the Southeast Asian cases, some business leaders from Utah and Ohio are involved in death penalty cases in their respective states. Companies definitely have a big impact, especially if they have a very recognisable name, them being messengers is a very powerful thing.


How did you convince Richard Branson to take action?

Richard has been involved in the death penalty long before I had a conversation with him or his team, so I will not take credit to convince him for being against the death penalty. I began working with is team in 2017-18, we really wanted to approach the death penalty in this new way and raise a whole army of business leaders ready to speak up about it. The whole campaign was very much built with his team as part of it from day one.

What we were asking Richard was him to use his position in a network of businesses to advocate to the world that we should end the death penalty, but also to a smaller group, his peers in the business community, and bring some of them with him. We set Richard a target of a 100 other Richards, and we can now say that we ended up with around 220 more Richards – which is classic Richard Branson’s success story!

According to you, what is the potential of the business world in changing the rules?

It is really hard to measure impact, because I won’t ever say that the business leaders are the only reason why an abolition campaign wins. When we launched the campaign in March - we only had 21 business leaders involved – when that is covered in 121 news outlets across the world, I think it is unavoidable that it creates a narrative that businesses care about the death penalty, because there is such a large group involved.

We get 2, 3, 4 new businesses reach out to us on a daily basis. It’s now true that businesses care about it. If every single business care about it? I don’t know, but the leaders that are part of the campaign represent a very big group in terms of what the business does, what size they are, how many people are employed by them. It has become impossible to ignore this new messenger at this point. The Governor Stitt in Oklahoma recently chose to not execute Julius Jones at the very last minute: to what extent businesses play a role in that, I have no idea, it is impossible to tell!


Governor Stitt is a governor who has said that he is the creator of jobs. He is a Governor with business experience, so we at least know that he really cares. Our partners were part of this and they will continue to do that kind of advocacy on individual campaigns.

How do we know if businesses actually have a measurable impact in the abolition campaigns in Utah or Ohio? They are repeating the same messages that campaigners have been spreading, but they are a very different and slightly surprising voice that have a huge amount of leverage with legislators. A legislator is going to think very carefully of ignoring what businesses are asking them to do because they are very important members of the community in terms of provisioning jobs and payment of taxes and all of the things that America relies on. For better or for worse, it’s a fact! 


What do you expect from the 8th Congress against the death penalty that will take place in Berlin in November 2022?

I expect it to be fantastic because ECPM is organising it! I guess it is up to you now, I am curious to know what you think the business should or could or would play in the abolitionist struggle. I see it as an opportunity for all the people that have been involved to actually get together. A lot of the time, that can be useful so everybody can let each other know what they’ve been doing and how, I do think that the global nature of the Congress is something that gives businesses an opportunity to speak in a different way. I know that in the last World Congress, there was a sense of calling to the business community to spread the message that it was the time to be by our side, it might be interesting to reflect back on that progress between 2019 and 2022.

Would you like to share any achievement of the RBIJ so far?

As a former defence attorney who is kind of used to losing, knowing that we were going to bring hundreds of businesses step up and to care about people who don’t usually have a huge amount on their side. When we launched the campaign last March, the day the campaign went live, I remember all these emails coming in, from new business leaders wanting to sign up. After sitting in disgusting attorney visitation booths in jails for many years and working for people whose option were rubbish and I hadn’t really got any power to change these options, it is part of my proudest moments to suddenly have this group of unbelievably powerful people wading in and saying “we think that we should change your options”.

When you launch a campaign of this nature you don’t want it to be unsuccessful because that sends a really unhelpful message. When the absolute opposite happens and you’re suddenly drawing  in hundreds of people wanting to be part of it, it is very rewarding and very exciting, and it feels like the point of what you have done for a very long time.

Stepping away from direct representation, from practice, was quite a big personal decision for me. Sometimes, in campaign work, you can really struggle to see the impact of your actions in a way that is different from a case when you know if you’re winning or losing, motion by motion, hearing by hearing, month by month. A lot of the time you’re losing but at least you can see what’s going on, whereas you can’t see it like that in campaigns. I think that when this campaign was covered as much as it has been, and so well engaged with by the businesses we’ve been working with, those are the paybacks that feel quite good!


How to get involve as a business leader?

You can visit www.businessagainstdeathpenalty.org to sign up as a business leader or get in touch with us as a campaign organisation. We have a large number of campaign organisations that are partners who design and roll out the campaigns, ECPM being one of them. We do support individuals if they want to reach out to their employer, for example, and be part of the campaign.