Politics of Poverty

Dear UN: Companies need to do more to protect Human Rights Defenders

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In the late hours of the night of March 2, 2016, human rights and land rights defender Cáceres was murdered by armed men who broke into her home in Honduras. Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize

As the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights begins in Geneva this week, we’re urging companies to protect and listen to Human Rights Defenders.


This is the third in a series of blogs about the forum that exposes the role of corporations in global economics and society, and demands better. The author notes: As companies prepare for the forum, they need to step up and ensure that human rights defenders are not threatened, harassed, or killed.


The Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights provides a unique opportunity for companies to reflect on their role in the advancement of human rights: What progress have they made? What challenges have they faced? What responsibilities do they bear?

Essential questions, but we need ask one more: What has come out of these reflections so far?

Unfortunately, the answer is dark. Ten years after the publication of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), the fact is that human rights defenders (HRDs)–especially those who promote or protect human rights in the face of business-related abuses—face myriad and sometimes fatal dangers.

In one of the most prominent instances, Berta Cáceres, an indigenous human rights defender in Honduras, was assassinated in 2016 for opposing the construction of a hydroelectrical dam by the Empresa Desarrollos Energéticos S.A (DESA) on indigenous Lenca territory. Just this year, a former executive of the company was found guilty of helping plan the murder. Sadly, Berta’s is not an isolated case, but one of many killings HRDs in the context of business activities.

According to Front Line Defenders, in 2020, at least 331 HRDs were killed in retaliation: 69% were working on land, indigenous peoples’, and environmental rights; 26% were working specifically on indigenous peoples’ rights; 28% were working on women’s rights.

Similarly, Global Witness highlighted the disproportionate number of attacks against indigenous peoples during the same year; over a third of all fatal attacks targeted indigenous people, while they account for only 5% of the world’s population. Women and LGBTQIA+ human rights defenders (WHRDs) face specific gender-based violence and risks because they challenge existing gender norms in their communities.

The reality is that companies would benefit from protecting HRDs

Threats to freedom of assembly and expression actually serve to threaten the overall stability of investment environments. Strengthening protections for HRDs can also help private sector actors build trust with communities whose buy-in is essential for long-term viability.

Allowing attacks can divide communities, dissolve trust and social license to operate, prompt costly litigation, and even lead to shutdowns. Inaction can legitimate regimes with terrible human rights records, and pose reputational threats to the brand.

As Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign has shown, consumers increasingly value socially conscious supply chains–and that includes not being complicit with attacks on HRDs.

The UNGPs urge businesses to consult HRDs as an important expert resource, and highlight their role as watchdogs, advocates, and facilitators.

Five steps companies can take to protect HRDs

1. Support and implement human rights due diligence

Implement effective human rights due diligence (HRDD) mechanisms across the value chain (including subsidiaries, franchisees, suppliers and private security companies), and monitor compliance.

Conduct culturally sensitive and intersectional gender-responsive human rights impact assessments for new projects that reflect the risks of the company’s activities.

Integrate due diligence assessment findings in internal processes, and communicate publicly on how they will be addressed (this could include ending relationships with suppliers who would ostracize, criminalize, or threaten HRDs).

But voluntary approaches won’t do it all! Oxfam has publicly been advocating for mandatory HRDD (mHRDD), which would ensure that companies are required to:

  • identify, prevent, mitigate and account for negative impacts of their business on the rights of people in their supply chain;
  • apply this standard throughout the global supply chain; and
  • provide victims of exploitation and abuse with the right and opportunity to seek redress when companies have failed to exercise due diligence.

Companies can help make mHRDD a reality by publicly supporting it, and legislation that mandates it. In fact, 43 companies and investors signed onto a statement that clearly said:

“We… are strongly in support of mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence (mHREDD) legislation. We believe mHREDD is key to ensure that efforts by companies that respect people and the planet… are not undercut by the lack of a uniform standard of conduct applying to all business actors.”

In addition, business and finance leaders, backed by over 90 academics, signed a letter in support of the EU agenda on sustainable corporate governance, including mandatory due diligence. And, there is a long list of companies that are endorsing mHRDD regulation.

These are excellent commitments, but we need more companies and investors speaking up.

2. Speak out on behalf of human rights defenders.

Corporations and investors should use their leverage and speak out in defense of HRDs who are being attacked, intimidated, criminalized. This attitude has proven effective in many situations.

3. Commit to free prior and informed consent from communities.

Companies should ensure culturally sensitive, inclusive and, gender-sensitive proper engagement and consultations with local communities, and adopt an explicit and unambiguous policy commitment to Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), including detailed and publicly available implementation guidelines.

4. Establish a grievance mechanism for human rights defenders.

HRDs must be empowered to report instances of repression, and ensure proper investigation and response to grievances. Where community rights have been violated, companies must use all the tools at their disposal to support accountability and redress.

5. Create and adopt a specific policy to protect HRDs, and make it public

This policy should include zero tolerance for threats, intimidation and/or attacks on HRDs (either free-standing or as part of a human rights policy). It should integrate existing normative frameworks on private sector obligations to HRDs in company policy (including new protocols as they develop), and demonstrate compliance with these. The policy should include special provisions for indigenous peoples, women, and LGBTQIA+ people. Companies should not engage in business activities where HRDs are not able to perform their jobs, and should set some redlines beyond which they should reconsider their presence in a country.

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