Politics of Poverty

Human rights defenders in the crosshairs

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Jakeline is a defender of human, territorial, and environmental rights in Colombia who works with Fuerza de Mujeres Wayúu. After denouncing mining companies that contaminated her land and armed actors who control the region, she received death threats and was forced to flee her community. Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

Activists are losing their lives in defense of human rights and the environment. Oxfam spells out how the private sector can and must become part of the solution.

Thalía Rodríguez, a trans activist in Honduras. Narcisse Oredje, a journalist in Chad. José Albeiro Camayo Güetio, an Indigenous leader in Colombia. These are just a few of the 401 human rights defenders who were killed in 2022 for protecting their land, their rights, and the environment.

That appalling number does not include cases of ongoing persecution—the physical violence, criminalization, detention, intimidation, and harassment that plague human rights defenders around the world every day.

The defenders who died were warned—harassed and threatened repeatedly—which means those with the power to prevent the killings had plenty of opportunities to do so.


Human rights defenders—a group that has been formally defined by the United Nations—are as diverse as they are committed. They are environmental and climate activists, trade union organizers, advocates for the rights of women and LGBTQIA+, whistleblowers, land defenders, and Indigenous peoples protecting their territories and resources. They are defined by their common effort to promote and protect human rights without resorting to violence themselves.

In Colombia—the deadliest country in the world for rights defenders—the women’s rights organization Fuerza de Mujeres Wayuu (FMW) has been fighting for 15 years to defend its territory, which is being threatened by large-scale mining and energy extractivism.

FMW is denouncing the lack of consultation as well as weaknesses in the consultation process, the impact of the projects on the land, and violations of the rights of local Indigenous communities. Many members have received death threats throughout this time.

Defenders are in danger everywhere. Indigenous leaders in Mexico are facing harassment as they try to defend ancestral land from mining companies. Local leaders in Brazil are receiving death threats for opposing relocation of their communities. Climate activists are targeted for voicing their concerns about the environmental impact of a major oil pipeline in Uganda.

The list goes on. And the targets are known. Who will make sure they don’t become next year’s deadly statistics?


Companies, often with the blessing of government, can be the source of threats and harassment. Many multinational companies choose to operate in countries and communities where people are not able to freely and safely express themselves or protest decisions that affect their lives; by employing subcontractors, they can obscure their roles in intimidating or even terrorizing citizens.

And governments, which are duty-bound to protect their people, are in many cases perpetrators of the abuses. Often governments and the private sector work hand in hand: companies facing citizen opposition provide authorities with information about their opponents and remain silent when protesters are detained, harassed, or physically injured by the police or other armed groups.

But tolerating human rights abuses is not only unethical—it’s also bad for business. Leading companies across the globe are recognizing that rights violations can lead to stalled investment projects and unstable working environments, and they are beginning to realize that shareholders are not the only voices they need to pay attention to.


Some businesses have adopted non-retaliation policies, and a few are using their leverage to engage embassies and governments to stop abuses.

But they represent a small minority. The private sector must step up its game—and quickly—to provide solutions to a problem partially of its own making.

In its briefing paper Threats to Human Rights Defenders, Oxfam has identified six concrete actions companies can and must take to prevent and respond to threats to human rights defenders:

  1. Adopt and disclose policies to protect the rights of defenders.
  2. Identify and address the risks to human rights defenders throughout the value chain.
  3. Establish effective mechanisms for grievances and remedies that are accessible to human rights defenders and safe for them to employ.
  4. Use their leverage with governments to defend the rights of defenders and to oppose laws that restrict civil society space.
  5. Engage with communities and local civil society in an inclusive and gender-sensitive way to identify and address risks to defenders; ensure the implementation of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) processes; and facilitate access to information relevant to the protection of defenders.
  6. Refrain from using or supporting Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) or other legal strategies that diminish legal protections for human rights defenders.


The climate emergency and threats to democracy and civic engagement are twin crises that are putting people and communities at risk across the globe. Human rights defenders are showing us a way forward—a way to protect both rights and the environment. Companies and governments must act on their behalf before one more life is lost.

The power of companies and governments to destroy lives is matched by their power to protect them. The steps they need to take are straightforward; all that’s missing is a commitment to our shared humanity, and to a safer, healthier future.

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