Defenders At Risk

Attacks on human rights and environmental defenders and the responsibility of business.

Human rights and environmental defenders play a key role in holding companies and states accountable for business-related human rights violations and environmental degradation. However, defenders are increasingly defamed, harassed and killed for protecting labour rights or opposing commercial projects such as mines, dams or plantations that are related to powerful economic and political interests.

Companies can be linked to attacks against defenders through suppliers, customers or other business partners. Both states and business actors are vital in addressing this risk and in moving towards a systematic protection of, and respect for, defenders as a cornerstone of any democratic society. This includes the protection of the fundamental rights to the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly. These freedoms are all prerequisites for the fulfilment of the Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs – in particular Goal 16, which aims to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.

Defenders around the world pay a high price when this responsibility is not adequately recognised. Since 2015, more than 2,000 business-related legal and physical attacks have been reported. These have targeted indigenous leaders, defenders of labour rights and the environment, small-scale farmers and women defenders. The rate increased by 12 percent between 2017 and 2018.

This report is based on a survey with 22 European companies and on interviews with defenders working on corporate responsibility or related issues in Liberia, Bangladesh, Colombia, The Philippines, Guatemala, South Africa, Thailand, Peru and Azerbaijan. Their testimonies provide evidence of grave and systematic oppression of critical voices and point to common ways in which companies put defenders in danger:

  • By contributing to existing tensions and exacerbating local conflict dynamics;
  • By cooperating with state-owned companies or state-prioritised projects in countries where governments target defenders; and
  • By offering resources or technology that can be used against defenders.

With this report, Swedwatch seeks to highlight the alarming situation for defenders and the urgent need for companies to take action. To ensure they do not undermine the rights of defenders, companies should include a zero-tolerance principle related to any kind of involvement in attacks against defenders in policies and contracts with business partners. Companies also have a responsibility to identify and address risks to defenders in their value chains, and should consult with them as part of their human rights due diligence (HRDD) processes. They should bear in mind that certain groups of defenders are more likely to become victims of attacks than others, including community leaders, indigenous peoples, environmental defenders and labour rights defenders. Women defenders within these groups often face particular risks and challenges.

The report outlines steps that companies should take to help ensure that defenders can work in a safe and enabling environment. These measures may also benefit individual companies and the business sector as a whole. For instance, consulting with defenders is an effective way for companies to gain a better understanding of their operating environment, and to minimise risks of financial and reputational damage.

The report also underlines the role of states in addressing business-related attacks on defenders and the need for legislation to ensure that companies respect defenders throughout their value chains. There is a significant implementation gap between the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and national laws and policies that support and protect defenders on the one hand, and the increasing number of laws that restrict and criminalise defenders’ work, on the other hand. Supporting defenders and listening to their perspectives is ultimately crucial for addressing global threats such as climate change, rising inequality and conflicts. Without their active contribution, the fulfilment of the SDGs is at risk.

Click here to download full report.

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