Human rights defenders (HRDs) provide a vital safeguard for human rights when states fall short in holding power to account. Yet despite their importance, they increasingly face an unacceptable risk of attack.
From 2015 to 2019, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has documented more than 2,000 attacks on HRDs raising concerns about business-related human rights abuses - from frivolous lawsuits, arbitrary arrests and detentions to death threats, beatings and even killings.
There were 572 attacks in 2019 alone, up from 492 in 2018. Most of these attacks took place in Latin America, followed by Asia and the Pacific region, and Eastern Europe and Russia.
The main driver of these attacks is the failure by states to adequately protect the environment, labour rights, land rights, and indigenous peoples’ rights. This often takes place in the context of economic models which prioritise investments and profit over respect for human rights and protecting the environment. This is manifest in weak regulations and poor enforcement of existing laws and international norms, including the frequent failure to ensure that indigenous peoples’ right to free, prior, and informed consent is respected. In turn, these become the structural driving forces that allow companies to ignore or silence dissent by communities and HRDs raising concerns about their projects.
This is compounded by a lack of laws protecting HRDs and a gap in public understanding of the important role HRDs play in development, peace and democracy. This toxic combination of a growing need to protect human rights affected by business, and a lack of protections for HRDs, is leaving brave people who are at the forefront of protecting our rights and planet increasingly at risk, to the detriment of everyone including companies.
Women HRDs increasingly face attacks
Across the globe, women are often at the forefront of protecting land, rivers, forests, labour rights and the wellbeing of their communities and families. Attacks on women human rights defenders related to business have increased every year for the past five years, with 137 attacks recorded in 2019. Almost half of all of these attacks (48%) were against indigenous women and affected rural communities’ leaders and members. A rise in feminist organising, including to protect land, environment and decent work, has been met with a toxic mix of online abuse, physical attacks, and sexist rhetoric by political leaders around the world.
Women HRDs face many of the same risks as their male peers, but also specific types of attack and discrimination because of their gender. They experience violence in and outside of the home, and are at a higher risk of sexual harassment and assault as a means of silencing and intimidation. Women HRDs are attacked because of who they are and what they do: Women who challenge power and traditional gender norms.
The security of women HRDs is “inherently linked to the security of their communities and can only be fully achieved in the context of a holistic approach which includes the deepening of democracy, the fight against impunity, the reduction of economic inequalities, and striving for social and environmental justice, among others”. (AWID)
“Governments do not realise that sometimes the vision of development needs to go beyond economic benefit, beyond the capitalist view, but it has to be a holistic view that is actually respectful of minorities… There are many companies that recognise that it is important to join the struggles on women's rights, LGBTI, with indigenous people - but it is necessary that they get involved more genuinely, because they have a level of power and access with government, that for civil society is much harder to reach.”
– Joshi Adriana Leban Montenegro, Nicaraguan feminist and human rights defender, based in El Salvador
Mining and agribusiness were the most dangerous sectors for HRDs
The sectors that saw the most attacks in 2019 were mining (including illegal mining) (143 attacks), agribusiness (85), waste disposal (51), renewable energy (47), construction (42), oil, gas and coal (38), and logging and lumber (38). Attacks related to waste disposal were mostly connected to large protests against open-air landfills and waste processing plants in Russia.
We have also seen a steady increase in restrictions on worker organising and violence against labour rights defenders. Peaceful protests by workers are often met with heavy-handed police or army responses. The most common reprisal faced by workers and their representatives are dismissals - a tactic used by employers to stifle civic action.
For example, more than 12,000 garment factory workers in Bangladesh were fired for their protests in January 2019 over wages. But union leaders are not safe from deadly violence either. For example, Dennis Sequeña was a long-time organiser and ally of workers facing labour abuses in the Cavite economic zone in the Philippines. He was shot to death by an unidentified gunman on 2 June 2019 while conducting a labour rights seminar with local workers.
Rising criminalisation and judicial attacks on HRDs
One of the preferred tactics to silence HRDs, according to our data, is criminalisation: Subjecting individuals and communities defending rights to undue criminal prosecution.
We tracked 98 criminal cases initiated against HRDs in 2019, up from 62 in 2018. While companies may launch legal complaints leading to criminal charges, the actual process is often carried out by states. This tactic, alongside other types of judicial harassment such as arbitrary arrests, detentions, and strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) brought by companies, were the most common type of attack on HRDs in 2019.
Where openness to business turned violent
In 2019, Honduras was the country with the highest number of attacks against HRDs related to business. Other countries with high numbers of attacks were Colombia, Mexico, Russia, India, the Philippines, Brazil, Peru, and Guatemala. The situation in Honduras for civil society and defenders has been difficult for years, as Global Witness reported. Since the 2009 coup, Honduras’s economic growth strategy has been focused on opening the country to mining, agribusiness and renewable energy investment and in 2011, the government declared the country "open for business".
As part of this promise, the government has relaxed environmental regulations, and approved projects without ensuring free, prior and informed consent. In 2019 we recorded 98 attacks on HRDs in Honduras, up from 31 in 2018. After visiting Honduras in 2019, Anita Ramasastry, a member of the UN Working Group (UNWG) on Business and Human Rights, said: “The majority of conflicts related to large-scale investments results from the systematic lack of transparency and meaningful participation of affected communities in any decisions regarding business activity.”
Impunity for these attacks is common. In December 2019, a historic sentence was passed against seven men over the murder in 2016 of HRD Berta Cáceres, who campaigned tirelessly against negative impacts by the construction of a dam in her ancestral territory. However, as the sentence was handed down, Berta’s family denounced the failure to punish the intellectual authors of the killing, and noted that her family and her organisation, COPINH, continue to receive threats.
The Guapinol mining project is emblematic of the criminalization and attacks against those defending their land and territory in Honduras. Guapinol has been a source of conflict ever since mining company Inversiones los Pinares was granted a concession by the government, which the surrounding communities claim was illegal. Community members also claim there were irregularities in the way the project obtained its environmental licence. Since then, six members of the resistance movement have been killed, 32 have been criminalized, and many more activists have been threatened and stigmatised. The Resource Centre attempted to contact Inversiones los Pinares on several occasions, so far without success. The company commented publicly here.
Allan Fernando Alvarenga (San Alonso Rodríguez Foundation), one of the lawyers representing the community of Guapinol, said:
“The State of Honduras is an accomplice of the hegemonic interests of the region and uses the instruments of state repression to oppress the unprotected and plunder the natural wealth of Bajo Aguán. They use all the tools of law and justice at their disposal to repress the people, criminalizing them and granting great concessions to the oligarchy. The great state-business alliance essentially abolishes the guarantees and rights of the population, condemning them to live in misery and dependence.”
In 2019 the UNWG on Business & Human Rights stressed:
“The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights already provide a clear framework to protect HRDs in the context of business. They are intrinsically linked to states’ international obligations and commitments to protect fundamental rights and freedoms and the goals of sustainable development.
“The Guiding Principles also clarify that when states fail in their duty, companies nevertheless have a responsibility to avoid causing or contributing to attacks and seek to prevent and address attacks against HRDs linked to their own operations and business relationships.”
All companies need to reflect this in their policies and practice.
- Businesses should exercise human rights due diligence that recognises risks to HRDs, and adopt policies and a zero-tolerance approach on reprisals and attacks on HRDs, both in their operations and when they are linked to attacks through their value chain and business relationships
- Businesses should recognise that they and civil society operate in and benefit from a “shared space” that respects the rule of law, and speak out publicly and/or privately in favour of freedoms of expression, association, and assembly and of HRDs
All states need to do more to address the drivers of attacks. This includes:
- Enacting strong legal protection of the environment and human rights, including land, labour, and indigenous peoples’ rights
- Passing laws that recognise the role of HRDs
- Introducing mandatory corporate human rights due diligence that recognises the need to address risks to HRDs
- As the owners of international financial institutions, mandating them to create appropriate mechanisms to address attacks, reprisals and criminalisation of HRDs
A compilation of specific recommendations to companies and investors is available here.
Recent positive initiatives:
· International financial institutions introduced protocols to address reprisals
· Companies, investors and business organisations, such as Chevron, M&S, Barrick Gold, Unilever, RSPO, adidas and others, adopted policies and no-tolerance positions on reprisals and attacks on HRDs, and speaking out in favour of HRDs and freedom of expression and association
Michel Forst, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of HRDs said: “HRDs … often lack a safe and enabling environment to operate, although some states are starting to strengthen their legal recognition and protection. Respecting and protecting HRDs is not an option, but an obligation.”
Ana Zbona, Civic Freedoms & Human Rights Defenders Project Manager, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, said: “There have recently been some promising initiatives to protect HRDs, who increasingly face an unacceptable risk of attack. But governments still need to do more to address the drivers of these attacks by prioritising strong legal protections for human rights and the environment - and laws to recognise the role of HRDs. Companies must live up to their responsibilities under the UN Guiding Principles by conducting human rights due diligence that recognises these risks, and adopting a zero-tolerance approach on attacks against HRDs in their operations and value chains.”