‘Companies mustn't stand by as attacks on human rights defenders rise during Covid-19’
In this comment piece on Ethical Corporation, Christen Dobson of Business & Human Rights Resource Centre and Ali Hines of Global Witness say safeguarding labour rights and rights to land and resources is a strategic imperative for companies and institutional investors
“I’ve been getting more death threats since everyone started talking about coronavirus,” Carlos Paez, a land rights activist in a cattle-ranching region in Colombia, told The Guardian newspaper. “They are playing with our lives because they know that our bodyguards, the police and the justice system are going to be even less effective than they usually are… One message said that they know who I am – and that now is the time to take me out.”
Defenders like Carlos Paez are people who peacefully stand up to protect our rights and our shared planet, and attacks against them are mounting globally. Their protection is not only a human rights issue; it is crucial to business. Companies and defenders alike thrive in contexts of transparency, strong rule of law, non-discrimination and freedom of association, all of which defenders are fighting for.
That’s why Global Witness and the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, Investor Alliance for Human Rights, and International Service for Human Rights have today launched two companion briefings detailing how companies and investors should take action in support of human rights defenders.
There is a strategic imperative for businesses to safeguard those defending human rights
The situation is increasingly urgent. Since 2015, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has tracked more than 2,200 killings, threats, strategic lawsuits against public participation, and other types of attacks intended to silence or intimidate defenders focused on business activities. In 2018, Global Witness found that more than three people were murdered on average every week for peacefully defending their land and environment against business projects, with at least 1,400 killed since 2012. The true figure is likely far higher: reliable evidence is difficult to find or verify, and many murders go unreported, particularly in rural areas, or countries where civil society space is restricted.
What’s more, as Carlos Paez’s case shows, crises tend to place defenders and the civic freedoms that enable their work in yet more jeopardy, as we are witnessing now with the global Covid-19 pandemic. Colombian death squads are exploiting the pandemic lockdown to kill activists, people in the health sector in China are being arbitrarily detained for sharing information about the pandemic, and authorities are using surveillance technology to monitor and limit freedom of movement and assembly in countries across the globe – to cite just a few examples. This isn’t a cause we can afford to put on hold.
To thrive, businesses must respect and engage workers, communities, representatives and advocates, not act against them. There is a normative responsibility and a strategic imperative for businesses to safeguard those defending human rights, including labour rights and rights to land and resources. This includes institutional investors, which can be connected to abuses through their investments in companies that cause, contribute or are directly linked to actions that undermine the rights of defenders.
A memorial read 'Never forget Hernán Bedoya', who was shot in Colombia in 2017 after protesting against palm oil and banana plantations. (Credit: Thom Pierce/Guardian/Global Witness/ UN Environment)
There is a growing awareness among investors of how important this is. Last month, a coalition of 176 investors representing $4.5tn, wrote to 95 major multinational companies calling for improved performance and disclosure on human rights due diligence.
The two issues cannot be separated: defenders play a key role in human rights due diligence by alerting companies to concerns of affected stakeholders; when they cannot play this role, human rights due diligence by companies is missing a critical component.
These words must be backed up by action. Today, we are highlighting why businesses and investors need to undertake robust human rights due diligence processes to prevent and mitigate negative impacts on defenders – and the huge advantages to them of seizing this agenda. By engaging in human rights due diligence practices that recognize defenders as both vital actors and those at higher risk, companies and investors can play a transformational role in safeguarding defenders and addressing material risks to business.
Our key recommendations call on businesses and investors to:
1. Embed responsible business conduct into policies and management systems Companies should measure risks, engage with defenders and publish a policy on human rights defenders that includes a zero-tolerance stance on threats or violence against defenders. Institutional investors should also adopt human rights policy commitments and communicate human rights expectations to portfolio companies.
2. Identify and assess adverse impacts Identify potential risks to defenders’ freedoms, conduct social, environmental and human rights impact assessments, and check suppliers’ human rights and environmental policies. For investors, this involves assessing whether potential investee companies have in place appropriate human rights policy commitments, due diligence processes and grievance mechanisms, and whether they specifically reference the situation of defenders.
3. Cease, prevent or mitigate adverse impacts Stop activities that are causing or contributing to adverse impacts, including to human rights defenders. Tailor the response to the circumstances and defenders’ needs, and improve practices throughout the value chain. Investors can express any concerns in dialogues with portfolio companies, by filing shareholder resolutions, exercising voting rights in support of defenders, collaborating with other investors, and engaging with policymakers and legislators.
Mirivic ‘Tarsila’ Danyan’s father and husband were killed for defending community land against the expansion of coffee plantations in the Philippines. (Credit: Thom Pierce/Guardian/Global Witness/ UN Environment)
4. Track implementation and results Monitor progress regularly through consultation with stakeholders and independent experts to evaluate and improve the effectiveness of initiatives, and regularly assess real and potential adverse human rights impacts.
5. Communicate how impacts are addressed Disclose exposure to defender risks through annual, sustainability or corporate responsibility reports. Investors should call for meaningful human rights disclosure.
6. Provide for or cooperate in remediation when appropriate Establish operational-level grievance mechanisms to address issues early before they escalate. While the scope of investor responsibility may not extend to providing remedy, investors should still play a role in enabling remedy by ensuring companies provide or cooperate in remediation.
Christen Dobson is senior project lead and researcher at Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. Ali Hines is a campaigner for Global Witness. The two reports are: Responsible Sourcing: The Business Case For Protecting Land And Environmental Defenders And Indigenous Communities’ Rights To Land And Resources, published by Global Witness, and Safeguarding Human Rights Defenders: Practical Guidance for Investors, published by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre