Investors Caution Companies to Steer Clear of Lawsuits Against Human Rights Defenders

Statement supported by 44 investors representing $US270B calls on companies to forswear involvement in Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) and to support, not sue, defenders.

NEW YORK, NY - TUESDAY, JUNE 15TH, 2021 – The Investor Alliance for Human Rights released a statement endorsed by 44 global institutional investors representing $US270B which calls on companies to protect human rights defenders (defenders), including ensuring that they do not use or support strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs, filed against individuals, organizations, or communities who peacefully promote or protect human rights and the environment.

Defenders include community members, environmental advocates, Indigenous peoples, workers, trade unionists, journalists, and others who speak out against corporate practices with negative impacts on local communities and environments. Defenders are vital in identifying and preventing human rights and environmental risks and for securing remedy when abuses occur. In this way, defenders serve as the eyes and ears of companies with far-flung supply chains across the globe, and are an important early-warning system to prevent risks from escalating into violations with expensive legal and financial repercussions.  In addition, defenders contribute to a free, open, and enabling environment where civic freedoms and the rule of law are upheld, an important condition for business investment.

The investors say SLAPPs reflect an abuse of the legal system by powerful actors to drain the resources of those brave enough to speak out and to intimidate others willing to do the same.

“Human rights defenders are at the forefront of protecting our human rights, natural resources, and shared planet, as well as playing a vital role in calling out the harm caused by irresponsible business practices,” said Christen Dobson of the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC). “They include community members speaking out against environmental racism, workers advocating for safer conditions, and Indigenous peoples protecting the right to water, among many others. SLAPPs are an abusive use of the legal system by business actors to intimidate, financially burden, and ultimately stop people raising concerns about their practices. Investors can and must use their influence to ensure companies do not use SLAPPs and publicly denounce activity by companies which restricts or in any way interferes with human rights defenders and their crucial and courageous efforts.” 

New research from the BHRRC has identified 355 cases that bear the hallmarks of SLAPPs since 2015. The vast majority of SLAPPs are brought against individuals, not organizations, and the damages sought in just 82 of the cases totalled over US$1.5 billion. The research further shows that 66% of the cases involved the mining, agribusiness, logging, and palm oil sectors which are notorious for human rights and environmental abuses.

“Human rights defenders are central to uncovering risks to people and planet throughout corporate value chains and it is in the enlightened self-interest of investors to recognize the important role of defenders in identifying risks associated with business activities,” said Rebecca DeWinter-Schmitt of the Investor Alliance for Human Rights. “Investors should undertake rigorous human rights due diligence of their portfolio companies and seriously consider the risks of investing in those with a red-flag history of engaging in SLAPPs or other forms of judicial harassment of defenders.” 

The statement reminds companies that under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, companies and investors have a responsibility to avoid infringing on the rights of others and to identify, prevent, and mitigate human rights risks to defenders. The statement calls on companies to:

  • Commit to a clear public policy of non-retaliation against defenders and organizations that raise concerns about the company and its business practices;
  • Refrain from and commit to not using SLAPPs or other forms of judicial harassment;
  • Communicate expectations for their business partners not to bring SLAPPs;
  • Implement due diligence procedures in line with the UNGPs which explicitly recognize the risks to defenders;
  • Actively engage with defenders and grass-roots civil society organizations, and;
  • Establish and implement processes for the remediation of adverse human rights impacts on defenders, including SLAPPs.

“As an investor, we recognize the important work of human rights defenders who are on the front lines exposing risks such as land-grabbing and the pollution of agricultural lands and local waterways linked to large-scale mining operations,” said Pat Zerega of Mercy Investment Services. “These risks threaten communities and can quickly become operational, reputational, and legal liabilities for companies.  For this reason, we expect our companies to have a non-retaliation policy against defenders, to refrain from using SLAPPs or other forms of judicial harassment against defenders and to communicate this expectation to their business partners.” 


About the Investor Alliance for Human Rights


The Investor Alliance for Human Rights is a collective action platform for responsible investment that is grounded in respect for people’s fundamental rights. Its members include asset management firms, public pension funds, trade union funds, faith-based institutions, family funds, and endowments. Collectively, they represent over US$5trillion in assets under management and 19 countries. The Investor Alliance is an initiative of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility.

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