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Safeguarding Human Rights Defenders: Practical Guidance for Investors

The Investor Alliance for Human Rights, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, and the International Service for Human Rights have co-authored Safeguarding Human Rights Defenders: Practical Guidance for Investors.

Human rights defenders are at the forefront of protecting people's fundamental rights and our shared planet. They are also vital in helping businesses identify and manage risks to people in their operations and value chains. Yet increasingly, defenders face threats and at times fatal violence in the course of doing their work. Since 2015, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has identified nearly 2,300 attacks against defenders focused on business-related activities. 

As attacks against defenders continue to mount globally and the COVID-19 pandemic places defenders and the civil and political rights that enable their work in even greater jeopardy, the role of investors and their portfolio companies is coming under increased scrutiny.

Institutional investors can be connected to harmful impacts on defenders through their investments in companies that cause, contribute to, or are directly linked to actions that undermine the rights of defenders. This publication provides institutional investors with practical guidance on how to prevent, mitigate, and address negative impacts on human rights defenders in investment portfolios. 

Global Witness has also published a companion briefing highlighting the responsibilities of companies to prevent and account for how they address negative impacts on defenders and detailing practical actions they should take in Responsible Sourcing: The Business Case for Protecting Land and Environmental Defenders and Indigenous Communities’ Rights to Land and Resources.

By taking steps to ensure respect for the work of human rights defenders, investors and companies contribute to advancing their human rights performance, improving supply chain resilience and managing financial, legal and reputational risks, while promoting peace, justice, and sustainability.

Our key recommendations call on businesses and institutional investors to:

1. Embed responsible business conduct into policies and management systems. Companies should publicly commit to safeguarding human rights defenders and take a zero-tolerance stance on threats or violence against them. Institutional investors should also adopt human rights policy commitments and communicate their human rights expectations to portfolio companies.

2. Identify and assess adverse impacts in operations, value chains and business relationships, including in investment decision-making. Companies should identify potential risks to defenders, conduct human rights impact assessments, and review the human rights and environmental policies and due diligence processes of business relationships. 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 consider risks to defenders.

3. Cease, prevent or mitigate adverse impacts. Companies should stop activities that cause or contribute to adverse impacts on defenders, tailoring the response to the circumstances and defenders’ needs, and improving practices throughout the value chain. Investors can address impacts that have occurred by expressing concerns in dialogues with portfolio companies, filing shareholder resolutions, exercising voting rights in support of defenders, collaborating with other investors, and engaging with policymakers and legislators.

4. Track implementation and results. Companies should 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. Companies should publicly disclose whether their business in connected to risks to defenders and how they manage these risks. Investors should call for meaningful human rights disclosure in line with the UN Guiding Principles Reporting Framework.

6. Provide for or cooperate in remediation when appropriate. Companies should establish operational-level grievance mechanisms to address human rights issues 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.

For more information on this report and on how to engage companies on risks to human rights defenders, please contact Rebecca DeWinter-Schmitt at rdewinter@iccr.org