Under attack – human rights defenders and civic space: the business and human rights dimension

Workers demonstration in Indonesia. Copyright ILO A.Mirza

ETI’s trade union and NGO members frequently highlight the crisis of impunity for corporate human rights abuses, including attacks on human rights defenders. In many countries, the situation appears to be getting worse, not better.

Amnesty International said earlier this year that attacks on human rights activists have reached a crisis point globally. The number of killings reported to the NGO Front Line Defenders in 2016 was 281 murders in 25 countries. 49% of these defenders were working to defend land, indigenous and environmental rights.

Whilst not all of these are directly related to business activities, a significant proportion are. The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre recorded over 500 instances of attacks on defenders working on corporate accountability issues in 2015 and 2016.

Meanwhile, the treatment of trade union officials in global supply chains continues to prove particularly challenging. The ITUC’s 2017 Global Rights Index documented attacks on union members in 59 countries in the past year alone.

Significantly, the most common type of attack is reportedly through judicial harassment.

Claims are filed that are often not necessarily intended to be successful. Instead, the aim is to silence human rights defenders by tying them up in costly litigation and putting others off getting involved.

Developing UN guidance

In response to attacks, the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights has issued a call for written inputs to inform its efforts in developing guidance on the role of the private sector in relation to human rights defenders and preserving civic space. It also wants to identify opportunities for coordination and collective action.

The Working Group considers this to be one of the most urgent issues on the business and human rights agenda, as defenders find themselves at increasing personal risk, including the risk of death and grave bodily harm. It goes on to state that:

“The role of business is being called into question with respect to its role in potentially contributing to attacks against HRDs or in failing to take action when linked to abuses, but also its role in helping to protect defenders and support protection of civic space. In response to these challenges, there are emerging efforts by a range of actors seeking to address the problem.”

The role of responsible businesses

ETI believes that responsible business recognises that the lack of freedom of expression and association, the narrowing of civic space and the targeting of human rights defenders is not just harmful to human rights, but also weakens the rule of law; and that this, in turn, deteriorates the enabling environment for responsible business conduct.

The central role of freedom of expression should be seen as a fundamental human right and a basic component of a democratic society that needs to be continually protected by all responsible actors in society.

Without respect for labour rights, workers who have serious grievances lose the channels they have traditionally used to express concerns about human rights abuses. This undermines efforts to conduct effective human rights due diligence.

Help us contribute to the new guidelines

ETI recognises that some of our members are already playing a positive role in protecting human rights defenders and defending civic space, and we want to ensure this work is understood so that important lessons can be learned.

Such work is a necessary and important contribution that businesses can make to sustainable development.

However, there can also be legal, financial and reputational consequences if enterprises fail to meet their responsibility to respect human rights, which includes allowing human rights defenders to do their work and respecting the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining. 

ETI will be submitting recommendations through the consultation to the Working Group. This will include examples of businesses taking direct action to support human rights defenders and to provide remedy.

We will also be making recommendations on what businesses and other stakeholders could and should be doing to prevent harm and to mitigate the risk of further attacks against human rights defenders.

If you would like to contribute to this submission or wish to let ETI know your thoughts, please contact [email protected]. Alternatively, consider providing input into the consultation directly yourselves.



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