On International Human Rights Defenders’ Day

Commentary, 09 December 2015

By Salil Tripathi, Senior Advisor, Global Issues, IHRB

At a time of shrinking space for civil society, an ill wind blows over the landscape. Human rights defenders are strong, but they are like grass in the field. When the wind gathers speed, they bend. But they do not break; they rise again and stand tall.

International human rights defenders’ day, which we observe today, is a moment of sobering reflection. Peaceful, non-violent human rights defenders are being prosecuted, convicted, and jailed in some cases, and intimidated, tortured, and sometimes killed by non-state actors, in other cases.

The 2015 UN Forum on Business and Human Rights for the first time had special sessions devoted to the interplay between human rights defenders and business and the need for renewed commitment by all to protecting the rights of these individuals.

To be sure, sustained campaigning by human rights organisations and enlightened leadership from corporations as well as government leadership have all contributed to a more nuanced environment today. Many companies have changed their policies as a direct consequence of campaigns and greater awareness. Many standards – voluntary in some cases, restating international standards in other cases, have reminded governments and companies of their responsibilities. This has led to a change in corporate behaviour. And yet, significant gaps remain. Companies continue to operate in places where rules are unclear and governments are sometimes unwilling to protect rights. Some companies continue to act in ways that place their own interests first even if it is to the detriment of human rights.

Of greater concern is the government crackdown in several countries in recent years against civil society. Many countries have passed laws or changed rules that affect tens of thousands of civil society organisations. By one count, more than 60 countries have passed or amended laws that curb non-governmental organizational activities, including criminalizing their activities in some instances. The Carnegie Endowment calls the trend a “viral-like spread of new laws” under which international aid groups and their partners are criticized, harassed, closed down, sometimes expelled, and in some cases criminal charges are filed against them.  Amnesty International considers this attack “unprecedented.” Some governments have resorted to actions including harassment, surveillance, intimidation, criminalization, and procedural and bureaucratic burdens, leading up to prosecution.

In an Occasional Paper IHRB will publish on 14 December with Civil Rights Defenders and Front Line Defenders with contributions from international legal experts, we have outlined 11 individual cases of human rights defenders from all parts of the world. Each highlights how business conduct or silence has created an adverse impact on human rights. In most of the cases, the direct responsibility for the human rights violations described rests with the state. The individual human rights defenders involved have either challenged the state and its policies, which are seen to benefit companies, or have targeted companies themselves over their practices. The individual human rights defenders profiled have sought to exercise their rights peacefully. They include journalists, community activists, trade unionists, and environmental advocates.

In some cases, companies are either targets of activists or are allied with the state or state-owned companies, whose activities the activists oppose. When the state has launched proceedings against the activists, or intimidated them, the companies discussed in these cases appear to have remained silent. In one case, a company provided tools that enabled the state to violate human rights; in other cases, companies have benefited from the actions that the state has taken, even if the company had not explicitly intended for such actions to occur. In other instances, the companies involved are not fully aware of the human rights impact of their activities, and if they are, they seem to have decided that the risk is outweighed by the benefits.

Companies are not legally required to speak out against human rights abuses, to intervene – in public or quietly – on behalf of human rights defenders, to ally with a community or civil society in specific human rights cases. Nor is there a requirement that they must stop doing business in a country where human rights abuses are widespread, unless there are sanctions imposed on the country. In many instances sanctions have been circumvented, and it should also be noted that human rights abuses are not the sole reason why sanctions are imposed on a country. However, the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, which was adopted by consensus by the UN General Assembly, makes clear the responsibility on states to protect human rights defenders.

It is not surprising that some companies may see many human rights defenders as adversaries, because these challenge corporate actions or policies that benefit corporations. But more reflection and deeper analysis would suggest that in the ultimate analysis, companies and human rights defenders share several crucial objectives. Companies that operate without community consent run the risk of their projects being blocked or stopped. Companies that acquiesce with governments that detain human rights defenders arbitrarily expose themselves to the risk of similar treatment from the government if their interests collide.

In our forthcoming Occasional Paper, we recommend that companies should improve internal operating procedures by setting internal procedures and clear rules; establish proper dialogue with communities and engaging them; conduct due diligence; resist actions that may undermine human rights; intervene in specific cases and advocate for human rights defenders; and establish credible, participative grievance mechanisms.

These steps aren’t sufficient to ensure protection and space for human rights defenders, but these are essential steps. The powers ranged against them are formidable. Human rights defenders are strong, but the forces they challenge are stronger. They are canaries in mine, we ignore their warnings at our own peril.

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