1. Reinforcing Citizen Participation in the Business and Human Rights Agenda, including by Protecting Human Rights Defenders
The year 2014 saw the thirtieth anniversary of the Bhopal disaster in India, where a poisonous gas leak from Union Carbide Corporation’s fertilizer plant killed thousands of people immediately and over time. People in Bhopal and activists around the world have campaigned long and hard for justice.
Since then there has been mounting outcry in many parts of the world against corporations over alleged human rights abuses. Human rights defenders who have spoken out against corporate involvement in rights abuses or who campaigned on behalf of communities have faced governmental surveillance and arrests. This is part of a wider global trend, which sees increasing pressure on civil society in many countries around the world. In some cases, activist groups and individuals are described as anti-development or anti-national, and in others, are accused of being terrorists.
The UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights has recently expressed concern over the detention of activists and imposition of funding and registration restrictions on human rights defenders in Azerbaijan. Michael Forst, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, joined several of his UN colleagues to ask the Tasmanian Government in Australia to withdraw legislation that targeted those who protested forestry, agriculture and mining.
Companies can no longer ignore activists. As part of their due diligence, they must conduct human rights impact assessments, and to do so, they should undertake vigorous stakeholder consultation. International standards have emerged to require companies to talk to communities, but at times governments intervene and claim to speak on their behalf. In other cases, communities are not interested in engaging with companies. Companies also find it difficult to identify who can speak legitimately for a specific community.
At times, communities lack capacity to engage with companies. They may not have the same expertise companies do and may also be in a weaker position than their government and powerless to demand accountability for provision of basic services or protection of human rights. Companies should be aware of communities’ needs for ongoing capacity building, and should facilitate their partnership with multilateral and bilateral institutions as well as civil society organisations with capacity building programmes.
In 2015, companies will increasingly be called on to make major business decisions only after undertaking rigorous due diligence, including by listening to affected communities and stakeholders and by speaking up for human rights defenders. Companies will be under increasing pressure to choose between their bottom-line imperatives and their commitment to respecting human rights for all.