Press release | April 28, 2020

‘Material risks growing’ for businesses failing to engage with human rights defenders

New business toolkits demonstrate practical actions companies and investors should take to safeguard defenders.

Read the Global Witness Briefing ‘Responsible Sourcing: The Business Case For Protecting Land And Environmental Defenders And Indigenous Communities’ Rights To Land And Resources’ (370kb, PDF)

Read the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, International Service for Human Rights and Investor Alliance for Human Rights Briefing 'Safeguarding Human Rights Defenders: Practical Guidance for Investors'(3Mb, PDF)

Tuesday 28th April 2020 - In the shadow of hundreds of attacks and killings of human rights defenders, and increased threats to workers and civic freedoms during the COVID-19 pandemic, the role of companies and their investors to safeguard human rights is coming under increasing scrutiny. Many businesses now recognise a lack of human rights safeguarding as a source of financial risk.

The current pandemic has also illustrated the vital role played by human rights defenders to ensure that emergency laws are not misused, at-risk groups are not discriminated against, and that health and policy responses are compliant with human rights. 

A coalition of organisations have urgently underlined today how the efforts of human rights defenders must be supported and their work protected. Companies and investors must play a greater role in safeguarding defenders rather than contribute to attacks against them.

Two crucial new briefings, released by the group, highlight the need for companies and investors to identify whether their business practices may contribute to increased risk for human rights defenders - and if so, how to mitigate these risks. They also outline the clear business case for addressing these issues.

By protecting and supporting the work of human rights defenders, companies contribute to advancing their human rights performance, improving supply chain resilience and managing operational legal and reputational risks, while promoting peace, justice, and sustainability.

Human rights defenders include trade union leaders, indigenous communities and their leaders, land and environment defenders standing up for land rights and the environment, and ordinary people standing up for human rights.

Their work is vital for helping companies identify human rights risks before they result in negative impacts on stakeholders and increase companies’ material risks. Yet since 2015, there have been more than 2,200 killings, threats, abusive lawsuits, and other types of attacks intended to silence or intimidate defenders focused on business-related activities.

Land and environmental defenders in particular are often at risk from large scale investments across wide supply chains such as hydropower or agribusiness, where inadequate due diligence practices often fail.

More than three people were killed each week in 2018 for peacefully defending their land and environment in the face of large-scale resource extraction projects. Defenders protecting political and civil rights are always at risk, such as from government misuse of surveillance technologies and online forms of harassment.

Companies that fail to conduct human rights due diligence may not only contribute to attacks against defenders, but may also be exposed to significant legal, reputational and financial risks.

For example, a lack of meaningful consultation around the Dakota Access Pipeline not only resulted in hundreds of injuries within the local indigenous community (including attacks by rubber bullets and guard dogs) but an additional $4.4 billion in costs to the banks financing the project in the form of account closures.

There is growing awareness in the investment community of the importance of due diligence: just last month, a coalition of 176 investors led by the Investor Alliance for Human Rights, including asset managers, public pension funds, and faith-based institutions representing US$4.5 trillion, sent a letter to 95 major multinational companies calling for improved performance and disclosure on human rights due diligence.

The new briefings, ‘Responsible Sourcing: The Business Case For Protecting Land And Environmental Defenders And Indigenous Communities’ Rights To Land And Resources’, published by Global Witness, and 'Safeguarding Human Rights Defenders: Practical Guidance for Investors', published by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, the Investor Alliance for Human Rights, and the International Service for Human Rights today, make clear that it is in business’ and investors’ interests to act to protect human rights defenders.

These briefings set out how business practices can contribute to attacks on defenders, demonstrate the cost to business and investors of inaction, and provide practical guidance to address business and financial risks associated with defenders.

Ali Hines, Global Witness said:

“For those investing in companies with agricultural, timber and mineral supply chains, there is a strategic and moral imperative to act to protect the human rights of all people defending communities’ rights to land and resources. Through comprehensive due diligence practices, businesses can convert their environmental and human rights risks into opportunities, and improve supply chain resilience. Such action is mutually beneficial to businesses, investors and defenders.”

Paloma Muñoz Quick, Investor Alliance for Human Rights said:

“By activating their leverage to promote respect for defenders and civic freedoms, investors and their portfolio companies can play a transformational role in creating enabling environments for responsible business conduct. In doing so, investors will address significant material risks to business, as the features of a safe and enabling environment for defenders overlaps with those of a stable operating environment for business.”

The briefings’ key recommendations are that:

  •  Businesses engage with defenders to develop and adopt a policy of zero-tolerance towards acts of violence, threats or intimidation committed against defenders, and make this public.
  •  Businesses assess the situation for civic freedoms and defenders in the countries in which they operate, identify if the company’s operations and business relationships undermine defenders’ rights, and act to address any risks identified.
  •  Businesses ensure that defenders have access to remedy.
  • Institutional investors, including asset owners and managers, should assess investment portfolios for defenders-related risks and take steps to address them, with the Business Human Rights Resource Centre, ISHR & IAHR’s briefing suggesting practical steps on how to do so.
  • Businesses and investors proactively use their leverage to promote respect for defenders and civic freedoms, even when they are not causing, contributing to, or linked to the harm.



Notes to editor:

  1. ‘Responsible Sourcing: The Business Case For Protecting Land And Environmental Defenders And Indigenous Communities’ Rights To Land And Resources’ is published by Global Witness and available here.
  2. “Safeguarding Human Rights Defenders: Practical Guidance for Investors” is published by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, Investor Alliance for Human Rights, and International Service for Human Rights, and is available here.

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