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6 Dec 2021

Roberto Stefani, Oxfam America

Oxfam: Companies need to do more to protect human rights defenders

"Dear UN: Companies need to do more to protect Human Rights Defenders", 29 November 2021

As the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights begins in Geneva this week, we’re urging companies to protect and listen to Human Rights Defenders...

Ten years after the publication of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), the fact is that human rights defenders (HRDs) – especially those who promote or protect human rights in the face of business-related abuses—face myriad and sometimes fatal dangers.

In one of the most prominent instances, Berta Cáceres, an indigenous human rights defender in Honduras, was assassinated in 2016 for opposing the construction of a hydroelectrical dam by the Empresa Desarrollos Energéticos S.A (DESA) on indigenous Lenca territory. Just this year, a former executive of the company was found guilty of helping plan the murder. Sadly, Berta’s is not an isolated case, but one of many killings HRDs in the context of business activities...

The reality is that companies would benefit from protecting HRDs

Threats to freedom of assembly and expression actually serve to threaten the overall stability of investment environments. Strengthening protections for HRDs can also help private sector actors build trust with communities whose buy-in is essential for long-term viability.

Allowing attacks can divide communities, dissolve trust and social license to operate, prompt costly litigation, and even lead to shutdowns. Inaction can legitimate regimes with terrible human rights records, and pose reputational threats to the brand...

Five steps companies can take to protect HRDs

  1. Support and implement human rights due diligence. [...]
  2. Speak out on behalf of human rights defenders. [...]
  3. Commit to free prior and informed consent from communities. [...]
  4. Establish a grievance mechanism for human rights defenders. [...]
  5. Create and adopt a specific policy to protect HRDs, and make it public [...]

This policy should include zero tolerance for threats, intimidation and/or attacks on HRDs (either free-standing or as part of a human rights policy). It should integrate existing normative frameworks on private sector obligations to HRDs in company policy (including new protocols as they develop), and demonstrate compliance with these. The policy should include special provisions for indigenous peoples, women, and LGBTQIA+ people. Companies should not engage in business activities where HRDs are not able to perform their jobs, and should set some redlines beyond which they should reconsider their presence in a country.