The deadly price of fighting for human and environmental rights

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Thompson Reuters Foundation News

This week sees the launch of the UN Environmental Rights Initiative in Rio, as UN organizations, NGOs and other partners are meeting to address the growing problem of attacks on land and environmental defenders in Brazil.

Unfortunately, such attacks are part of a pattern seen around the world. In our work as independent UN human rights experts, we see that people standing up for human rights and civic freedoms (human rights defenders) are increasingly being targeted. According to a recent report by the UN Secretary General, at least 1019 human rights defenders were killed in 61 countries from 2015 to 2017. A large number of attacks against human rights defenders and civil society organizations happen because they raise concerns about adverse human rights and environmental impacts of business operations.   

As documented by the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, land and environmental defenders face a range of threats, including violent attacks, enforced disappearance, death threats to them and their family, sexual harassment and illegal surveillance. Women defenders and indigenous representatives are disproportionately impacted. The Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples is presenting a report to the UN Human Rights Council this September on attacks, criminalisation of and the failure to protect indigenous peoples in the context of development projects.  A report by the NGO Global Witness also highlights that 2017 was the deadliest year on record, with 207 land and environmental defenders murdered – usually after demanding respect for human rights by companies and governments involved in the natural resource sector.

There is no lack of international standards, however. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and the Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment clarify that States have a duty to protect human rights defenders, and business a responsibility to respect their rights. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples affirms that indigenous peoples have the right to the lands and resources that they have traditionally occupied and also that they shall be consulted and their free and informed consent be obtained prior to the adoption of measures or the approval of any project affecting their lands.

When human rights are violated, defenders must have access to an effective remedy.  They also have a right to speak up and seek justice for victims who are often powerless and voiceless.

Nor can governments and businesses say there is no practical guidance. Recent reports by the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders and the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment  and the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples provide recommendations to governments and business. Later this year, the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights will produce guidance for states and business on protecting and respecting human rights defenders in line with the expectations set forth in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights as well as how to improve corporate human rights due diligence overall.

Governments, companies and investors can and must do more to prevent threats to human rights and environmental defenders, by supporting and protecting those at risk, tackling the root causes to prevent attacks, and ensuring accountability where threats, attacks and restrictions occur.

States and business should implement specific policies to support and protect human rights defenders. Governments should enact protection laws and programmes, national action plans on business and human rights that include a focus on defenders, and guidelines for embassies. Businesses operating or with supply chains in countries where risks to defenders are prevalent should exercise heightened human rights due diligence, to prevent and address impacts linked to their business. Emerging business practice shows that action is possible

States must ensure access to effective remedy and accountability for threats and attacks against defenders. Businesses too should establish safe and accessible grievance mechanisms, enabling defenders to bring complaints of threats related to a business project in a safe and secure manner.

As a matter of urgency, we call upon governments, companies and investors to engage with local defenders and implement policies and actions to protect and respect their rights. If companies start talking to defenders and viewing them as key partners in ensuring that business activities respect the rights and dignity of people affected by their operations, we would come a long way.

Anita Ramasastry, UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights

Michel Forst, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders

David R. Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples