Defenders & businesses: from adversity to cooperation in providing remedy for victims

Ana Zbona, Project Manager for Civic Freedoms & Human Rights Defenders, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

The key take-away from this years’ UN Forum is for businesses, states and investors, to urgently include and safeguard human rights defenders

This week, the UN Forum on Business & Human Rights brought together companies, NGOs and governments to talk about remedy for business impacts. Safeguarding human rights defenders (HRDs) and civic freedoms formed a key part of this discussion. Maryam Al Khawaja, a human rights defender from Bahrain, perfectly summarised this sentiment saying:

“If you are going to do business in any country, ask where their human rights defenders are. If you find that they are all in prison, that is going to be an economy you don’t want to be a part of.”

The Forum underlined that human rights defenders are instrumental in uncovering the actual and potential impacts of companies on people – a first step to secure effective remedy. By doing so, defenders also provide access to information so that companies know what is really going on in their supply chains, enabling better due diligence.

Our Community Action Platform showcases numerous examples where the work of HRDs and civil society organizations (CSO) has led to remedy for victims. Consider, for example, the work of WE Generation Network, an organization that helped Burmese workers bring a case against the May Wint Overseas Employment Company for compensation, and created platforms for workers to speak out. This was after the company sent workers to Thailand, where their contracts were breached and their passports confiscated. Eventually, the company, the CSO and the families of workers met and the company paid almost 900 dollars in compensation to each one of the 13 workers. This is one of many examples.

Many of these defenders and organizations operate with the ongoing risk that they will be harassed, attacked or even killed for this type of work. We have tracked over 800 attacks on defenders working on business and human rights issues since 2015. The most dangerous sectors for these defenders are land-intensive industries like mining, agriculture and renewables. In those cases, businesses played various roles, from suing defenders to turning a blind eye to attacks by governments and security forces. We’ve also observed businesses restrict civic freedoms in less direct ways: using their lobbying power to encourage governments to introduce restrictions on advocacy, through sales of spyware, retaliating through investment arbitration cases, or complying with government-mandated asset freezes or internet shutdowns. Impunity for attacks is the norm and, in many countries, weak accountability only serves to encourage further harassment.

This creates a chilling effect and restricts defenders’ ability to raise early warnings about business impacts. Defenders end up having to spend their time and limited resources defending themselves and their institutions. As Kees van Baar, Human Rights Ambassador, Netherlands said during the Forum:

“Criminalization of HRDs is a crime by itself and prevention is very important.”

If defenders can’t do their work, everybody loses: communities, society at large and also businesses. Some leading companies recognise this. Two weeks ago, BHP Billiton publicly said it did not support limits on environmental groups' ability to engage in advocacy. BHP Billiton’s industry body, Minerals Council of Australia, until recently, lobbied for limitations. Some governments are also taking steps to encourage businesses, such as Canada’s Voices at Risk Initiative, which puts obligations on government and private sector to take affirmative action on the issue of HRDs.

The key take-away from this years’ Forum is for businesses, states and investors, to urgently include and safeguard human rights defenders in efforts for better business, including through National Action Plans and due diligence processes. This acknowledges that civic freedoms are an important element of sustainable business environment. Defenders are “justice enablers”, crucial in bringing about real remedy for victims of corporate abuse and negligence.