Full implementation of the Guiding Principles means protecting human rights defenders


(Artículo en inglés y español)

Free and vibrant social dialogue is critically important to the promotion of business and human rights. It allows different views to be aired to ensure well-informed policymaking. Human rights defenders are the key actors in that regard, says Michael Addo of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights

In the build up to the third UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, ISHR will publish a series of articles by key human rights defenders and experts in this field, before launching a special edition of its Human Rights Monitor on 1 December, in both English and Spanish. Click here to join our Spanish language mailing list.

By Michael K. Addo of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights. Este artículo se encuentra en español aquí.

Free and vibrant social dialogue is critically important to the promotion of business and human rights. It allows different views to be aired to ensure well-informed policymaking. Human rights defenders are the key actors in that regard.

The Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights recognise the important and valuable role played by human rights defenders, and the risks they face as a result. Principle 18 urges businesses to consult human rights defenders as an important expert resource and highlights their role as watchdogs, advocates and facilitators. The risks faced by defenders are highlighted through Principle 26, the commentary to which requires States to ensure that the legitimate activities of human rights defenders are not obstructed. The mandate of the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders has developed the concept of a ‘safe and enabling environment’, in which defenders can carry out their work free from hindrance and insecurity. This is also the benchmark guiding the work of Working Group on Business and Human Rights on defenders, as we strive to ensure States and businesses alike implement their human rights obligations and responsibilities.

The threats faced by defenders are clearly documented in the Working Group’s report, submitted to the Human Rights Council in June 2014. Communications received have addressed alleged murders of, attacks on, and acts of intimidation against human rights defenders who campaign against the adverse impacts of extractive company operations and allegations regarding the impact of mining and hydroelectric projects on indigenous peoples. It is a matter of grave concerned to read about the continuing trend of attacks and acts of intimidation by State and non-State actors against those who protest against the actual and potential adverse impacts of business operations and major development projects.

Despite the increasingly well recognised potential role human rights defenders play in preventing, mitigating and addressing human rights violations in the context of business operations, and the State obligations and business responsibility to protect them, implementation remains patchy. The Working Group will continue to focus attention on the critical issue of the role and security of human rights defenders.

This years’ Forum on Business and Human Rights the organization of which is guided by the Working Group, will examine the role of human rights defenders as one of the key strategic issues informed by the current business and human rights agenda, and the wider global context. Building on the 2013 panel on ‘defending human rights’ which first brought the issue to the table, the 2014 Forum will hold a panel on human rights defenders. It will be an opportunity to ensure that the ‘business case’ for constructive engagement with human rights defenders is well understood, that human rights defenders are appropriately supported and capacitated in their engagement with business, and that human rights defenders are protected from threats and attacks associated with their business and human rights advocacy. I expect that this panel, along with several civil society-organised side events, will firmly establish the issue of human rights defenders and their protection needs on the business and human rights agenda, and send a clear signal that the international community is serious about creating a safe and enabling environment for these crucial actors of change. I hope it will also be a critical opportunity to demonstrate to both defenders and business the value of building trust, and the mutual benefit of developing more cooperative engagement models. The regional forum convened by the Working Group in Addis Ababa in September 2013 also included a focus on the critical role of, and challenges faced by, human rights defenders..

Secondly, in the context of our country visits, the Working Group has addressed threats faced by human rights defenders both with States and companies. Most recently following our visit to Azerbaijan, we expressed grave concern at restrictions on human rights defenders and non-governmental organisations working on issues of business and human rights. It is of particular concern that a number of prominent civil society actors were placed in pre-trial detention just before our visit and that human rights organisations were facing problems with accessing bank accounts and registering.

Thirdly, the Working Group has adopted a roadmap to support the development of national action plans. The Working Group expects national authorities to use their NAPs also to ensure that human rights defenders who focus on business-related impacts are not obstructed, but instead given adequate protection against threats and harassment. The process of developing such plans should ensure that the voices of all relevant parties, including human rights defenders, are heard and accounted for. While there is an emerging good practice in this regard, we look to States currently in the process of preparing NAPs to raise the bar in this regard.

Fourth, the Working Group through its communications procedure enters into dialogue with States and companies about alleged human rights violations brought to its attention. While the number of communications received and sent is increasing, the Working Group seeks to make strategic use of the communications as a means to strengthen protection of human rights defenders.

Fifth, and moving forward, in seeking to support the important work of human rights defenders, the Working Group act in close cooperation with relevant stakeholders, including other Special Procedures mandate holders, and the High Commissioner and his office both in Geneva and through its field presences. Last, but by no means least, I am convinced we will be able to solicit the firm support of the business community as a key ally in ensuring human rights defenders can operate in a safe and enabling environment. After all, it makes business sense to ensure that human rights defenders can develop their full potential of making sure that business and development activities increase rather than undermine human rights protection.

Mr Michael K. Addo is the current Chair of the UN Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises. He is an academic expert in international human rights law with a particular focus on its implications for international business policy. He researches and teaches international law, human rights and human rights & business policy at the University of Exeter. Mr Addo is a lawyer by training and an advocate at the Ghana Bar.

Photo: http://www.exeter.ac.uk/strategy/people/michaeladdo/


  • Africa
  • Corporate accountability
  • Human rights defenders
  • Ghana