Incorporating human rights defenders into the global trend of National Action Plans on Business and Human Rights


The development of National Action Plans on Business and Human Rights provide an opportunity to address the significant risks faced by human rights defenders working on corporate accountability issues, with governments having a role and responsibility to regulate and incentivise the private sector to better respect and protect the human rights of HRDs. 

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By Sara Blackwell, Legal & Policy Coordinator, International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR)

The development of National Action Plans (NAPs) on Business and Human Rights is a notable avenue for addressing the heightened risks faced by human rights defenders (HRDs) working on corporate accountability issues. Since the adoption of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) in 2011, particular pressure has been put on companies to independently change their policies and practices in response to instances of business-related human rights harms. While companies themselves should, of their own volition, contribute to a decrease in threats to HRDs, the role of Governments in requiring and incentivising the private sector to better respect the human rights of HRDs is an essential one. The increasingly global focus on NAPs is a promising opportunity to put the onus back on States to fulfill their duty to protect human rights from adverse corporate impacts, as NAPs require governments to articulate commitments toward the adoption of laws, policies, and programs that promote business respect for human rights.

So far, six countries have published NAPs, and over 30 other Governments are currently at various stages of NAPs development. While a small number of NAPs to date have explicitly addressed HRDs as a vulnerable group, adequate incorporation of HRDs into the process and content of NAPs has not yet been achieved. For example, while the Dutch, Lithuanian, and Swedish NAPs make no specific mention of HRDs, the UK NAP addresses the role of embassies in supporting HRDs and commits the Government to promoting access to remedy in relation to HRDs. In addition, while the Danish NAP only mentions HRDs in the context of past Governments’ areas of focus, the Finnish NAP recognises the significant role that HRDs can play in human rights impact assessments and in the provision of legal remedies. ISHR and others have called on Ireland and the United States to ensure the participation of HRDs in the elaboration of NAPs and their protection in the substance, while also urging the UK to strengthen actions and commitments in relation to HRDs in their revision of the UK NAP.

All signs point to more and more NAPs being issued in the coming years. HRDs and those working for their protection should take advantage of this increased government engagement on business and human rights issues to hold States accountable for their existing laws, policies, and programs to protect and support HRDs. They should also continuously and publicly assess NAP processes as they are underway, using lessons learned from corporate engagement to pressure States to meaningfully and transparently consult with HRDs and the communities they represent at every stage of NAPs’ development, implementation, and review. The HRD community should also contribute their experiences and expertise to the NAPs movement by submitting evidence-based recommendations that call on Governments to include specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-specific commitments that relate to HRDs. Such commitments will look different depending on many context-specific factors, including whether the country in question functions as a home State, a host State, or both.

Sara Blackwell is Legal & Policy Coordinator with the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR). Follow her on Twitter at @Sara_Blackwell.

For more on the role of NAPs in the context of HRDs, see Sara Blackwell & Katie Shay, The Role of National Action Plans on Business and Human Rights in Protecting Human Rights Defenders.


In the weeks and days leading up to the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, ISHR will publish a series of articles by leading experts including human rights defenders, UN representatives, diplomats, businesses and international NGOs. Each article will include an analysis of the important role of human rights defenders and will be compiled in a special edition of ISHR’s Human Rights Monitor, to be launched in English, French and Spanish on November 9. The views expressed in the pieces are personal and do not necessarily represent the position of ISHR.


  • Corporate accountability
  • Human rights defenders
  • Denmark
  • Finland
  • Ireland
  • United Kingdom
  • United States