Increasing recognition of defenders’ role on business and human rights amidst serious challenges and threats

03.11.2015

Today there exists a broad consensus about the need of defenders working on corporate accountability for specific protection by States and business. However, this increasing specific recognition by States, business and international human rights mechanisms is both a relatively recent development, and to date remains uneven.

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By Michael Ineichen, ISHR Programme Manager (Corporate Accountability) and Head of Human Rights Council Advocacy

Human rights defenders working to promote corporate respect for human rights, and corporate accountability when violations occur, face extraordinary risks and need specific protection by States and business. Today there exists a broad consensus about this statement. However, this increasing specific recognition by States, business and international human rights mechanisms is both a relatively recent development, and to date remains uneven.

Recognition is recent: Rewind to the 2012 annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights. The agenda of putting human rights defenders and their protection at the core of the business and human rights debate was only in its infancy, comparable to a small start-up company. Illustrative of the then-marginal place of human rights defender issues on the UN’s business and human rights agenda was the lack of a specific focus on defenders. While the role of civil society was broadly discussed, it took three years of sustained advocacy by national, regional and some international NGOs  – with ISHR playing a leading role of capacitating and supporting the advocacy of defenders in Geneva – to transform the ‘start-up’ of 2012 into one of the key players of the 2015 Forum.

As demonstrated by this year’s edition of the dedicated Business and Human Rights Monitor, human rights defenders are increasingly seen to be key players in securing business respect for human rights by a range of actors. Such recognition is critical if the international community is to effectively support the courage of those who assist communities in seeking to prevent and mitigate the human rights impact of projects like Jean-Pierre Okenda from the DRC, or advocating for workers rights like Muchamad Darisman in Indonesia.

Mauricio Lazala of the Business and Human Rights Resource Center demonstrates that increasingly, companies are starting to speak out – publicly and privately – against attacks on human rights defenders. Similarly, Brent Wilton of Coca-Cola Company and David Bledsoe at Landesa give one example of partnerships to increase respect for land rights, while Owen Larter (Microsoft) and Nicolas Patrick (DLA Piper) make the case for closer cooperation between defenders and business, particularly in high-risk areas.

It is now imperative that this trend is continued and strengthened, and business starts to act based on its inherent interest in free, democratic and rights respecting societies, where human rights defenders enjoy a safe and enabling environment.

Of course, beyond the actions by business, States must develop and strengthen their policies and laws to protect human rights defenders working to promote corporate accountability.

The first is the development of National Action Plans. As ISHR has argued in submissions to the UK, the US and Ireland, human rights defenders and their protection must be at the core of the process and substance of NAPs.  Building on their experience in developing the go-to-tool for the development of national action plans on business and human rights, Sara Blackwell of the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR) points out the opportunities available to human rights defenders to push for greater protection where NAPs are developed. Norway’s Ambassador to Geneva calls for ‘clear and coherent signals to business through regulation and other incentives’, and cites the new Norwegian NAP as a step in that direction.

A further avenue to trigger firmer action by States and business is the process towards the elaboration of a business and human rights treaty started in 2015. As ISHR’s Ben Leather points out, more needs to be done to ensure the process includes the voices and concerns of defenders. States must stop ‘ignoring the elephant in the room’ argues Genevieve Paul from FIDH, which would ensure that the ‘IGWG-process’ develops from the current diplomatic controversy into the effective and credible route towards better business respect for human rights that defenders from around the world have asked for. The recognition of the role of civil society by the Chair of the process, Ecuador’s Ambassador in Geneva, is a step in that direction.

Recognition of the threats against defenders and their protection needs also remains uneven: As a first step, more detailed analysis of the factors underlying defenders’ vulnerability, such as the false dichotomy between development and human rights identified by UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders Michel Forst, is needed.

Secondly, additional actors that are still shying their responsibility have to step up to the plate, and play their part in protecting defenders. As Jessica Evans and Sarah Saadoun of HRW show, the World Bank and its International Finance Corporation have a responsibility to protect human rights defenders and other civil society actors from retaliation and reprisals associated with projects it supports or finances. On his part, Michael Posner details the essential role of defenders in bringing greater transparency to global supply chains.

Finally, as outlined above, the UN’s Forum on Business and human rights as well as other key moments within the UN human rights system provide more and more accessible avenues for human rights defenders to voice their concerns, enlightened business leaders to share their successes in working with defenders, and for States to strategise around the best way to incentivise and regulate corporate behaviour to ensure those working to promote and protect human rights can do so in a safe and enabling environment. This Special Edition of the Human Rights Monitor intends to assist in that endeavour.

Michael Ineichen leads ISHR’s work in support of human rights defenders who promote corporate accountability. You can reach him at @ineichenM.

 

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.

Category:

Topic
  • Corporate accountability
  • Human rights defenders
  • Reprisals and intimidation