States and corporations must protect human rights defenders advocating on large-scale development projects


International human rights experts call on governments and corporations to respect and protect human rights defenders who work on issues related to development projects and corporate accountability.

Panel on human rights defenders and development

(New York) – A panel of leading international human rights experts has called on governments and corporations to better respect and protect human rights defenders who work on issues related to large-scale development projects and corporate accountability.

‘Large-scale development projects – including gas, oil and mining projects – can contribute positively to development but all too often have negative impacts on the most vulnerable, including indigenous peoples, women, and human rights defenders who sound the alarm on such impacts,’ said Cristina Hardaga Fernandez of JASS Mesoamerica.

According to Pavel Sulyandziga, Chair of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, around the world there appears to be ‘a stepping up of pressure against human rights defenders who work on issues of corporate accountability’, with attacks and violations becoming more frequent.

Human rights defenders are often the first to identify and expose adverse human rights impacts associated with business and development and are therefore the first to suffer attacks and violations as a result, he said.

Speaking at an event at UN headquarters organised jointly by Norway and the International Service for Human Rights, both the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, and Ms Hardaga Fernandez expressed particular concern at the incidence of attacks against women human rights defenders, including rape and other forms of sexual violence.

According to a recent report by JASS Mesoamerica, women human rights defenders in rural communities who oppose large-scale development projects are at particular risk, accounting for over 40% of reported attacks against women human rights defenders across Latin America in 2012.

Norway’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN, Tine Mørch Smith, said that such attacks not only violate human rights but also undermine sustainable development.

‘Creating and maintaining a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders must be a fundamental objective of all governments’, with the work of defenders contributing to more transparent and accountable government, better decision-making and therefore more sustainable development, Ms Smith said.

‘Governments need not always agree with human rights defenders but must always allow them to speak and must respect and protect their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly,’ she said.

The expert panelists proposed a range of recommendations to ensure that human rights defenders are protected and can participate in the context of large-scale development projects:

  • Communities affected by development projects, together with human rights defenders who work with those communities, should be supported by both the government and corporations to participate actively, freely and meaningfully in project assessment and analysis, design and planning, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation;
  • Relevant information about development projects should be made freely available and accessible;
  • Governments and corporations should fully respect and protect those who claim their legitimate right to participate in decision-making processes or who voice their opposition to large-scale development projects;
  • Both public and private financiers of large scale development projects should ensure that they engage and consult effectively with human rights defenders and affected communities as a precondition to supporting such projects;
  • Both public and private security forces should be trained to respect and protect human rights defenders, including by respecting and protecting their rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly and peaceful protest; and
  • Both the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights should be translated into a greater number of languages, including indigenous languages, and widely disseminated.

Closing the panel discussion, Human Rights Watch’s Director of Business and Human Rights, Arvind Ganesan, said that while civil society has an important role to play in maximising the benefits associated with development projects and minimising the detriments, this does not supplant the need for States to enact and corporations to abide by ‘rules, standards and principles of due diligence’.

Photographs from the event are available here.

ISHR’s report on creating and maintaining an enabling environment for human rights defenders is here.

A summary of the most recent report of the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders on the issue of large-scale development projects is here.


  • Latin America and Caribbean
  • Corporate accountability
  • Human rights defenders
  • Women's rights and WHRD
  • UN Special Rapporteur on HRDs
  • UN General Assembly