Human rights defenders and civic space

Anna Triponel

October 2, 2023
Our key takeaway: Human rights defenders (HRDs) and vibrant civic spaces are important to financial institutions (FIs), not least because they provide on-the-ground knowledge of human rights abuses, which can help FIs identify and address their human rights impacts. Despite their importance, HRDs are under increasing attacks, such as killings, harassment and reprisals, for speaking out about human rights violations perpetrated by State and non-State actors. Indeed, 401 defenders were killed in 2022 alone, and 75% of them were protesting in relation to environmental degradation and climate change. A significant percentage of these attacks were against Indigenous people, who make up only 6% of the global population and protect over 80% of the earth’s remaining biodiversity. The interconnection between human rights and the environment has never been clearer. A new report from Shift emphasizes the importance of protecting HRDs and civic space for financial institutions’ human rights due diligence (HRDD) processes and their climate and biodiversity work, and provides recommendations on how they can go about putting this into practice.

Shift published Human Rights Defenders and Shrinking Civic Space: A Guide for Financial Institutions (September 2023):

  • Human rights defenders and closing civic space: The guide defines human rights defenders as “people who, individually or with others, act to promote or protect human rights in a peaceful manner” (as defined by the UN OHCHR). In practice, they can be small-scale farmers, Indigenous People, climate activists, trade union leaders and the list goes on. These defenders are facing increasing attacks, including physical attacks, detention, legal action, surveillance and sometimes even death: “At least 401 human rights defenders were killed in 2022.” A majority of defenders, including Indigenous people, are fighting to protect the environment and land: “Approximately 75% of attacks against human rights defenders recorded in 2022 were against climate, land and environment” and “over a fifth were against Indigenous defenders”, despite making up only 6% of the global population. These attacks are happening against a backdrop of closing civic space, which threatens rights such as freedom of expression and freedom of association and peaceful assembly. In practice, this can look like “restrictions on press freedom, restrictions on unions and protests, harsh criminal sentences for protestors, laws which restrict NGOs from receiving funding, and surveillance and harassment of journalists and human rights defenders.”
  • Why is this important for FIs? The guide outlines two reasons why attacks against human rights defenders and open civic space are important to FIs. These are: (1) “Financial institutions rely on information from civil society to do human rights due diligence.” Without this visibility, FIs are unable to address their human rights impacts, which “can expose FIs to reputational and legal risks”; (2) “Human rights defenders as the “last line of defence.”Defenders protecting the land and environment are especially vulnerable to attacks and so protecting their rights and the civic space in which they operate in are important tools for FIs to address climate change and biodiversity loss.
  • Recommendations: The guide recognises the plethora of challenges that FIs face when engaging with human rights defenders. In response, they recommend the following for FIs to action: (1) “Bridge the gap between financial institutions and civil society” by engaging with impacted people. This engagement can be talking with rightsholders and civil society on specific issues and obtaining “concrete ideas on existing or innovative approaches through constructive exchanges” on how to improve their human rights due diligence processes; (2) “Check in-house capacity” to assess if they have the skills and understanding to engage with human rights defenders in a sensitive and emphatic manner; (3) “Take a clear stance on respecting human rights defenders” through a clear public and policy position; and (4) “Knowledge building on civic space”, such as speaking with country-based personnel of their clients and using external resources and databases.

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