Human rights defenders in 2023

Anna Triponel

May 10, 2024
Our key takeaway: 2023 was another significant year for human rights defenders (HRDs) and not in a good way. The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) recorded 630 instances of attacks against HRDs in 2023, with more than 5,300 recorded since 2015. The majority of these attacks were concentrated in specific regions, with Latin America and the Caribbean seeing the highest number and Asia and the Pacific following closely behind. Why does this matter for businesses? These attacks are closely connected to business activities as state and non-state actors attack HRDs who are protesting against corporate activities that are harming the environment and nature. Respecting and protecting the voices of HRDs is also critical to ensuring a just transition to a sustainable economy. As demand for transition minerals increase (six-fold increase by 2040 according to the International Energy Agency) to fuel the renewable energy shift, so too will attacks on HRDs who are advocating that this shift be just, inclusive and rights-centred. The report states that these attacks “represent a direct attack on civic space and an assault on fundamental freedoms that underpin a sustainable, inclusive and peaceful society.” In short, respecting and protecting the rights of HRDs, in particular Indigenous HRDs, to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly is critical to ensuring the just in just transition.

BHRRC published its report People power under pressure: Human rights defenders & business in 2023 (May 2024):

  • The scope and scale of attacks on human rights defenders is significant: The report highlights how human rights defenders (HRDs) are subjected to “a consistent, ongoing pattern of attacks.” The BHRRC recorded 630 instances of attacks in 2023 alone, with more than 5,300 recorded since 2015. A majority share (78%) of the 630 attacks are perpetrated against HRDs who are seeking to protect the climate and environment, and many are carried out by state actors. That being said, companies are often connected with these attacks because they, for example, call on states’ law enforcement to disperse protests directed at corporate activities or they cooperate in state repression of civic rights and freedoms. The attacks are also concentrated in specific regions: Latin America and the Caribbean saw the highest number of attacks (41% of the total globally) in 2023, and almost a third (30% of the total globally) took place in Asia and the Pacific. The nature of the attacks is varied. The top types of attacks in 2023 are: 1) 328 cases of judicial harassment, which includes strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) and arbitrary arrests and detention; 2) 87 cases of killings; 3) 81 cases of physical violence; and 4) 80 cases of intimidation and threats. Attacks against HRDs are happening in a context where civic space and public protest are being eroded by State actors.
  • Protecting the voices of HRDs is critical to the just transition: The report highlights the connection between attacks on HRDs and the transition to a green economy. Since 2015, the highest number of attacks happen in sectors that are fuelling climate change and environmental degradation - mining (1,475), agribusiness (984) and oil, gas and coal (491). At the same time, these sectors play an important role in the green energy transition. For instance, the International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that there will be a six-fold increase in demand for transition minerals by 2040 as we shift towards clean energy technologies. Indigenous Peoples’ lands make up over half of the world’s resource base for these transition minerals. However, consultations with Indigenous Peoples and local communities prior to commencing business operations are often weak and inadequate and protesting is “becoming one of the only avenues to highlight risks and harms associated with those projects.” This increases the exposure of HRDs to attacks by non-State and State actors. Therefore, protecting the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly “is essential for a just transition to green economies.”
  • Recommendations for companies: The report recommends that companies: 1) “Adopt and implement public policy commitments, accompanied by implementation guidance and plans, which recognises the valuable role of HRDs, reference specific risks to HRDs, ensures effective engagement and consultation with HRDs at all stages of the due diligence process, and commits to zero-tolerance for attacks throughout the company’s operations, supply chains and business relationships”; 2) “Engage in and report on the results of human rights and environmental due diligence that integrates a gender perspective throughout and ensure effective access to remedy for those harmed by business activity, in accordance with the UNGPs, the UN Working Group’s guidance on ensuring respect for HRDs, and the UN Working Group’s gender guidance"; 3) “Recognise Indigenous defenders are disproportionately at risk and create and implement public commitments to respect Indigenous Peoples’ rights, grounded in their rights to self-determination (lands, territories, and resources), and right to free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), including their right to define the process by which FPIC is achieved and to withhold consent”; 4) “Publicly commit to remedy adverse impacts on HRDs it has caused or contributed to and to work with suppliers to remedy adverse impacts directly linked to its operations, products and services”; 5) “Publicly recognise HRDs have a right to defend human rights and are essential allies in assisting businesses to adhere to their responsibilities under the UNGPs”; and 6) “Refrain from any lobbying, political spending and other direct or indirect forms of political engagement to support limits on civic freedoms, or to weaken laws to hold companies accountable for human rights abuses and environmental destruction.”

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