Threats to human rights defenders: Six ways companies should respond (Oxfam)

Anna Triponel

April 28, 2023
Our key takeaway: Time and time again, we are confronted with shocking statistics on attacks against human rights defenders (HRDs): 358 HRDs were killed in 2021, with 59% working on business-related abuses such as infringements on land and Indigenous peoples’ rights. This is a conservative estimate, with numbers projected to grow significantly due to the “twin crises of climate change and global inequality.” Oxfam shines the light on companies silencing HRDs either directly, through intimidation, criminalisation, and smear campaigns, but also through inaction - choosing not to act to protect HRDs despite being uniquely placed to actually advocate for increased protections for HRDs. Oxfam provides clear recommendations on how companies can do this, which - you guessed it - are grounded in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). Some actions companies can take now include implementing robust human rights and environmental due diligence across the value chain; establishing effective grievance mechanisms that HRDs can easily access; using or building leverage to advocate for increased protections; engaging with key stakeholders to ensure their genuine participation in decision-making; and refusing to support lawsuits aimed at diminishing protections for HRDs. Companies can no longer take a ‘hands-off, it doesn’t concern me’ approach to attacks against HRDs. As Oxfam rightly puts it, “[t]he cost of inaction is too high, both for human rights defenders and for the bottom line.”

Oxfam have released 'Threats to human rights defenders: Six ways companies should respond' (April 2023):

  • Why do HRDs matter to companies? According to the United Nations (UN), HRDs consist of a wide range of actors, either working alone or in collaboration with others, to “protect or promote human rights in a peaceful manner.” They include “environmental and climate activists, trade unions, individuals advocating for LGBTQIA+ rights, women’s rights defenders, whistleblowers, land activists and Indigenous peoples defending their land.” So why do these people matter to companies? The report highlights how threats against HRDs present serious challenges and risks to businesses: 1) “Threats to freedom of assembly and expression can jeopardize the overall stability of investment environments”; and (2) Failing to advocate for increased protections for HRDs will “divide communities and dissolve trust and the social license to operate, leading to costly litigation, project delays and even shutdowns.” By the same token, protecting HRDs present real opportunities for businesses. This includes: 1) Competitive advantage when compared to peers: “Taking action to protect human rights defenders can help with managing operational and reputational risks while building competitive advantage”; 2) Meet consumer demands: “Consumers increasingly place value on socially conscious supply chains— including ensuring brands that they support are not complicit in attacks on human rights defenders”; and 3) Obtain the social licence to operate and ensure the long-term viability of the business: “Actions to strengthen protections for human rights defenders can also help private sector actors to build trust with communities whose buy-in is essential for the long-term viability of investments.”
  • Companies can adopt a three-pronged approach to protect HRDs, grounded on the UNGPs framework: The report recommends that companies adopt a ‘Preventive, Reactive, and Proactive’ framework to address threats against HRDs; acting as a springboard for concrete actions companies can take going forward. The ‘preventive’ pillar recommends companies “[t]ake all the necessary steps to prevent adverse human rights impact on HRDs, including through the adoption of a strong human rights defenders’ policy.” The ‘reactive’ pillar means that companies have to “effectively cease and remedy adverse impact on human rights defenders” which includes “ensuring that safeguards against the repetition of that initial impact are put in place and providing access to effective grievance mechanisms.” Last but by no means least, the ‘proactive’ pillar recommends that companies “[u]se their leverage and/or speak out in defense of HRDs and use their influence through action with other business peers and governments.”
  • Six recommendations for companies on how they can respond to threats against HRDs: The report puts forward six key recommendations that companies can take now to protect HRDs: 1) Make a policy commitment to protect the rights of HRDs, which should be embedded throughout the company’s value chain through “contractual clauses, trainings and awareness raising.” The policy must be publicly endorsed by the highest levels of corporate leadership, and there must be structures and processes in place to allocate oversight and responsibility to the relevant actors within the company to protect HRDs; 2) “Implement robust human rights and environmental due diligence mechanisms across the value chain to enable the identification of risks to human rights defenders”, and understand the context in which companies should withdraw from an operating context, or use their leverage to advocate for increased protections for HRDs; 3) “Establish an effective grievance mechanism accessible to human rights defenders”, which should have board-level oversight and specific protections for whistleblowers; 4) “Use their leverage and speak out in defense of human rights defenders as well as against legal reforms that are aimed at restricting civil society space”, which could include issuing public statements, engaging the government, engaging with peers, and echoing authoritative human rights sources; 5) “Engage with communities and local civil society in inclusive and culturally and gender-sensitive ways to identify and address risks for HRDs; ensure the implementation of free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) processes; and facilitate access to information relevant to the protection of HRD”; and 6) “Do not use or support strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) or other legal strategies that diminish established legal protections for HRDs.”

You may also be interested in

This week’s latest resources, articles and summaries.