Human Rights Defenders and Business: Marking 25 years of the UN Declaration
April 12, 2023
By: Bronagh Kieran
This year, we will mark the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. Despite this, the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre reports that attacks against human rights defenders are increasing worldwide. It is a priority issue for the OECD Centre for Responsible Business Conduct in the update of its Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. Civil society organisations, including Front Line Defenders, have welcomed this prioritisation, and are urging the OECD to adopt a strong standard. In this blog, we look at why and how business can respond, asking:
- Who are human rights defenders?
- Why is this issue relevant to business?
- What measures can companies put in place to ensure that they are respecting the rights of human rights defenders?
1. Who are human rights defenders?
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders introduces “human rights defender” as a term used to describe people who, individually or with others, act peacefully to promote or protect human rights (in accordance with the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders). The Rapporteur highlights a range of actions that human rights defenders undertake. These can encompass spreading information about human rights violations, supporting victims, taking peaceful direct action, and providing human rights training.
Some people are compelled to become human rights defenders out of necessity, but risk their lives in doing so. For instance, Bertha Cáceres, a Lenca woman, co-founded the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) in response to threats against the Lenca people such as illegal logging and encroachment on their territorial rights. After a campaign of intimidation, in 2016, Cáceres was murdered for her resistance to a dam impacting community resources.
2. Why is this issue relevant to business?
Companies have a responsibility to respect human rights, including those of human rights defenders. International corporations have been linked to persecution of human rights defenders. The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre have used data to track locations and industries where companies are connected to such attacks. An example of a circumstance where this issue often comes to a head is when enterprises fail to secure free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) from local communities or Indigenous Peoples in relation to the use of land for extractives or agriculture. When this occurs, affected people (human rights defenders) will take direct action to protect their rights, their access, and areas of cultural significance within the land. This can result in a precarious stand-off between developers and the community. In recent years, many companies have taken welcome and needed steps to incorporate FPIC into their policies and have put in place checks to ensure that land rights and Indigenous Peoples are respected through their activities.
However, even proactive companies should be aware that preventing harm to human rights defenders is shifting from expectation to obligation. For instance:
• The new German Supply Chain Act creates an obligation for in-scope companies to make a best effort not to violate certain rights, including land rights, through activities of their own operations, direct suppliers and indirect suppliers. It also introduces a prohibition on the hiring of security forces for the protection of an enterprise’s project if those security forces, due to either lack of control or lack of training, engage in torture and cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment; damage life or limb; or impair the right to organize and freedom of association. The Act introduces specific due diligence obligations for an in-scope company including:
– performing regular risk analysis,
– laying down preventive measures in its own operations and vis-a-vis direct suppliers, and
– taking remedial action where it identifies that a violation of one of the listed rights has already occurred or is imminent.
• The EU’s proposal for a Directive on Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence would also introduce an obligation for EU and non-EU based companies, coming within scope, to conduct due diligence to address certain risks to human rights and the environment in their own operations, subsidiaries and global value chains. The rights and prohibitions covered, listed in the Annex to the proposal, include:
– the prohibition to unlawfully evict when acquiring or developing land, forests, and waters, and
– Indigenous Peoples’ right to the lands, territories, and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used.
3. What measures can companies put in place to ensure that they are respecting the rights of human rights defenders?
In 2021, the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights published welcome and positive guidance on how business can engage respectfully with human rights defenders. It provides a concrete list of recommendations. They include:
• At a very minimum, ensuring that a business’s activities, actions and omissions do not lead to retaliation, violence or stigmatisation against human rights defenders;
• Knowing and showing a commitment to the rights of human rights defenders through policies and procedures relating to human rights due diligence, and impact assessments;
• Not initiating frivolous legal proceedings against human rights defenders (including strategic lawsuits against public participation otherwise known as SLAPP suits);
• Not threatening to report human rights defenders to authorities as a means of intimidation;
• Enhancing due diligence processes by regularly engaging with affected stakeholders, civil society organisations, human rights defenders, and trade unions; and
• Designing and implementing an operational-level grievance mechanism which can protect confidentiality and provide for anonymity, and which is accessible through multiple channels.
Many companies already adhere to some of these practices, which is undoubtedly a positive development. However, 25 years on, it is imperative that companies consider their approach holistically and put in place a robust combination of measures to ensure that their activities do not cause or contribute to threats against human rights defenders. Only then can they ensure that their activities are truly human rights respecting.
To learn more about how to improve human rights performance, contact the Article One team: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is for informative purposes, and is not, nor should be taken as, legal advice.
 Officially, Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. It may be worth noting that the Declaration did not create any new rights. Instead, it reflected existing international law relevant to human rights defenders.
 A summary of input received during the public consultation on the targeted update of the OECD Guidelines was published on 21 March 2023: https://one.oecd.org/document/DAF/INV/RBC/RD(2023)1/en/pdf
 See the 2016 Trócaire report: “Making a Killing – Holding corporations to account for land and human rights violations.”
 In accordance with Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
 In accordance with Article 25, 26 (1) and (2), 27, and 29 (2) of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples).
 Officially, the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises.