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Guidance on business, human rights defenders & civic freedoms

Over the past two years, there have been several significant developments related to business and human rights defenders in both soft and hard law, driven by years of civil society advocacy. In 2021, the seminal interpretation of UNGPs by the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights clarified the normative responsibility of business actors to respect the rights of defenders and highlighted the critical role played by defenders in human rights due diligence processes and in enabling business enterprises to understand the concerns of affected stakeholders. In addition, the Escazú Agreement - the first legally binding instrument in the world to include provisions on environmental human rights defenders and the first environmental agreement adopted in Latin America and the Caribbean – entered into force.

However, the scale and severity of attacks on people across the globe protecting our rights and environment clearly show the need for urgent action. We call on States to fulfil their duty to protect the rights of defenders and for business actors to respect the rights of defenders by acting on these recommendations.

Our recommendations for states

  • Pass and implement legislation recognising the right to defend rights and the vital role of defenders, both individual and collective, in promoting human rights, sustainable development, and a healthy environment and committing to zero-tolerance for attacks (more detail recommendations available here). This must include legal recognition of the specific rights of Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples (more detailed recommendations  available here).
  • Accede to or, if already ratified, fully implement key international and regional standards that protect the civic freedoms of defenders, including those raising concerns about harmful business practice.
  • Pass national laws to implement the UNGPs, including mandatory human rights due diligence legislation, and consult with defenders at all stages of this process. This legislation should mandate that business actors engage in ongoing safe and effective consultation with defenders and other rightsholders potentially or directly affected, should be an integral part of climate mitigation and adaptation plans, and should be aligned with the UN working group’s guidance on defenders and other key standards mentioned above (more detailed recommendations available here).
  • Collect and report data on non-lethal and lethal attacks to inform more effective protection mechanisms and passing anti-SLAPP legislation to prevent companies silencing defenders (more detailed recommendations available here).
  • Ensure effective remedy for violations when they occur, including by strengthening judicial systems to hold businesses accountable for acts of retaliation against defenders and actively participating in investigation and prosecution of those responsible for attacks.
  • Move towards supporting the adoption of a binding United Nations treaty on business and human rights and ensure that it explicitly recognises the risks defenders face and their right to defend human rights.

Resources and guidance

Responsible Mining Index 2022 report calls on mining companies to show commitment to human rights defenders protection

The vast majority of the 250 assessed mine sites across 53 countries cannot demonstrate that they are informing and engaging with host communities and workers on basic risk factors such as environmental impacts, safety issues or grievances. Some 94% of the mine sites score an average of less than 20% on the fifteen basic ESG issues assess.

UN Working Group Guidance on Human rights defenders and civic space – the business and human rights dimension

The importance of HRDs in the context of business-related impacts on human rights is recognized by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights decided to give focused attention to the issue of attacks on HRDs and civic space from 2017 onwards.

UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders' report on HRDs in the field of business and human rights

Throughout his mandate, former Special Rapporteur Michel Forst, focused on the situation of HRDs in the field of business and human rights, via reports and engagement with companies and governments. The current Special Rapporteur Mary Lawlor continues to prioritize several of the issues closely related to business.

Guidance: Shared space under pressure - Business support for civic freedoms and human rights defenders

The seminal report, based on 90 interviews with business leaders, UN and civil society experts and HRDs, and with 12 ‘spotlights, explains the normative framework, the business case & the moral choice for businesses to act when shared civil society space is under pressure, threat or attack.

Simplified decision-making tools for business

A simplified version of the tools in the 'Shared space under pressure - Business support for civic freedoms and human rights defenders' guidance, authored by Bennett Freeman and commissioned by BHRRC & ISHR.

Lectures: Human rights defenders & Business (Parts 1 & 2)

This two-part lecture at Ryerson CSR Institute in Canada explores in depth the intersection between rights of defenders and business enterprises.