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15 Jun 2021

Corporate actors are abusing the legal system to silence activists

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Powerful entities are abusing the legal system to silence human rights defenders and communities who speak out against corporate abuse to protect our rights and shared environment. In the first-ever global analysis of lawsuits which bear the hallmarks of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre identified more than 350 cases since 2015 of business actors using this tactic to intimidate and bankrupt their critics. 

Mining, agribusiness, logging and palm oil were the sectors where these types of lawsuits were most commonly used to drain the resources of those who speak out in support of human rights and the environment.

Key findings:

  • SLAPPs are expensive for Human Rights Defenders (HRDs). The amount of damages sought by those filing SLAPPs in just 82 of the cases totalled to over 1.5 billion USD (information on damages sought was not available for the remaining cases). 
  • Most SLAPPs (304) were brought against individuals, as opposed to organisations (38), underscoring the intimidating nature of the tactic. [Both individuals and organisations were SLAPPed in 13 cases.]
  • SLAPPs are usually groundless and vexatious in nature. Of the cases for which we could find outcomes, more than four in five alleged SLAPPs were dismissed, dropped or ruled in favour of defendant.
  • Some companies were identified as repeat offenders involved in several cases of alleged SLAPPs: Thammakaset (Thailand), Inversiones Los Pinares (Honduras), MMG Limited Las Bambas (Peru), and Lydian Armenia (Armenia).
  • The highest number of alleged SLAPPs occurred in Latin America (39%); Asia was not far behind (25%). Around 73% of SLAPPs were brought in countries in the Global South
  • The countries with the highest number of SLAPPs were Thailand (49), Honduras (46), Peru (38), and the United States (28). There were also high numbers of SLAPPs recorded in France, Mexico, Armenia, Cameroon, Guatemala, Cambodia, the Philippines and South Africa.

Case study: Seven environmental activists sued by a poultry company in Honduras

On 29 March 2021 seven environmental defenders and members of the Alternative for Community and Environmental Vindication of Honduras - Alternativa de Reivindicación Comunitaria y Ambientalista de Honduras, ARCAH, were detained and charged with ‘forced displacement’ following a complaint brought by the poultry company ‘El Cortijo’. The defenders were demonstrating outside the company’s offices, concerning its activities and connection with the pollution of a local river. On 30 March 2021, they were released and placed under house arrest. In May 2021, the environmental rights defenders were still under house arrest awaiting trial. We invited El Cortijo to respond; it did not. We will publish a response if received in the future. 

Lady Nancy Zuluaga Jaramillo, Legal Researcher, Human Rights Defenders & Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, said: “This is an abusive and harmful use of the legal system by powerful actors against those who dare to speak out about injustices and risk their own safety to protect communities and the environment from corporate abuse. What’s worse, SLAPPs have the chilling effect of deterring others from speaking out in the future. What we have recorded is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg in what is essentially a direct attack on freedom of expression and the legitimate defence of human rights and the environment. 

“Although civil society and human rights defenders have started pushing back against the use of SLAPPs, there is an urgent need for companies, investors and the legal community to step in. Business actors must start engaging with defenders to address their criticisms, rather than simply suing them for criticising their activities, while investors must prioritise respect for human rights defenders by not investing in companies that have a track record of SLAPPs and law firms should refrain from taking such cases.”

Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said: “When human rights defenders are afraid to question reports about wrongdoing and deficits they observe, it affects the entire society. Strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) have exactly that effect: they can impose sometimes significant fines and criminal sanctions, and thus intimidate human rights defenders and stop them from shedding light on critical issues. It is our shared responsibility to prevent SLAPPs from undermining everyone’s right to know.”


Note to editors:

  • This research covers lawsuits brought or initiated since 2015 by a private party against individual defenders, groups, and organisations focused on business-related activities for exercising their rights to participate in, comment on, or criticise matters of public concern. This includes both civil suits and criminal cases.
  • The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre is an international NGO that tracks the human rights impacts (positive and negative) of more than 10,000 companies across nearly 200 countries. We seek responses from companies when concerns are raised by civil society.

Media contact: Priyanka Mogul (London-based), Media Officer, Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, +44 (0) 7880 956239, [email protected]