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COVID-19: Human Rights Defenders & Civic Freedoms

Impacts on human rights defenders raising concerns about business

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Public health measures and expanded government powers amid global pandemic pose added threats to freedoms and rights of human rights defenders, including those focusing on business-related human rights impacts. Some governments, and other actors, are using this crisis to attack defenders in new ways, stifle civic freedoms, and push through restrictive measures. Defenders become easier to target, when they isolate, which is compounded by the loss of protective accompaniment and the lack of media attention to their situation. In several countries, rural and indigenous defenders have lost their livelihoods and are experiencing lock-downs - including those in conflict zones - and are less able to raise concerns about harmful business projects as a result. There are also reports of factories using the pandemic to justify dismissal of labour rights defenders. Tech companies may also violate the right to privacy of defenders, as they cooperate with governments to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Some companies are keeping their businesses active, for example in Peru and Colombia, despite the local opposition - and some sectors are likely to use the crisis to lobby for lower regulations, as we are already seeing in Indonesia and the United States, which could lead to more tension and violence in the future. This crisis also underlines that businesses benefit from defenders being able to work freely: this is now more evident than ever, as silencing of health professionals that tried to raise alarm on COVID-19 early, helped turn this 'potentially containable threat into a global calamity', with enormous consequences for businesses and the economy.

This section will feature the latest news on how the pandemic and the response to it is affecting human rights defenders that raise concerns about businesses, and their impacts on the rights to food, access water, labour rights, environment, housing and health. We will also highlight impacts on fundamental freedoms, such as freedoms of expression, association, and assembly, that these defenders need to be able to organize and work. Finally, we will be tracking new ways of protesting and organizing by these defenders and groups amidst the pandemic, and new demands in response to it.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who are human rights defenders, focusing on business, and why are they particularly vulnerable during the pandemic?

Human rights defenders, focusing on business, are affected-community leaders and members, and members of human rights and environmental civil society organizations, protecting land, environment, culture and livelihoods, labour rights defenders and union leaders, protecting labour rights, anti-corruption activists that denounce corporate capture and business involvement in bribery and corruption, and other individuals and organizations, raising human rights-related concerns about business projects, promoting sustainable development, and experiencing attacks and abuse of rights for doing so.

But aren't some limitations on fundamental freedoms necessary during this pandemic?

Some limitations on fundamental freedoms may be necessary during public health crises, but this can result in human rights violations if states enact policies and measures that unjustly and disproportionately impact our rights and freedoms, extend emergency measures beyond a reasonable time period, or if they fail to adequately protect people against preventable harms related to the pandemic.

Why is it important to support human rights defenders during the COVID-19 response, including those focusing on business?

Protecting and supporting defenders right now is crucial, as some governments and companies are using this crisis moment to further limit freedoms and silence them, paving way for irresponsible investment and business projects in the post-pandemic future.

Are you tracking impacts on all human rights defenders whose rights are affected by COVID-19 response?

No, there are other great organizations and media outlets doing that, and keeping track of general limitations on civic freedoms, such as ICNL's COVID-19 Civic Freedom Tracker that monitors government responses that affect civic freedoms, Reporters Without Borders (RSF)'s Tracker-19 that monitors and evaluates the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on journalism, Front Line Defenders' ongoing tracking of attacks on defenders, and CIVICUS tracking civil society's responses to COVID-19 (https://www.civicus.org/index.php/covid-19), among others. We only try to capture abuses of rights, and new ways of organizing, of those defenders and groups that focus on business-related human rights impacts - and those protests and clampdowns that have a clear business dimension or a particularly strong impact on or involvement of the business community.

Featured contents

Civic Freedom Tracker

ICNL's COVID-19 Civic Freedom Tracker monitors government responses that affect civic freedoms

RSF Tracker

Reporters Without Borders (RSF)'s Tracker-19 monitors and evaluates the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on journalism

Protection for HRDs

Front Line Defenders' Guide on physical, emotional & digital protection for HRDs during COVID-19

#ForFreedom Campaign

FIDH's #ForFreedom campaign for release of imprisoned defenders threatened by the pandemic

New types of protest, advocacy and demands during COVID-19

New and innovative forms of protest to denounce business-related human rights abuses, including abuses of communities' land rights, labour rights, environmental degradation, and corrupt practices that involve businesses.