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Opinion

Colombia: The role of business during social protests - challenges & opportunities

Vicki Brown, FPP (Accompanied by CIJP)

Evidence of deforestation, destined for business and other projects, leading the indigenous family losing 64 of the 100 hectares that have been in their family since the 1970s - Choco, Colombia, November 2019

Excerpts from UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor's speech at the open meeting of the Business Network on Civic Freedoms and Human Rights Defenders: “Deep dive: Colombia: from the promise of economic development to widespread repression – the role of business during social protests: challenges and opportunities”, 10 June 2021

I would like to begin by emphasising how valuable initiatives like the Business Network on Civic Freedoms and Human Rights Defenders are both in clearly recognising the role business has to play in the protection of human rights and attempting to increase understanding of the role of civil society and human rights defenders. Human rights defenders (HRDs) are essential in any society, but especially so in those affected by conflict, where they monitor and document human rights violations, pursue accountability and push for the implementation of international standards. But they should not have to do this alone.

As the UN Guiding Principles highlight, businesses also have an obligation to ensure their actions, or lack thereof, do not contribute to human rights violations. Ten years on from the their publication and given the scale of business-linked attacks on HRDs, it is evident that the majority of business have not operationalised them. It is clear to me that far too many business actors believe they can operate in isolation from the social contexts in which they are based. Furthermore many believe that as long as they are creating employment – whatever the conditions – the impact on the social fabric is not their responsibility.

In the specific context of Colombia, this ‘head in the sand’ approach is clearly untenable, given the risks faced by HRDs there who highlight human rights violations which have been caused or exacerbated by business activities. As my predecessor on the mandate underlined in his report that followed his country visit to Colombia, for years Colombia has been one of the most dangerous countries in the world for defenders working in the context of business. The opportunity for business to stand alongside civil society and HRDs in promoting peace, progress and reconciliation was missed following the 2016 Peace Accords and HRDs have been threatened, attacked and killed in an environment of near impunity.

It is important to highlight here the huge power imbalance that exists between business actors and HRDs and social leaders; the economic and political capital of business means from the outset the scales are tipped in favour of that capital. I suspect that if business leaders were being murdered in their hundreds, the way HRDs are, we would no longer be finding ourselves in this situation. And it can be taken for granted that HRDs would be demanding action to put an end to these killings. Indeed this feeling of powerlessness is a contributory factor to the social unrest and at times violent protests we have been seeing in Colombia over the past six weeks.

In the light of the above, what can be done? The most effective way to address and foresee human rights concerns is for business to carry out human rights due diligence. Any due diligence must take the views of HRDs into account, must establish communication channels with them and must leave the door open to longer term cooperation as risk to rights change over time, as most often it will be HRDs who sound the warning signals for much greater business (and human rights) risks coming down the line.

The benefits to business of a participative, resourced and thorough engagement process with local communities was highlighted in last summer’s report of the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises to the General Assembly. The report noted an example from Colombia, where “during the civil war, an engineering and construction business and, separately, an energy business each managed to complete a major project in the territory controlled by insurgent groups. Both businesses spent two years engaging in participatory community development projects prior to initiating technical operations which motivated communities to help the businesses to resolve challenges, including problems arising from the activities of the local armed groups.”

Since business in conflict or post-conflict settings often operates in a contested environment where supporters and detractors may have much to lose, the establishment of a publicised policy around HRDs and whistleblowers is essential from the outset, as is a clear statement outlining there will be no tolerance of attacks against those who peacefully highlight human rights concerns, no matter how potentially damaging to the business.

Business also has a responsibility during times of social upheaval, as we are seeing in Colombia now. Most obviously they must ensure their practices, policies or products are not being used to legitimise or carry out abuses against those peacefully demanding their rights. Beyond that, I would argue there are compelling and interlinked moral, pragmatic and business reasons to condemn the use of excessive force and the criminalisation by state authorities of human rights defenders. By using its voice in defence of fundamental rights and freedoms, business can build social capital with communities under attack which can lead to better and more trusting relations. It is self-evident the vast majority of businesses do better in contexts which are not riven by social conflict. By expressing support for international human rights standards, including the right to defend rights, while also criticising excesses, business can help contribute to the establishment of a rules-based system which benefits them and also the country’s citizens.

Doing business in any conflict or post conflict affected area has multiple challenges; regarding human rights defenders as allies rather than enemies from the start is a positive way to being addressing these.