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Human rights defenders & business in 2022: People challenging corporate power to protect our planet

“All over the world the positive achievements of human rights defenders too often go unrecognised. Defenders are targeted because they confront powerful vested interests by protecting our natural resources and shared climate, defending labour rights, exposing corruption, and refusing to accept injustice. As we mark the 25th anniversary of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, States can and should do more to protect defenders, including by passing mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence legislation that requires businesses to engage in ongoing, meaningful engagement with defenders and other stakeholders.

- Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur
on the situation of Human Rights Defenders

Every day, people across the globe are taking action to protect their communities, environments, and livelihoods from irresponsible business practice and demanding that companies uphold their responsibility to respect human rights, sometimes at great personal cost. Our data tracking attacks against these human rights defenders reveals the majority are against people raising concerns about harm to our shared environment.

This includes community members using direct action to stop logging in conservation areas in Malaysia, Indigenous leaders in Mexico protecting rivers and local biodiversity from harms caused by hydroelectric projects, and journalists reporting on environmental pollution in Serbia.

Despite the significant challenges they face, defenders are achieving victories worldwide. In 2022 defenders in Sierra Leone successfully advocated for a new law protecting customary land rights and banning industrial development in protected and ecologically sensitive areas; environmental justice groups in Louisiana’s “cancer alley” in the United States halted two large petrochemical projects; garment workers in Pakistan’s Sindh province won a 40% increase in minimum wage; women human rights defenders were elected to senior political positions in Brazil and Colombia, and after years of advocacy by Indigenous women leaders and organisations, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women adopted General Recommendation 39 on Indigenous Women and Girls - the first language in a binding international treaty focused on the rights of Indigenous women and girls.

As we mark the 25th anniversary of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, we celebrate the courage, creativity, and commitment of these people, organisations, and communities across the globe who are protecting our rights and shared planet.

Yet, human rights defenders continue to face intolerable levels of risk and harm. In their vital work to promote human rights and protect the environment, they confront powerful actors and interests. They raise concerns about companies and investors engaged in irresponsible practice, governments failing in their duty to protect human rights, and other non-state actors profiting from environmental destruction. They do this work in increasingly restrictive environments, where anti-protest, terrorism, defamation, and “foreign agent” laws are used to silence dissent. According to CIVICUS, 2022 was marked by a serious decline in civic space, with only 3% of the world’s population living in countries with open civic space, where the freedoms of peaceful assembly, association, and expression are respected.

The scale of lethal and non-lethal attacks against people defending our rights, natural resources, and environment from business-related harms shows the failure of governments to protect human rights and that voluntary action by companies and investors is insufficient to prevent, stop, and remedy harm. It reinforces the need for mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence legislation grounded in safe, ongoing and effective rights-holder engagement, respect for the process of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of Indigenous peoples, and strong safeguards for human rights defenders, as well as further government action to protect the people who are at the forefront of protecting our planet.

Between January 2015 – March 2023, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre tracked more than 4,700 attacks against human rights defenders raising concerns about harmful business practice. In 2022 alone, we tracked 555 attacks, revealing that on average more than 10 defenders were attacked every single week for raising legitimate concerns about irresponsible business activity. Three-quarters of attacks (75%) were against climate, land and environmental defenders. Over a fifth of attacks (23%) were against Indigenous defenders, who are protecting over 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity, although they comprise approximately 6% of the global population.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Our research is based on publicly available information and as many attacks, especially non-lethal attacks (including death threats, judicial harassment and physical violence), never make it to media sources and there is a significant gap in government monitoring of attacks, the problem is even more severe than these figures indicate.

Global picture

Attacks against human rights and environmental defenders occur in every region of the world. Since we began tracking in 2015, Latin America and Asia and the Pacific have consistently been the most dangerous regions for defenders.

In 2022, the highest number of attacks on defenders raising concerns about business-related harms occurred in Brazil (63 recorded incidents of attack, affecting one or more defender), India (54), Mexico (44), Cambodia (40), the Philippines (32), Honduras (31), Belarus (28), Peru (23), Colombia (20), and Uganda (17). Learn more about our research methodology.

Types of attacks

Defenders are subjected to a range of attacks, including both killings and non-lethal attacks, such as threats, smear campaigns, arbitrary arrest, strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs), and physical and sexual violence. Most (86%) of the attacks we tracked in 2022 were non-lethal, which are often precursors to lethal violence and warning signs to States to increase protection efforts.

Non-lethal attacks are generally left uninvestigated and unpunished, which can have a chilling effect on the work of defenders and promote impunity that feeds further violence where defenders persist in their critical work. The Esperanza Protocol, launched in December 2021 by civil society organisations and experts in international law, provides guidelines based on international human rights law to support the investigation, prosecution and punishment of threats against defenders by governments and ultimately create an enabling environment for the defence of human rights worldwide. While the protocol largely focuses on the duty of States, it also notes business actors must ensure their activities, actions, and omissions do not lead to threats against defenders and address any harms to defenders.


Oscar Mollohuanca Cruz was a former mayor of the Espinar district in Peru and a human rights and environmental defender. In 2012, alongside other community members, he raised concerns about environmental contamination and harm to human health related to copper mining in the region. 

In 2016, along with two other defenders, he was criminally indicted on charges of endangering public safety, obstruction of public services and disturbing the peace related to his activism and the protests in 2012. The three defenders faced eight years in jail for the first two charges and seven for the third one, in addition to fines of 27,000 EUR (100.000 soles). They were acquitted on 17 July 2017, however on 10 May 2018, the First Criminal Appeals Chamber of the Ica High Court of Justice overturned the acquittal and ordered the trial to be initiated once again.

In November 2021, Oscar participated in the National Campaign of Environmental Defenders in Peru where he shared his concerns about the lack of protection of defenders in the country and the urgent need for protecting the right to defend human rights. On 7 March 2022, Oscar was found dead with injuries on his body.

Judicial harassment

Many governments are not only failing in their duty to protect human rights but also actively targeting defenders through their legal systems or facilitating use of these systems by private actors to target defenders. Judicial harassment, which includes arbitrary detention, unfair trials, and other forms of criminalisation, continues to be prevalent worldwide. It also includes strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs), lawsuits initiated or brought by business actors against people and groups for exercising their rights to participate in, comment on, or criticise matters of public concern. Judicial harassment causes significant stress and harm to defenders and diverts time away from their human rights work while draining their resources. It can have a chilling effect, deterring others from speaking out against abuse. Jointly, these forms of judicial harassment comprised nearly half (47%) of the cases we tracked in 2022 and 51% of cases since 2015.

Bosnia & Herzegovina

Sunčica Kovačević and Sara Tuševljak are 25-year-old law students who formed a group comprised of local community members and activists organizing against the construction of small hydropower plants in the Kasindolska river in East Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. This initiative raised concerns about the environmental and human rights impacts of hydropower plants operated by BUK d.o.o, a subsidiary of Belgian-based company Green Invest. In January 2022, Green Invest brought three defamation lawsuits, which bear the hallmarks of SLAPPs, against Sunčica and Sara and they have been threatened with further legal action.

The Resource Centre sought a response from Green Invest, which stated the lawsuits were filed to stop the defamation against the company. A rejoinder from Riverwatch, EuroNatur, Foundation Atelier for Community Transformation – ACT, Save the Blue Heart of Europe, and Stop Building Small Hydropower Plants on Kasindolska River expressed support for the defenders.

ACT - Foundation for social change

Gendered nature of attacks

During 2022, nearly one-quarter of attacks were against women human rights defenders. While defenders of all genders are targeted due to their human rights work, women human rights defenders challenging both corporate power and patriarchal gender norms often endure specifically gendered attacks. This includes online threats and harassment of a sexualised nature and smear campaigns criticising women for spending time on activism rather than caretaking in the home. In research by the SAGE Fund about women defending their lands, territories, resources and the climate from extractive projects, many women interviewed said the psychological harm from online smear campaigns was one of the most significant and long-term forms of structural harm they face.

These tactics are meant to stigmatise, isolate and silence women defenders. Due to patriarchal power dynamics, women human rights defenders often also face risks in different spheres, including in their societies, communities and families. They may experience discrimination or violence in the movements and organisations they work with, criticism from their families or communities for their human rights work, and intimate partner violence at home. While defenders of any gender face barriers to justice and remedy, these difficulties are compounded for women human rights defenders due to gender-based discrimination and violence, and even more challenging for women facing multiple forms of discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, ability and other identities.

Sector overview

Attacks against defenders occur in relation to almost every business sector in every region of the world. The four most dangerous sectors in 2022 related to natural resources. Short term profit-driven extractive approaches which have underpinned the global energy model are core drivers of attacks on defenders and have not provided many of the economic benefits or development promised to communities and countries.

Mining has consistently been the most dangerous sector for defenders since we began tracking in 2015, showing little progress to prevent attacks. Nearly 30% of attacks in 2022 were connected to mining, and the sector is even more dangerous for Indigenous defenders – 41% of attacks against Indigenous peoples in 2022 related to mining.

This is particularly concerning given that International Energy Association projections point to a six-fold increase in demand for transition minerals (e.g., copper, cobalt, lithium, nickel, manganese, zinc, as covered in our Transition Minerals Tracker, as well as rare earths) by 2040. In addition, a 2022 study found that half of the world’s resource base for crucial energy transition materials is located on or near Indigenous Peoples’ lands. Lithium mining is of particular concern: according to the study, 85% of current and planned lithium extraction projects are located on or near land managed or inhabited by Indigenous peoples.

Mining for transition minerals, as well as land-intensive renewable energy projects, are already causing widespread abuse of land, water and Indigenous peoples' rights. Our Transition Minerals Tracker revealed the world’s biggest producers of six key minerals needed for the zero-carbon transition are largely failing to address risks and impacts on local communities, including attacks on civil society organisations and their leaders. This approach to the transition will also continue to fuel opposition, conflict, and result in delays to both projects and achieving our global climate targets. Such conflict has already resulted in at least 369 attacks on defenders related to renewable energy projects since 2015, including 98 killings. In addition, we have tracked at least 148 attacks related to transition mineral mining between 2010 and 2021, making up over a quarter of the 517 attacks recorded with links to renewable energy value chains – from mineral extraction through to installations. 

Despite these risks, human rights and environmental defenders are at the forefront of advocating for a rights-respecting, more sustainable energy transition which does not replicate harmful extractive models of past and present. They are also innovating and reimagining the energy sector based on equity. We are seeing a small, but growing, adoption of equity model frameworks where renewable energy companies design projects with Indigenous communities based on the principles of co-ownership and sustainable shared benefit, which is essential for a rights-based and sustainable transition.

Perpetrators of attacks

As many attacks involve collusion between State, private sector and other non-state actors in contexts with high levels of impunity, perpetrators are often difficult to identify. In cases where attacks could be connected with a specific company or a business project (43% of total attacks in 2022), the highest number of attacks related to companies headquartered in India and the United Arab Emirates. Both countries have tried to position themselves as global and environmental leaders and are hosting major multilateral events in 2023 – G20 and COP28, respectively. In addition, Brazil, set to host the G20 presidency in 2024, is the most dangerous country overall for defenders raising concerns about business. This worryingly signals that the countries charged with steering collective action on climate and global economic and financial stability are failing in their duty to protect human rights and to hold companies headquartered in their countries to account when they violate the rights of defenders.

Dhinkia women


JSW steel plant opponents face criminalisation

Dhinkia women


JSW steel plant opponents face criminalisation

In 2018, Jindal Steel Ltd (JSW) proposed constructing a large integrated steel plant in Odisha’s Jagatinsghpur District, which has been opposed by local villagers ever since. Community members, who previously won a decade-long fight against South Korean company Posco over a 12-million-tonne capacity steel project, have raised concerns about land acquisition and displacement, negative environmental and health impacts, and harm to their right to food and traditional livelihoods, which include betel vine farming.

Since the approval of the JSW plant, community members have engaged peaceful protests, direct action to block officials from carrying out land acquisition for the plant, and opposition to the project in public hearings. Community resistance has been met by severe police repression and high levels of criminalisation of villagers on false charges, with more than 1,000 community members facing criminal charges. Defenders involved in organising protests have faced arrest, detention, physical violence, threats, and harassment. This includes Narendra Mohanty, Debendra Swain and Muralidhar Sahoo who were arrested by police officers on 14 January 2022 for supporting a peaceful protest, where police reportedly injured and arrested many people. On 19 February 2022, Pradeep Satpathy and other defenders, along with Dhinkia villagers, were reportedly assaulted by a mob in the presence of the police and senior administrative officials. They were on their way to meet a High-Court-appointed committee of lawyers and to submit their concerns regarding ongoing clampdowns in the name of acquiring land for JSW. In March 2022, a group of environmental defenders called for the proposal to be withdrawn con the basis of an inadequate and fraudulent Environmental Impact Assessment. Despite this, in April 2022, JSW received environmental clearance for setting up the plant. In December 2022, other leaders of the movement were arrested, including Shanti Das, Abhaya Mallick, Dillip Kandi, Narayan Muduli, Hrudananda Rout, Megha Das, and Nutan Das. Many defenders protesting the project, including Pradeep Satpathy and Debendra Swain, are still in jail.

Community members continue to oppose the project, despite the repression they face. They are calling on the Indian government to cancel the forest and environmental clearance for the project, withdraw police forces and investigate officials who engaged in violence, and dismiss all charges against protestors and release them from prison. In March 2023, the National Green Tribunal suspended the environmental clearance for the project on the grounds that it was given without considering the cumulative Environmental Impact Assessment in the public hearing, among other issues. The National Green Tribunal has asked the union environment ministry to do a fresh appraisal in three months.

We invited JSW to respond to the allegations, the company's full response is available here. India saw the second highest number of attacks against defenders raising concerns about business in 2022 and will host the G20 in September.

Image: Prafulla Das

Maasai people protest evictions, Tanzania 2022


Govt forces attack Maasai protesting game reserve evictions

Maasai people protest evictions, Tanzania 2022


Govt forces attack Maasai protesting game reserve evictions

"Our government has decided to unleash the full power of the military to oust us from our land, leaving many injured by gunshots, children roaming in the bush, and we have moved to sleep in the bush. The government is refusing to treat the injured. Many people are without food. And this is our ancestral land. This is barbaric to take our land for luxury hunting of the UAE leaders.”

Anonymous Maasai leader, Tanzania

On 8 June 2022, dozens of police vehicles and an estimated 700 officers arrived in Loliondo, North Tanzania, near Serengeti National Park, to demarcate a 1,500 km2 area of Maasai land as a Game Reserve. On 10 June officers fired on Maasai people protesting against evictions - at least 18 men and 13 women were shot, and 13 wounded with machetes. One person was confirmed dead. The United Arab Emirates (UAE)-based Otterlo Business Company (OBC) — which runs hunting excursions for the country’s royal family and their guests — will reportedly control commercial hunting in the area. NGO Survival International reported that, following the violence, thousands of Maasai people fled their homes and police went house-to-house beating and arresting people they believe distributed images of the eviction. In October 2022, more than 70 organisations and nearly 100 individuals publicly called on the Government of Tanzania to stop criminalising Maasai people for defending and exercising their rights, release people who have been imprisoned under trumped-up charges, provide access to justice for all victims, and cancel any concession or permits granted to the OBC for this project. We invited Otterlo Business Corporation to respond to these allegations; it did not.

Illegal gold mining protest in Brazil, 2022


Yanomami people attacked defending their land

Illegal gold mining protest in Brazil, 2022


Yanomami people attacked defending their land

Yanomami Land is the largest Indigenous territory in Brazil, where more than 25,000 Yanomami people live. Even though the reserve is protected by law, illegal gold mining is having a devastating effect - polluting rivers, destroying the forest and resulting in significant harm to health. The mercury used in illegal mining is poisoning land used to grow crops and water used for drinking and fishing and the influx of miners (garimpeiros) exposes people to disease, together resulting in an explosion of cases of malaria and severe malnutrition. While illegal mining has been present in the territory since the 1970s, it expanded under the Bolsonaro administration which weakened environmental protections and cut the powers of federal agencies responsible for environmental protection and Indigenous affairs. Other contributing factors are a lack of transparency in the production chain of gold, regulatory failures that allow fraud in the declaration of origin, and worsening unemployment in Brazil. Research by Hutukara Associação Yanomami found that from 2016 to 2020, wildcat mining on the Yanomami Indigenous Land grew by more than 3,350%.

A number of attacks have been carried out by garimpeiros against Yanomami people protecting their territory and natural resources from mining, including the murder of two people and injuries to five others in April 2022. That same month, a 12-year-old girl was raped and killed and garimpeiros threw a 4-year-old child into a river. Miners have also sexually abused women and children in exchange for food. In January 2023, Brazil's ministry of health declared a medical emergency in the Yanomami territory and launched an operation to remove illegal miners.

Repórter Brasil, Escolhas Institute, and Human Rights Watch have identified companies which are potentially connected to gold illegally extracted from Indigenous lands in Brazil, including the Yanomami Indigenous Territory. In February 2023, the Resource Centre invited Ourominas, D'Gold, Carol, Bulgari, Rolex and Tiffany & Co to respond to the allegations. Ourominas, Rolex and Tiffany & Co responded; their responses are available here. D’Gold, Carol and Bulgari and did not respond.

The five companies whose operations, value chains, or business relationships were connected to the highest numbers of attacks in 2022 were JSW Steel Ltd. (India), Otterlo Business Corporation (UAE), TotalEnergies (France, East African Crude Oil Pipeline majority shareholder), Inversiones los Pinares (Honduras), and NagaCorp Ltd and its subsidiary NagaWorld (Cambodia) (more information about the allegations can be downloaded here). These include any attacks against defenders raising human rights concerns about these companies’ operations, value chains, or business relationships, even if the company did not perpetrate the attack directly.

We invited these companies to respond. JSW Steel Ltd. and TotalEnergies responded; their full responses are available here. Otterlo Business Corporation, Inversiones los Pinares, and NagaCorp did not respond.

There are many ways companies can be involved with attacks on defenders, including:

  • Calling police or state security forces to disperse a peaceful protest at one of their operation sites;
  • Threatening, firing or calling for the arrest of union leaders;
  • Cooperating with state repression, such as by providing services or products that enable surveillance of journalists and other defenders; and
  • Initiating lawsuits against defenders for defamation, damages or incitement to commit a felony; and
  • Lobbying for policies that restrict civic freedoms, such as “anti-protest” laws and actions that lead to criminalisation of defenders.

Less obvious tactics to silence defenders and undermine their rights include providing incentives for some community members to create divisions, obstructing unionisation, disseminating distorted information about projects, lobbying against regulation intended to protect human rights and the environment, and exploiting governance gaps for corporate benefit, among others.

According to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and subsequent guidance, if business actors are causing or contributing human rights abuse affecting defenders, their responsibility is clear-cut: end the abuse and address and remedy any harm. Even in cases where there are no apparent direct links between companies or investors and attacks, business actors with operations, supply chains, business relationships and/or investments are expected to proactively use their leverage to promote respect for the rights of defenders and civic freedoms. In addition, restrictions on civic freedoms signal riskier contexts for investment and economic activity and create an “information black box” for companies and investors, making it more difficult to engage in robust human rights due diligence.

Other non-state actors involved with attacks on defenders include illegal miners, loggers and organised criminal groups. Illegal mining and logging - extraction of these natural resources undertaken without appropriate land rights, exploration licenses or transportation and other permits - are often associated with significant human rights abuses, environmental harm and corruption. Lack of transparency in precious metal supply chains, weak regulation in both producing and consumer countries, the potential for significant profit, and high levels of impunity fuel exploitation in this sector.

People who raise concerns about illegal mining and logging are protecting their land, clean water, and biodiversity; combating pollution and deforestation; and helping to address the climate crisis. They often face threats and violence from those involved with this illegal exploitation of resources. While companies are not direct perpetrators of these attacks, these illegally extracted resources often end up in their supply chains, showing a need for stronger human rights due diligence among sourcing companies.

State actors

Among the cases we tracked where information was publicly available about alleged perpetrators of attacks, the police were named most frequently, followed by the judicial system. The data we uncovered shows how governments are failing in their duty to protect rights and, further, are actively using agents and arms of the State – police, armed forces and the judicial system – to try to silence and stop human rights and environmental protection work. According to the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, governments have a duty to investigate, punish and redress all forms of threats and attacks against human rights defenders in a business context, yet many have a vested interest in these attacks happening under the radar given their involvement. In addition, very few States are collecting official data on lethal and non-lethal attacks.

Advances in legislation and voluntary commitments

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.

Milestones in 2022 and 2023 include:

  • Adoption of General Recommendation 39 on Indigenous Women and Girls by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women - the first language in a binding international treaty focused on the rights of Indigenous Women and Girls. The recommendation also acknowledges that Indigenous women and girls are at the forefront of demand and action for a clean, safe, healthy and sustainable environment.
  • Inclusion of strengthened stakeholder consultation requirements and the language of human rights defenders in the European Union corporate sustainability due diligence legislation text approved by the European Parliament’s Committee on Legal Affairs (JURI) on 25 April 2023, making it more likely that the final text of this historic corporate accountability legislation could include requirements related to defenders. At the same time, the language in the JURI committee’s position is in some ways weaker than the text proposed by lead MEP Lara Wolters in her earlier draft report. The EU Council’s General Approach adopted by Member States on 1 December 2022 also includes language on defenders and explicitly mentions them as stakeholders whose rights or interests could be affected by corporate activity.
  • Appointment of former UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defender Michel Forst as the first-ever Special Rapporteur on Environmental Defenders under the Aarhus Convention, which protects the right to live in a healthy environment in the European Union. This is the first such mechanism specifically safeguarding environmental defenders to be established within a legally binding framework either under a UN system or other intergovernmental structure.
  • Consultations on the revision of the OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises, in which civil society groups have urged strengthening the text on reprisals and explicitly including “human rights defenders”.
  • Several corporate and government commitments to the protection of civic space and human rights defenders as part of the US Summit for Democracy.

These and other developments signal momentum towards recognition of the need to prevent and address attacks against defenders raising concerns about business-related harms, including among companies themselves. For example, Hewlett Packard Enterprises enacted a policy commitment to respect the rights of marginalised groups (including defenders) in January 2022, and TotalEnergies published information about the actions it has taken with respect to human rights defenders and freedom of expression in Uganda (see also TotalEnergies EP Uganda’s human rights policy). In addition, the Voluntary Principles Initiative, a multi-stakeholder initiative that guides oil, gas and mining companies on how to conduct their security operations in a manner that respects human rights, will release guidance on defenders in 2023.

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.

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 detailed 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.

Recommendations for companies

  • Adopt and implement policy commitments which recognise the valuable role of defenders, reference specific risks to defenders, ensure effective engagement and consultation with defenders at all stages of the due diligence process and commit to zero-tolerance for reprisals throughout the company’s operations, supply chains and business relationships.
  • Create public commitments to respect fundamental rights with particular attention to rights often abused in connection with attacks on defenders, such as violations of land and Indigenous peoples’ rights.
  • Engage in and report on the results of human rights and environmental due diligence that integrates a gender perspective throughout and ensure effective access to remedy for those harmed by business activity, in accordance with the UNGPs, the UN Working Group’s guidance on ensuring respect for defenders, and the UN Working Group’s gender guidance.
  • Recognise that Indigenous defenders are disproportionately at risk, respect Indigenous peoples’ rights, grounded in their rights to self-determination; lands, territories, and resources; and right to free, prior, and informed consent, including their right to define the process by which FPIC is achieved and to withhold consent (more detailed recommendations available here).
  • Publicly recognise that defenders have a right to defend human rights, are essential allies in assisting businesses to adhere to their responsibilities under the UNGPs.

Recommendations for investors

  • Publish a public human rights policy which recognises the valuable role of defenders in identifying risks associated with business activities and commits to a zero-tolerance approach to attacks against defenders. Clearly communicate the human rights expectations included in this policy to portfolio companies, including that companies:
    ‣ disclose human rights and environment-related risks;
    ‣ engage in ongoing consultation with communities, workers and defenders;
    ‣ have policies and processes to respect Indigenous peoples’ rights (including land rights and free, prior and informed consent);
    ‣ respect the rights of defenders; and
    ‣ ensure effective access to remedy when harm occurs.
  • Undertake rigorous human rights and environmental due diligence that integrates a gender perspective throughout and review potential investees for any past involvement with retaliation. Avoid investing in companies with this track record.
  • Use leverage with investee companies which cause, contribute to, or are directly linked to human rights and environmental harms, including attacks on defenders, so that the company mitigates negative impacts and provides access to remedy to those affected.

Authors: Christen Dobson and Ana Zbona

Researchers and contributors: Lady Nancy Zuluaga Jaramillo, Valentina Muñoz Bernal, Vitória Dell’Aringa Rocha, Ella Skybenko, Vladyslava Kaplina, Andrea Maria Pelliconi

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre is an international NGO which tracks the human rights impacts of over 10,000 companies in over 180 countries, making information available on our 10-language website. The Resource Centre’s Civic Freedoms and Human Rights Defenders programme addresses the root causes of killings and violence against human rights and environmental defenders linked to company operations and global supply chains; advocates for rights-respecting practices and accountability among corporate actors; and increases rapid action and longer-term involvement of business actors in support of defenders and civic freedoms to prevent attacks against defenders so that they can safely champion human rights.

Cover image: Emily Arasim/WECAN International

Further reading

Human rights defenders & business in 2021

Protecting the rights of peoples driving a just transition

Briefing: Protector not prisoner

Exploring the rights violations & criminalisation of Indigenous Peoples in climate actions

Briefing: Hearing the human

Ensuring due diligence legislation effectively amplifies the voices of those affected by irresponsible business

Human rights defenders & civic freedoms

Explore all our resources on HRDs and civic freedoms

HRDs database

Our database of attacks against business-related human rights defenders


Explore all our resources on strategic lawsuits against public participation