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26 May 2022


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Design and Methodology of the Database of Attacks

Our database compiles cases of attacks on human rights and environmental defenders (HRDs) working on business-related human rights issues from January 2015 onwards. 

Our vision is that civic freedoms are protected and that human rights organisations, defenders, and other civil society actors are able to work in safe and enabling environments free from restriction or attack. By tracking the threats and violence that HRDs face for protecting their rights and our shared environment, we aim to increase awareness about the scale and nature of this global problem and inform protection and policy responses designed to respond to and prevent future attacks.

Q: How do we define a “human rights defender”?

We use the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights’ definition of human rights defenders: “people who, individually or with others, act to promote or protect human rights… The actions taken by human rights defenders must be peaceful in order to comply with the Declaration on human rights defenders.” Our database includes threats and attacks against people taking peaceful action to protect their labour, land, environmental, cultural and/or other rights, whether in their own personal capacity or professionally, that they perceive as being under threat by business activity.

The HRDs in the database were/ are defenders focusing on business-related human rights issues, including:

  • Human rights defenders working in or volunteering for civil society organizations focused on business-related human rights issues;
  • Leaders of rural communities or community-based groups (e.g. Indigenous peoples);
  • Leaders and members of unions (e.g. trade unions, professional associations such as journalists’ associations, judges’ and lawyers’ and bar associations) and their organizations;
  • Leaders of social movements or professionals contributing directly to the enjoyment of human rights (e.g. humanitarian workers, lawyers, doctors and medical workers);
  • Journalists covering corporate accountability topics; 
  • Leaders of faith-based groups focusing on corporate accountability; and
  • Relatives or friends of victims of human rights violations, if:
    • They appear to have been intimidated, attacked or killed as a reprisal for the defender’s work that they are related to or friends with;
    • They appear to have been intimidated, attacked or killed in order to intimidate the defender that they are related to or friends with; or
    • If they were killed in the same attack as the defender.

Q: What types of cases are included in the database?

We include cases in which:

  1. A HRD or CSO was clearly attacked by a company or a government in collusion with that company allegedly due to the defense of their human rights in relation to that company
  2. A HRD or CSO was raising human rights concerns related to a particular company or business project and was allegedly attacked because of their human rights defense
  3. A HRD or CSO was raising human rights concerns related to a particular business sector and was allegedly attacked because of their human rights defense

The following criteria need to be met for a case to be included:

  • Publicly available information from at least two sources: All cases we include are based on publicly available information must be covered in at least two online sources that are trusted by our global team.
  • Name of the defender: Name and additional information about the HRD, such as information about their human rights work and organisational affiliations (if any). If the names of the HRDs attacked are not available in public sources, we may include an attack against multiple unnamed defenders as one incident in our database.
  • Information about the type of attack and the link of the attack to human rights work: This includes the method of violence, date, and location. In addition, there needs to be enough publicly available information to be able to show that the attack was allegedly related to defenders’ human rights work.
  • Link of defender’s work to business-related human rights issue: This database specifically tracks the range of attacks experienced by HRDs and CSOs focused on business-related issues.

*As our research is based on publicly available information and as many attacks, especially non-lethal attacks (including death threats, judicial harassment and physical violence), are not shared publicly, the problem is even more severe than our research indicates. In addition, our database tracks instances of attacks, which may be against one or more defenders. If the defender's name is publicly available, that is included as one attack in our database. If defender names are not publicly available and the sources indicate a group or community has been attacked, that is also included as one attack. Given this, the number of defenders directly affected by attacks is much higher than the total number of attacks in our database.

Q: How do we identify cases to include in the database?

Cases are identified in several ways:

  • Regional researchers: The Resource Centre’s staff includes regional researchers based across the globe. They continually monitor the human rights impacts of companies in their region in consultation with local and regional civil society partners, including attacks against HRDs and CSOs.
  • Online research: We continually monitor publicly available information online, including the research of other local, regional, and international human rights organizations focused on human rights defenders including Amnesty International, CIVICUS, Clean Clothes Campaign, Committee to Protect Journalists, EU Protect Defenders, FIDH / OMCT – Observatory of HRDs, Forum-Asia, Front Line Defenders, Global Witness, HRD Alert India, IM-Defensoras, IndustriALL Global Union, Labour Start, Reporters Without Borders, Solidarity Center, Somos Defensores, UDEFEGUA and others. We also monitor media outlets in several languages.
  • Partners and coalitions: We sometimes receive information about incidents directly from HRDs or local and regional civil society partners, as well as through the coalitions in which we participate, including the Alliance for Land, Indigenous, and Environmental Defenders, Defenders in Development, VUKA!, and Zero Tolerance Initiative. We would like to extend a special thanks to Global Witness and Janika Spannagel of the Public Policy Institute who shared relevant cases with us from 2015 when we first began this database.

Q: How do we categorize types of attacks?

As one of the main sources for the database is the coverage of incidents by Resource Centre staff, we use our organization-wide taxonomy to tag attacks.

The categories we use to track and classify attacks on defenders are the following ones from our taxonomy: Abduction, Arbitrary detention, Beatings & violence, Death penalty, Death threats, Denial of freedom of expression, Denial of freedom of movement, Disappearances, Injuries, Intimidation & threats, Killings, Rape & sexual abuse, Sexual harassment, Torture & ill-treatment, Unfair trial, Lawsuits and regulatory action (representing judicial harassment), and Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) brought or initiated by companies.

This means we are currently not using specific descriptions such as "freezing a bank account" or "limiting receipt of foreign funding”, though these attacks may be included under the "Denial of freedom of expression" category if the organization was focused on corporate accountability. We are also not focusing on or naming attacks such as "union-busting" and "unfair dismissal", though they may be included under the "Labour: general" or "Freedom of association" category, when relevant. When a defender was judicially harassed, we include those attacks under the "Lawsuits and regulatory action" Resource Centre category.

Q: What challenges do we face conducting this research?

One limitation of this data is that many cases of threats and attacks against HRDs and CSOs are not reported publicly due to suppression of media and information outlets in many parts of the world, security risks, lack of media attention, and a significant gap in government monitoring of attacks. As our research relies on publicly available information and we do not conduct in-depth investigative research on national levels, we recognize that our database does not comprehensively cover every attack that has occurres and that the problem is even more severe than the data we track reveals.

Language is another limitation. We currently conduct research in English, Spanish, Russian, and Portuguese. We continue working to expand our coverage through partnerships with organizations at the local and national levels, as well as through HRD-focused coalitions.

We are also committed to tracking how defenders may experience specific types of attacks due to discrimination related to one or more of their identities. The database currently allows for in-depth search on multiple tags, such as "Gender" and "Affiliation". However, sometimes information about gender identity, ethnicity, and/or race is not available and/or we are unable to verify this information. With respect to gender, we generally assume a defender’s gender based on the pronouns included in the public information about them. If you are a HRD mentioned in the database and your gender or another identity has been incorrectly captured, please let us know at dobson (at) business-humanrights.org and we will change this information.

Q: Do we engage with a company if it is allegedly involved with an attack?

In line with our libel policy, Resource Centre seeks responses from companies when direct allegations are made against a company.

We do not seek a response in cases when:

  • The company already commented on a case publicly;
  • The incident was a lawsuit started by the company and the company and the defender was, therefore, in principle, given an equal opportunity to state their case; and/or
  • There was no direct allegation of direct or indirect involvement in the attack on the HRD / CSO, made by the source, and the only link between the incident and the company was that the HRDs advocacy/work was focused on it or its subsidiaries or on a project led by those companies or its subsidiaries.

Q: How can I get involved?

Let's work together to ensure that our statistics & reporting reflect the reality in your country, and to hold businesses to account if they are involved in attacks against HRDs!

  • You can share info about attacks against you or other HRDs if they are related to your work on human rights and environmental impacts of business, and we can help you bring international attention to them to increase support
  • We can work together to create strategies to engage companies and investors or hold them to account, and we may be able to help you connect with these actors
  • You can review data about your country in our database of attacks to make sure that we are reflecting reality, we can list you as a contributor, and support with using this data in your advocacy
  • We can help you connect with HRDs working on similar issues or that are concerned about the same companies, in other regions of the world

We always seek to find innovative, concrete ways to support HRDs, and we very much welcome any feedback, new partnerships and/or suggestions of cases for inclusion. If you have ideas about how we can work together, or believe we have missed or misrepresented any case of attack, please email Christen Dobson at dobson (at) business-humanrights.org.