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Press Release

5 Apr 2022

Human rights defenders under sustained attack in fight to protect our planet, new data reveals

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A fast and just transition to renewable energy is at risk of being derailed due to sustained attacks against those driving the movement. In 2021, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre recorded more than 600 attacks worldwide against human rights defenders (HRDs) raising concerns about harmful business practices – with 70% (seven in 10) taking place against climate, land and environmental rights defenders.

Data for 2021 also revealed at least 76 people were killed while defending their rights against harmful business operations and at least 88 cases of death threats and intimidation were recorded. Judicial harassment, including strategic litigations against public participation (SLAPPs), was the most common type of attack against HRDs in 2021, constituting 60% of all attacks. This figure is up from 30% in 2015, demonstrating how businesses and states are increasingly abusing the judicial system to intimidate activists into silence.

Although attacks against HRDs take place in every region of the world, Latin America and Asia and the Pacific have consistently recorded the highest number of attacks since 2015. In 2021, most attacks occurred in India (49), Mexico (47) and the Philippines (44). The mining sector has consistently been the most dangerous sector for HRDs protecting their land, water, forests and the environment, with attacks in this sector representing 22% of all attacks against HRDs in 2021. In addition, the top five most dangerous sectors for HRDs were all related to natural resources.

These figures point to a concerning lack of understanding by the business community of the crucial role HRDs play in driving the just transition and a failure to conduct robust environmental and human rights due diligence. Many companies and businesses have made public commitments to climate action yet have failed to conduct meaningful engagement with HRDs and their communities, including Indigenous people, prior to launching operations on their lands. Furthermore, in 2021 we recorded at least 104 attacks against HRDs directly related to lack of effective consultation or disputes around impact assessment.

Andrea Maria Pelliconi, Research Assistant for the Civic Freedoms & Human Rights Defenders Programme, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, said: “Climate change is one of the greatest threats facing humanity, necessitating a swift transition to a zero-carbon economy. Yet the people on the frontlines of driving this vital energy transition are under attack. They face intolerable risks to life and livelihood because they highlight harms associated with irresponsible business practices in their fight to champion sustainable solutions for people and planet. More worryingly, our data shows the sectors crucial for the energy transition are also among the most dangerous for activists.

Christen Dobson, Senior Programme Manager, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, said: “Companies and investors involved in these sectors must conduct effective human rights and environmental due diligence in consultation with those striving to protect our collective future – these are the people who have on-the-ground insight which is invaluable to companies which have made public commitments to climate action. Instead, these same companies have failed to recognise HRDs’ role as leaders in the movement. It is concerning to see a vast majority of companies and investors, including major renewable energy companies, do not have policies expressing zero-tolerance against reprisals in their operations, supply chains and business relationships. It’s time for companies and investors to recognise the energy transition cannot be effective if it is not also rights-respecting.”

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Notes to editors: 

  • Business & Human Rights Resource Centre is an international NGO that tracks the human rights impacts of companies across the globe.
  • The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has been tracking attacks against human rights defenders (HRDs) since 2015. Explore the full database here.
  • Explore the data for 2021 here.

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