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Press Release

23 Apr 2020

Judicial harassment of human rights activists rises 84% in 2019, as companies use courts to silence critics

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  • 84% rise in judicial harassment of activists holding business to account in 2019, with cases rising at an average rate of 48% a year since 2015
  • Lawsuits filed over a Facebook post about mining & a blog about working conditions
  • COVID-19 could make situation worse & leaves activists in legal limbo 

London, UK – Activists holding business to account are facing lawsuits meant to silence and harass them, with cases of judicial harassment up 84% in 2019 to a five-year high.  

In the face of COVID-19, climate crisis, shifts in the future of work, and increased migration, the work of human rights defenders (HRDs) to expose harm by companies around the world has never been more important.

Yet a growing number of unscrupulous companies are using the courts to harass and silence human rights defenders who criticize them.

A new report out today, ‘Defending Defenders’, by Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, finds cases of judicial harassment against human rights defenders looking at business jumped 84% in 2019 to a five-year high of 294 cases. It also finds that cases have increased at an average rate of 48% a year since 2015, to a total of 857 cases over the past five years.* 

The report analyses data collected between 2015 and 2019, and takes Southeast Asia as a case study. It records 127 examples of judicial harassment** against HRDs since 2015 in Southeast Asia, making it one of the most dangerous regions in the world for such threats.

At least 30 of the cases in Southeast Asia involved filing a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation). SLAPPs are a powerful tool for companies to silence activists, abusing libel laws to forceHRDs into a costly legal fight for their freedoms.

SLAPPs cases in the report include criminal charges against someone who posted on Facebook questioning whether a mining operation was legal, a journalist arrested for hate speech after writing about a company developing palm oil, and a labour rights leader fined USD 2.4 million for blogs about conditions for migrant workers.

The COVID-19 pandemic could make this problem worse. Southeast Asian governments are moving to control the flow of information, while workers protest over layoffs or lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) - creating a situation ripe for further judicial harassment of HRDs in the region.

Meanwhile, trials and hearings have been suspended and courts closed, leaving HRDs in legal limbo, exacerbating the physical, psychological and economic impact of judicial harassment, and prolonging the curbs on HRDs’ freedom. These developments suggest COVID-19 means protection of HRDs from judicial harassment is more important than ever.

Sutharee Wannasiri, a human rights defender subject to a SLAPP after posting online about Thai poultry company Thammakaset, (see report for more) said:

“The uncertainty created by a delay in legal proceedings around the case has made the lawsuit even more frustrating. The way the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted not only the courts' schedule but also other business operations has left migrant workers facing the increasing challenges of maintaining their immigration status and work permits.”

Maysa Zorob, head of Corporate Legal Accountability at Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, said:

“The surge of SLAPPs and other forms of judicial harassment of human rights defenders is a worrying trend around the world. SLAPPs are a powerful weapon to silence human rights defenders by forcing them into a costly fight for their freedoms. These cases manipulate courts by masquerading as legitimate claims and abusing defamation laws to target valid speech or protest. 
“COVID-19 means brave people raising the alarm about human rights abuses are more important than ever. Yet the pandemic and the response by some governments is making conditions ripe for more judicial attacks.
“To effectively fight SLAPPs we need robust legal frameworks that prevent companies from filing them in the first place and that allow courts to identify, call out and dismiss them as soon as they are filed.
“To make this happen, governments, businesses and investors, alongside defenders and civil society and the lawyers who defend them need to act decisively for the protection of civic freedoms and human rights defenders.” 

Media Contact:

Adam Barnett, Communications Officer, [email protected], Notes to editor:

** Judicial harassment is the use of the legal and/or judicial systems to silence and intimidate critics. 40% of the more than 2,000 attacks on HRDs globally BHRRC recorded in 2015-19 involved judicial harassment.

* Numbers here:

2015: 86

2016: 136 (^ 58%)

2017: 181 (^ 33%)

2018: 160 (v 11%)

2019: 294 (^ 84%)

Total 2015-2019: 857

Average annual increase: 48%