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Human Rights Defenders & Civic Freedoms

HRDs’ work is essential to the business and human rights movement because of their critical importance for ensuring corporate responsibility and accountability. Yet, attacks on them are growing. This hub brings together news on these advocates and communities - specifically on land, environmental and labour defenders, guidance for companies and investors, and supportive business actions. It also links to our database of attacks and interview series.

We all have the right and the responsibility to promote human rights and to safeguard democracy and its institutions. Human rights defenders are those of us that actively do so. Around the world, civic freedoms and human rights defenders (HRDs) are increasingly under attack and the environment in which civil society can operate freely is narrowing. This phenomenon is taking place not just in countries that are led by repressive or autocratic governments, but also in established democracies. In particular, freedom of expression, freedom of association and assembly, freedom of information, and the right to privacy, are under increasing attack. Both companies and defenders have a shared interest in the full respect of civic freedoms, characterised by non-discrimination, transparent and accountable government, and freedom from corruption.

Prioritisation of business interests over interests of communities and workers is one of the key challenges faced by defenders. HRDs who confront business interests – be it human rights lawyers, labour activists and unionists, land and environmental defenders, anti-corruption activists or human rights journalists – are among those defenders most at risk. They are key agents of change, and they contribute greatly to safeguarding human rights and ensuring corporate responsibility. This portal collects the latest news on struggles and victories of these defenders, public company actions and policies in support of defenders and civic freedoms, guidance for companies and investors, and developments related to the two most targeted groups - labour rights defenders and land and environmental defenders. It also links to our database of attacks and our interview series, where defenders share their strategies, victories, and recommendations and business representatives share their perspectives on protecting civic freedoms and human rights.

New: Human rights defenders policy tracker

Explore this tracker to find companies with policy commitments to support human rights defenders (HRDs) and/or prohibit retaliation against third party stakeholders raising concerns related to company operations, supply chains, or business relationships.

The responsibility of businesses to respect human rights not only entails a negative duty to refrain from violating the rights of others, but also a positive obligation to support a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders in the countries in which they are operating. Discharging this duty requires consultation with defenders in order to understand the issues at stake and the shortcomings that impede their work.
Mr Michel Forst, former UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders

Explore further: Database of attacks on HRDs

The Resource Centre collects data on attacks on defenders that are targeted because they raise concerns about business sectors and operations. Collecting data about attacks on defenders is important in order to analyse patterns of violence, identify at-risk business sectors and geographic areas, and provide support to targeted individuals and groups.

Our most recent reports

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

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. 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.

Vexatious lawsuits: Corporate use of SLAPPs to silence critics

Every day, people across the globe raise concerns about business-related harm to their communities, environments and rights, sometimes at great personal cost. These defenders face a range of attacks, including abuse of legal systems, to deter peaceful protest and stop their legitimate human rights work. Judicial harassment – including strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs – has made up more than half of the attacks against human rights defenders raising concerns about business practice since we began tracking in 2015. This form of abuse presents a grave threat to defenders’ participation in peaceful public discourse around operations and activities which affect their lives.

Protector not prisoner: Exploring the rights violations & criminalization of Indigenous Peoples in climate actions

Between January 2015 and August 2022, we tracked 883 attacks on Indigenous human rights defenders, including killings, threats, arbitrary detention, and strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs). Nearly all (95%) of attacks against Indigenous defenders between January 2015 – August 2022 were on climate, land, and environmental defenders, compared with just two-thirds (63%) for non-Indigenous defenders. This data helps show how Indigenous peoples play an outsized role in the protection of land, water, and forests and the disproportionate risks they face.

Featured stories

Argentina: Indigenous activist Milagro Sala's house raided by police under allegations of public disturbances in Jujuy; she has been imprisoned since 2016

On Thursday 29 June 29, the police in the Jujuy province of Argentina raided the home of Indigenous and social leader Milagro Sala, who has been imprisoned since January 2016. Human rights and social activists allege that the charges that led to the raid are politically motivated.

Honduras: Four union leaders killed in shooting following false rumours of union involvement with factory closure

In June 2023 four union leaders from the Sindicato de Trabajadores de Gildan San Miguel union were among 13 people killed in Choloma, Honduras, after a shooting during a birthday celebration. All four leaders - ​​Xiomara Cocas, Delmer Garcia, Lesther Almendarez and José Rufino Ortiz - represented workers at Gildan Activewear's San Miguel plant. Xiomara Cocas was the union president.

Philippines: Rights groups sign Open Letter in solidarity with 10 human rights defenders amid ongoing criminalization

Civil society organisations and rights groups express their concern over the ongoing criminalization of ten human rights defenders and members of Karapatan, GABRIELA and the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP) in retaliation for their legitimate human rights work. If convicted, they could face up to four months or up to more than two years of imprisonment.

Guatemala: Indigenous leaders arrested, Mayan communities forcibly evicted to make room for extractive companies

15 Maya Poqomchi and Maya Q'eqchi communities of Sierra de Minas, Municipality of Purulha, Baja Verapaz face the evictions and aggression by security forces, aimed to arrest Mayan Indigenous leaders, forcefully evict them from their lands in favor of farmers and facilitate the establishment of extractive companies.

Cambodia: Naga World union leader Chhim Sithar re-arrested amid strikes, 69 CSOs call for her release

Sithar, the recently re-elected president of the Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld (LRSU), was arrested at immigration at the Phnom Penh airport, as she was returning from the International Trade Union Confederation World Conference in Australia.

El Salvador: Association for Social Economic Development files legal appeal in favor of the Santa Marta's environmental leaders who remain detained

The Association for Social Economic Development (ADES) filed a legal appeal in favor of the Santa Marta's community environmental leaders who remain detained and accused of murdering a woman in 1989. Before the Sensuntepeque Court, their defense attorney requested alternative measures to preventive detention, arguing that they are in delicate health conditions. Three months ago, however, this same Salvadoran court rejected a similar petition...

Our analysis

Since 2015, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has been collecting data on attacks on human rights defenders, focusing on business sectors and specific businesses. Our infographics and briefings show patterns of violence, identify at-risk business sectors and geographic areas, provide guidance for business & investors as well as in-depth analysis of some specific types of attacks, such as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs).

HRDs interview series

The Resource Centre collects interviews with activists, journalists and human rights defenders, where they share their strategies, victories, and recommendations on protecting civic freedoms and human rights.