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2 Mar 2021

Attacks and risk to business and human rights defenders worsened in 2020

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An increase in attacks against human rights defenders during 2020 demands a legal solution, said the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre as it released its annual briefing In the line of fire. A total of 604 attacks were recorded across the globe in 2020, up from 572 in 2019. While few industries are totally without risk, yet again the most dangerous sectors were agribusiness and mining. Those in the firing line most often were local and indigenous communities engaged in human rights or environmental defence. More than one in five attacks were against women.

Key findings during 2020:

  • 604 attacks on defenders working on business-related human rights issues, up from 572 attacks in 2019.
  • At least 1/3 of all attacks stemmed from lack of meaningful participation, access to information and consultation, or the failure to secure free, prior and informed consent of local and indigenous communities.
  • In more than half of all cases, defenders experienced judicial harassment (including criminalisation based on trumped up charges and arbitrary detentions).
  • 114 attacks were recorded against women human rights defenders.
  • Most attacks continued to be concentrated in Latin America, with 194 attacks, followed by Asia & Pacific with 173 attacks and Eastern Europe & Russia with 129 attacks.
  • Cases rose in Russia (70 cases), Belarus (38 cases), Indonesia (25 cases) and Uganda (36 cases).
  • In at least 80 cases, COVID-19 was the key factor.

Ana Zbona, Project Manager, Business, Civic Freedoms & Human Rights Defenders, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, said, “During 2020 companies should have focused on supporting workers and reimagining economic systems so they are more sustainable. It is therefore even more distressing to report an increase in attacks against business and human rights defenders, including organisations and communities, who never stop striving for justice and improved protection of rights and the environment, despite the very real risks.

“Any defenders have faced greater risks because of the pandemic as some governments have misused the situation to further curtail participation in public decision-making, and deployed state forces to repress legitimate, peaceful protests and obstruct access to justice. Simultaneously, laws were introduced favouring business investment at the cost of indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ land and labour rights. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, almost one in eight attacks were directly linked to COVID-19, and the related rollbacks of protections for the most vulnerable groups.

“Yet despite these risks and the limitations on in-person organising due to the pandemic, human rights defenders, both individually and collectively, have continued to advocate for responsible business practices, with many defenders acting as ‘canaries in the coalmine', monitoring companies’ supply chains, denouncing human rights abuses, demanding respect for human rights, and proposing alternatives.”

Case studies

Attacks related to COVID-19:

Workers from the meat company JBS in Forquilhinha and Nova Veneza, Brazil, opposed JBS’ decision to keep production lines running without adequate protection against the spread of the coronavirus. When workers at both meat processing plants protested, they were violently attacked by the civil and military police, allegedly under JBS command. Tear gas was fired at the workers and Celio Elias, former president and current adviser to the union, was arrested. BHRRC invited JBS to respond: JBS strongly condemned any type of violence.

Attacks against women human rights defenders:

Yulia Slivko, a worker at a construction firm in Belarus, started receiving anonymous threats after she was elected chairperson of her company’s strike committee. She was hounded on social media and interrogated by the police, and ultimately lost her job.

Judicial harassment & voluntary corporate support:

Labour rights defender Jorge Acosta, a union leader organising workers in Ecuador’s banana plantations, faced charges of ‘causing economic panic’. In June 2019, companies sourcing bananas from Ecuador - Axfood, Coop, Everfresh, Greenfood, Martin & Servera and Menigo - released a joint statement to the Ecuadorian government in support of Acosta. In September 2020, four of these companies, alongside civil society and a representative of the office of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, arrived to attend Jorge’s virtual trial. The case was dropped when the claimant did not attend court.

Zbona said, “During 2020 and into 2021, the pandemic ravaged both communities and economies. The global business community has an unprecedented opportunity to find solutions to rebuild both and it can only do so by working with those worst affected by poor business practices and helping end the attacks and violence they experience when protecting their rights.

“Vital to ending attacks on human rights defenders is a mandatory duty on companies to conduct human rights and environmental due diligence, which should include strong safeguards against these attacks. This would ensure that companies assess and address risks to defenders in advance and in consultation with affected communities, while also ensuring they are accountable for any harms arising.

“The forthcoming mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence legislation in the European Union is a vital opportunity to end harms to human rights defenders related to European companies and their supply chains. Similar legislation currently contemplated in other countries should follow suit.”


Note to editors

BHRRC is launching the 2020 global briefing on attacks against business human rights defenders, In the line of fire, on the 5th anniversary of the assassination of Honduran human and environmental rights champion and Goldman prize winner, Berta Cáceres.

Find out more

Media contact: Pippa Woolnough, Head of Communications, Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, +353 858353757, [email protected]

Media contact: Priyanka Mogul, Media Officer, Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, [email protected]