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Colombia one of world’s most dangerous countries for campaigners against corporate abuse, finds NGO report

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  • Colombia is second most dangerous country for human rights defenders working on business issues 
  • 181 attacks on human rights defenders focusing on business between 2015 and 2019, 9% of all attacks globally  
  • Most attacks were killings (72), death threats or other violence 
  • 44 percent of the attacks were on HRDs who raised concerns about AngloGold Ashanti, Big Group Salinas (BG Salinas), Cerrejón Coal (part of Anglo American, BHP and Glencore), Ecopetrol or EPM. 

London, UK – Colombia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for human rights defenders raising concerns about corporate abuse, with 181 attacks in the past five years. 

The finding, in a report out today from Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), represents nine percent of all attacks globally between 2015 and 2019 - putting Colombia second only to Honduras * - and shows that business has a role in protecting human rights defenders (HRDs) in Colombia from attack.  

Read the report

It comes as the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Michel Forst, will present his findings from his mission to Colombia at the UN Human Rights Council on 4th March.  

Colombia’s economy is dominated by land-intensive industries such as mining with significant human rights and environmental risks, making the role of HRDs critical.  

But this analysis shows that defenders who seek to prevent or expose abuse by businesses have faced concerted and sometimes deadly attacks.  

Most of the HRDs under attack in Colombia were community leaders, trade unionists, and Afro-Colombian and indigenous people. 

Killings (72) were the most common type of attack, followed by death threats and beatings and other violence. 90 percent of attacks were linked to four sectors: mining, fossil fuels, agriculture and livestock, and hydroelectric plants and dams. 

44 percent of the 181 attacks were on HRDs who raised concerns about these five companies: AngloGold Ashanti, Big Group Salinas (BG Salinas), Cerrejón Coal (part of Anglo American, BHP and Glencore), Ecopetrol and EPM. 

This is not to say that companies are responsible for these attacks, only that the HRDs have been attacked because they raised concerns about business activities. However, companies do not operate in a vacuum. They are aware – or should be aware – that critics of their business or industry are at risk and they should work to prevent and mitigate these attacks, in accordance with the UN Guiding Principles. 

The findings are based on analysis of the BHRRC’s database of more than 2,000 attacks on business-focused HRDs since 2015.  

A majority (76.5 percent) of the attacks in Colombia occurred in areas with the highest concentration of business projects in the most dangerous sectors, (mining, fossil fuels, agriculture and livestock, and hydroelectric plants and dams). In other words, the attacks are not happening in marginalised areas, but in hubs of major business activity.  

Phil Bloomer, Executive Director at BHRRC, said:  

“With growing investment in risky sectors for those defending people’s rights and a high level of attacks, the Colombian Government must act more decisively to protect rights-defenders focusing on harm by business. This includes Afro-Colombians, indigenous and other leaders who must be able to express their opinions without fear of reprisals or attacks. 
“There are welcome efforts to protect rights-defenders in Colombia. But as long as government policies and statements prioritise investment more than action to protect human rights and the environment, attacks are likely to continue. Companies have an internationally-recognised duty of care to identify and monitor risks and attacks on those who highlight risks and harms in their operations.  
“Some companies are beginning to speak out against this violence, but far more needs to be done. Meanwhile the Government should address the economic incentives fueling this situation, provide guidance to companies and hold perpetrators accountable.” 

Michel Forst, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, said:  

“Weak state institutions, armed gangs and illegal economies contribute to making Colombia a dangerous place for human rights defenders. But what is often missed by this analysis is the role of legitimate business in aggravating attacks on defenders and businesses’ potential to contribute meaningfully to the protection of defenders, including enabling an environment for human rights protection. This research makes this link clear. 
“Human rights defenders and businesses occupy a shared space and face common threats. Businesses can and should act now to listen to and address the concerns of human rights defenders, commit to having zero-tolerance to violence against them in their supply chains, and speak up to protect defenders when they are attacked.” 
He adds: “The Colombian Government has taken the positive step of approving the process of building a Comprehensive Public Policy of Respect and Guarantees for the Work of the Defense of Human Rights in May 2019. Given the new evidence in this report, it would be remiss not to remind the Government to give special attention to the role of business in its efforts to stop killings and attacks against human rights defenders.” 

Media contact: 

Adam Barnett, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. Email: [email protected]

Notes to editor:  

* The first most dangerous country was Honduras, while Latin America is the region with the most attacks globally. (See more here.)