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Human rights defenders & business in 2021: Protecting the rights of people driving a just transition

"The world must be made a safer place for people working to protect the planet, who sometimes pay with their own lives for their activism... At particular risk are people who speak out against deforestation, extractives, loss of cultural heritage or identity, or large scale-agribusinesses and development projects – including those intended to produce clean energy, such as mega dams."


- Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights


Human rights defenders (HRDs) protect our communities, rights, natural resources and our shared planet. They are vital leaders of a just transition to green economies, raising concerns about risks and harms associated with irresponsible business operations and championing sustainable solutions. Yet they face intolerable risks. Among the 615 attacks we tracked in 2021, nearly 70% were against climate, land and environmental rights defenders.

Climate change is one of the greatest threats to humanity, affecting our rights to life, water and sanitation, food, health, housing, self-determination, culture and development — among others. A swift transition to a zero-carbon economy is a matter of great urgency. But it will only be fast and effective for people and the planet if it is just — delivered through safe and effective civic participation and company consultation with workers and communities, with respect for human rights throughout the process.

COP26 demonstrated once again how governments are largely failing to recognise the urgent action needed to avert climate catastrophe and their obligation to ensure people most affected have access to remedies. At COP26 – roundly criticised for being insufficiently accessible for those most impacted by the climate crisis, including Indigenous leaders – too many opportunities to better protect human rights were lost.

HRDs are vital to the global climate justice movement, yet as our data reveals, those driving the just transition remain under sustained attack – targeted by government, business and other non-state actors with violence, intimidation, smear campaigns and judicial harassment. Attacks in 2021 occurred in every region of the world and in almost every business sector, with five of the most dangerous sectors relating to natural resources.

At the same time, businesses are under mounting pressure to respect human rights as human rights due diligence laws and regulations gain momentum; investor focus on portfolio companies’ environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance grows; and employees increasingly voice concerns about human rights risks and harms. Protecting the rights of HRDs and civic freedoms is essential to drive change toward a just transition to a zero-carbon economy and a more equitable and sustainable world. The time for definitive action to better protect those striving to protect our future is now.


Between January 2015 and March 2021, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (the Resource Centre) documented more than 3,800 attacks on human rights defenders raising concerns about business-related human rights abuses. In 2021 alone, the Resource Centre tracked 615 attacks. As this tracking is based on publicly available information and many attacks go unreported, we know the problem is even more severe than these figures indicate.

Attacks include killings, death threats, beatings, arbitrary arrests and detention, and strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) brought or initiated by companies. Abuse of the judicial system by business and government actors is increasing, with judicial harassment constituting three in five attacks. The use of indefinite pre-trial detention, worsened by trial suspensions due to the pandemic, is also emerging as a common tactic to restrain human rights advocates.

Among the cases we tracked, 76 people defending their rights against harmful business operations were killed in 2021, and at least 88 cases of death threats and intimidation were recorded.

This includes Joanna Stutchbury, a prominent environment activist who died after being shot six times near her home in Kenya. Joanna worked for years to defend the Kiambu forest and conserve Kenya’s natural resources, vocally opposing attempts by private developers to build in the forest. She had received multiple death threats in the past because of her work to protect the forest.



“After I launched my research about the negative environmental impact of pesticides in Brazil and connections with the European Union, I started receiving intimidating emails implying my life was being threatened and seeking to disqualify my scientific work. It’s very clear to me these threats intensified after the largest chain of organic supermarkets in Scandinavia boycotted Brazilian products after reading my research.”

Larissa Mies Bombardi, Professor & Brazilian HRD


Global breakdown

Our data also reveals the global nature of this problem – attacks against HRDs happen in every region of the world, with the highest numbers consistently in Latin America and the Asia and the Pacific region since we began tracking in 2015.

In 2021, most attacks occurred in India (49), followed by Mexico (47) and the Philippines (44). Mexico and Brazil were the countries where the most HRDs were killed (17 each).

Philippines

Ariel and Ana Marie “Chai” Lemita-Evangelista were killed with at least seven other activists during police and military raids on so-called “Bloody Sunday” on 7 March 2021. They were members of UMALPAS KA, an organisation fighting against mining, land-grabbing and climate change.

The raids followed a deadly year in the Philippines, which included the killing of nine Tumandok Indigenous leaders at the end of December 2020 related to their opposition to the Jalaur Mega Dam project, financed through the Export-Import Bank of Korea. In a response to the Resource Centre in February 2021, the Bank said “linking JRMP-II to the reported incidents is misleading” and “the majority of the IP community members affected by the project are supportive of the project”


Sector overview

Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), companies and investors have a responsibility to conduct human rights due diligence, which includes ongoing safe and effective engagement with affected stakeholders – people who are at risk of negative impacts from business activity – and with human rights defenders.

As the UN Working Group on Business & Human Rights describes, “defenders have a key role as a voice for affected stakeholders and communities, as watchdogs, advocates and often providers of early warnings of human rights risks and adverse impacts”. Listening to the voices of workers, community members and other stakeholders is vital to a company’s understanding of risks to people and the planet and strengthens its due diligence. Investors can be connected to potentially harmful impacts through their investments. They are responsible for assessing whether their investment activities pose risks to the work and safety of HRDs and showing they are taking action to prevent and mitigate harms. The scale of attacks against HRDs and their occurrence in almost every business sector indicate a stark absence of effective due diligence by many companies and investors.

In Africa, nearly three in five attacks, including violence, threats and judicial harassment, were linked to extractive industries. Between 2020 and 2021, in Uganda alone there were 58 attacks on HRDs, the majority of whom were opposing the activities of mining, gas and oil companies in community lands or forests, including the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP), built and financed by international companies and investors. Eleven banks have distanced themselves from the project following widespread concern about negative environmental and social impacts voiced by affected communities and hundreds of CSOs.

BHRRC

Mining

A concerted effort to achieve net zero carbon by mid-century will require an unprecedented expansion of transition mineral production. Renewable energy production in the form of wind, solar and electric vehicle production will lead to surging demand for land, and for minerals like copper, cobalt, lithium, nickel and rare earths. International Energy Association projections point to a six-fold increase in demand for transition minerals by 2040.

Given the centrality of these minerals to the transition, the scale of attacks linked to the mining sector is particularly concerning. For the past seven years, mining has been the most dangerous sector for HRDs raising concerns about business-related harms. HRDs protecting their land, water, forests and environment from mining operations have been threatened, beaten and killed.

HRDs opposing mining operations have also been arrested, arbitrarily detained, criminalised and slapped with unfair lawsuits. In Latin America — one of the regions most affected by the use of SLAPPs — at least 62 legal cases were brought or initiated by companies against community leaders, social activists, journalists, Indigenous leaders and environmental defenders raising concerns about mining projects between 2015 and 2021.

In addition, our Transition Minerals Tracker revealed the biggest producers of six key minerals needed for the zero-carbon transition are largely failing to address risks and impacts on local communities, including attacks on civil society organisations and their leaders. Between 2010 and 2020, according to the Tracker data, the highest number of allegations involved attacks against local communities and leaders (125 allegations in total). In 33 cases communities responded with protests, marches, strikes or blockades against a mine, indicating their high levels of frustration. Community consultation and consent is vital to ensure renewable energy projects benefit both global and local populations, yet our Tracker revealed one in eight human rights abuses recorded in the transition minerals sector involved community protest.

BHRRC

Mexico

José de Jesús Robledo Cruz, former president of the commissariat of the ejido El Bajío in Sonora, Mexico, opposed the activities of the Penmont mining company for years. In April 2021, José and his wife Maria de Jesús Gomez Vega were found dead in the desert. A card was found next to their bodies with the names of 13 other anti-mining activists, an apparent death threat to those individuals. José and Maria had previously been kidnapped and tortured because of their human rights work.

We sought a response from Penmont, which condemned the murders and urged authorities to investigate. The company also categorically rejected any allegations of involvement.


Hydropower

Since 2010, we have tracked over 200 allegations of abuse associated with the renewable energy sector, particularly large hydropower projects. Abuse allegations include land grabs, dangerous working conditions and poverty wages, harm to Indigenous peoples’ lives and livelihoods, and attacks on HRDs. In 2021, we tracked 36 attacks on HRDs raising concerns about hydropower projects, 28 of which were in Latin America.

Honduras

In 2021, police raided the homes of members of the Lenca Indigenous Council of Reitoca in Honduras who have been resisting the construction of a hydroelectric plant on the Rio Grande. During this raid, Gissela Rodas was pepper sprayed in the face, thrown to the ground and sexually harassed. Police arrested five HRDs, releasing them the next day with orders not to return to their homes and families, nor leave the country.



Attacks on HRDs working on business-related abuses are driven by many factors, including inadequate community consultation and lack of respect for the free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous peoples; racism and discrimination; and restrictions on civic space.

Inadequate community consultation

Many attacks stem from companies failing to safely and meaningfully consult with communities affected by their operations prior to starting projects. At least 104 cases of attacks against HRDs in 2021 stemmed from lack of meaningful consultation or free, prior and informed consent or disagreements regarding social or environmental impact assessments. Of these, more than half took place in Latin America.

Gichi-gami Gathering to Stop Line 3, Duluth, Minnesota

USA

Indigenous land and environmental defenders have opposed the tar sands Enbridge Line 3 pipeline expansion project in the United States for the past seven years, which they say has proceeded without free, prior and informed consent and violates a range of human rights protected under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, other UN human rights treaties and US treaty rights, including the right to self-determination, cultural rights and land rights. Construction began in December 2020 after six years of contentious regulatory hearings in which more than 60,000 Minnesota citizens and tribal members opposed the project on the record. According to the Stop Line 3 campaign, Line 3 will significantly contribute to the climate crisis, representing the equivalent of 50 coal plants’ worth of greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere per year.

More than 900 people protesting the pipeline’s construction have been arrested. The majority of arrests occurred in summer 2021 and at least 91 felony charges have been made against 89 people. In July 2021, police used tear gas, rubber and pepper bullets against protestors. Several HRDs were arrested and said they were denied medical care for their injuries and proper food and were held in solitary confinement. An investigation revealed Enbridge has reimbursed US police $2.4 million for arresting and surveilling Indigenous protestors of the Line 3 pipeline and the company meets daily with police to discuss intelligence gathering and patrols. When asked about these findings, an Enbridge spokesperson noted the funds are allocated by an independent account manager and said: “Officers decide when protesters are breaking the law – or putting themselves and others in danger.” Enbridge has also said it has “demonstrated ongoing respect for tribal sovereignty” and has “a commitment to addressing climate change with real action”.


Racism and discrimination

Another underlying driver of attacks against HRDs is long-standing racism and discrimination, particularly against Indigenous and Afro-descendent peoples. This manifests in numerous ways, including lack of respect for collective land rights and failure to ensure free, prior and informed consent. The most vulnerable and marginalised communities, who have been on the frontlines of encroachment and extraction for generations, are paying the highest price for the climate crisis and yet are excluded from decision-making processes about their lands and livelihoods.

Indigenous peoples hold rights over and protect 25% of the earth’s land surface and 80% of remaining biodiversity. They are critical guardians of our forests, green areas and wildlife, which are crucial to ensure the survival of all humanity. Where Indigenous peoples have developed and implemented their own autonomous governments and protocols for free, prior and informed consent processes, they have successfully laid the foundations for rights-based engagement with states and companies. However, in most cases, they continue to be excluded from meaningful consultation by business actors and governments, as well as decision-making, including at COP-26.

Indigenous defenders also experience disproportionately high level of attacks. Although Indigenous peoples comprise approximately 5% of the world’s population, 18% of attacks globally in 2021 were against Indigenous HRDs. The percentage is much higher in some regions, such as Latin America, where two in five attacks were against Indigenous defenders. In Brazil, it was nearly half. 

Indigenous women protest against agriculture and mining projects in Brasilia, 2021

Brazil

The Yanomami and Munduruku peoples in Brazil have been protecting their ancestral lands from mining activities for years. Violence has escalated since the arrival of thousands of goldminers. Indigenous leaders, including many women human rights defenders (WHRDs), have been threatened, beaten and killed, and the premises of the Munduruku Wakoborũn Women's Association has been raided multiple times by groups of miners.

While investigations by local authorities have been slow and ineffective, illegal miners have implemented tactics to intimidate Indigenous activists, silence opposition to land encroachment and fuel internal conflicts to divide local communities.


Restrictions on civic freedoms

The core freedoms necessary for people to advocate for urgent action to address the climate crisis and work for a just transition are under increased threat. Restrictions on freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression are growing across the globe. CIVICUS estimates nearly nine in 10 people live in countries where civic space is closed, repressed or obstructed. During the past two years, attacks on civil society continued unabated and many HRDs faced greater risks as some governments misused the Covid-19 pandemic to further curtail civil rights to participate in public decision-making and deployed state forces to repress legitimate, peaceful protests and obstruct access to justice.

There is often a close connection between state and private sector actors, with some corporate actors benefiting from state repression of critical voices in the short-term, even though this increases their financial, legal and reputational risks in the longer-term. Even in cases where there are no apparent direct links between companies and attacks against HRDs, businesses face increasing expectations to use their leverage in support of HRDs and civic freedoms from a range of stakeholders, including employees, investors, consumers, civil society groups and communities.

In recent years, many countries have enacted new laws limiting the right to assembly, making it more difficult for HRDs to express legitimate concerns about environmental harm and abusive business operations — essential information for companies to conduct robust human rights due diligence. They also make it more difficult for people to advocate for a just transition and accountability for polluting companies. For example, in 2021 alone, 86 federal and state bills affecting protest rights were considered in the US, with 10 enacted and 48 still pending. In the UK, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, introduced in response to climate protests, criminalised formerly legal protest methods and enhanced police power to shut down demonstrations. Similar legislation has been passed in Canada, South Africa and Indonesia, and has been proposed in Germany and Australia.

In 2021, we documented at least 216 attacks linked to peaceful protests and 284 attacks related to the legitimate exercise of civic freedoms. In addition, authorities are increasingly engaging in surveillance of HRDs and weaponising criminal law and cybercrime legislation against them to curtail free speech by accusing them of spreading “fake news” or depicting them as threats to national security.

Social dialogue between workers, trade unions, government, business and civil society is key to a just transition. Yet restrictions on workers’ rights to form unions or associations and crackdowns on workers are pervasive worldwide, making it very difficult for workers to effectively participate. Nearly half (45%) of attacks on labour rights defenders and trade unionists in 2021 were linked to restrictions on their freedom of association and assembly.

Myanmar

After the attempted military coup of 1 February 2021 in Myanmar, workers joined the massive anti-regime protests that spread across the country, demanding respect for worker rights and calling on business to support democracy. Protesters have been met with a brutal crackdown by security forces and many union leaders were targeted for their role in organising – with 40% of these attacks taking place against WHRDs. Many union leaders went into hiding, while others were arbitrarily detained or even killed. Some labour activists were freed during the mass release of political prisoners in October, which came after ASEAN decided to not invite the leader of the military junta to a regional summit. Among the released was the leader of Solidarity Trade Unions of Myanmar (STUM), Daw Myo Aye, whose health was rapidly deteriorating due to the harsh conditions of detention.

Belarus

In August 2020, Olga Britikova became the face of anti-government and anti-violence protest at a state-owned refinery in Belarus. She declared workers’ demands in front of the refinery top managers and the current head of the Belarusian KGB and helped collect over 3,000 signatures of refinery workers in support of a strike. For her activism she was penalised multiple times and laid off in December 2020 after working at the refinery for 16 years. As a trade union leader, Olga Britikova continues to help dozens of workers facing reprisals for their membership to the union. On 20 September 2021 her house was searched by the KGB in a clear act of intimidation for her labour rights work. On the same day, the home of labour activist Anna Ablab was searched and her computer confiscated. She was organising a strike at Belarusian railways, where she had been working for 15 years. Anna Ablab, a mother of three, is still in the KGB pre-trial detention centre.


A global transition to carbon net zero is urgently needed to avert the worst harms of climate change and move towards socially just, environmentally sustainable economies. Companies and investors are increasingly making commitments to climate action, including promises to achieve net zero by mid-century. However, the vast majority of these companies and investors do not have policies expressing zero-tolerance against reprisals in their operations, supply chains and business relationships, nor do they assess risks to HRDs in their due diligence processes. They include the largest renewable energy companies, as revealed by our sector benchmark, as well as companies producing minerals used in renewable energy technologies and electric vehicles, as shown by our Transition Minerals Tracker.

Safe, effective and meaningful civic participation enabled by respect for freedoms of association, assembly and expression, as well as ongoing consultation with affected stakeholders by every company is essential for a just transition. Failure to respect the rights of HRDs and protect civic freedoms undermines just transition efforts as it leads to project delays, violence against HRDs, harms to affected communities and the environment and potential divestment or legal action. This in turn translates to legal, financial and reputational risks for the companies and investors involved.

Protecting the rights of HRDs and civic freedoms is essential for a just transition. These leaders are a driving force for clean and safe environments, fair working conditions, accountable democratic governance and responsible business. Respecting their rights and leadership is vital for mitigating harms of the climate crisis and realising a more equitable and sustainable world.

The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre recommends:

Governments

  • Pass and implement legislation recognising the vital role of HRDs, both individual and collective, in promoting human rights, sustainable development, and a healthy environment and committing to zero-tolerance for attacks. This must include legal recognition of the specific rights of Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples (more detailed recommendations available here).
  • Pass national laws to implement the UNGPs, including binding human rights due diligence legislation, and consult with HRDs at all stages of this process. This legislation should mandate ongoing safe and effective consultation with workers, HRDs, community members, and others potentially or directly affected by company operations or business relationships, and should be an integral part of climate mitigation and adaptation plans (more detailed recommendations available here).
  • Adopt specific regulations which prevent killings, threats and other forms of violence against HRDs, including collecting and reporting data on attacks to inform more effective protection mechanisms and passing anti-SLAPP legislation to prevent companies silencing HRDs (more detailed recommendations available here). Ensure effective remedy for violations when they occur, including by strengthening judicial systems to hold businesses accountable for acts of retaliation against HRDs and actively participating in investigation and prosecution of those responsible for attacks.

Companies

  • Adopt and implement policy commitments which recognise the valuable role of HRDs, reference specific risks to HRDs, ensure effective engagement and consultation with HRDs at all stages of the due diligence process and commit to zero-tolerance for reprisals throughout the company’s operations, supply chains and business relationships.
  • Engage in robust human rights and environmental due diligence and ensure effective access to remedy for those harmed by business activity, in accordance with the UNGPs and the UN Working Group’s guidance on ensuring respect for HRDs.
  • Respect Indigenous peoples’ land and forest rights and right to free, prior, and informed consent, including their right to define the process by which FPIC is achieved and to withhold consent (more detailed recommendations available here).

Investors

  • Publish a public human rights policy which recognises the valuable role of HRDs in identifying risks associated with business activities and commits to a zero-tolerance approach to attacks against HRDs. Clearly communicate the human rights expectations included in this policy to portfolio companies, including that companies:
    • disclose human rights and environment-related risks;
    • engage in ongoing consultation with communities, workers and HRDs;
    • have policies and processes to respect Indigenous peoples’ rights (including land rights and free, prior and informed consent);
    • respect the rights of HRDs; and
    • ensure effective access to remedy when harm occurs.
  • Undertake rigorous human rights and environmental due diligence and review potential investees for any past involvement with retaliation. Avoid investing in companies with this track record.
  • Use leverage with investee companies which cause, contribute to, or are directly linked to human rights and environmental harms, including attacks on HRDs, so that the company mitigates negative impacts and provides access to remedy to those affected.

Authors: Andrea Maria Pelliconi, Christen Dobson and Ana Zbona

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre is an international NGO which tracks the human rights impacts of over 10,000 companies in over 180 countries, making information available on our 10-language website. The Resource Centre’s Civic Freedoms and Human Rights Defenders programme supports and amplifies the work of human rights defenders (HRDs) focused on business.

  • Guided by HRDs and supportive NGOs, we strive to address the root causes of killings and violence against HRDs linked to company operations and global supply chains, including through systematically tracking attacks on HRDs related to business.
  • We support, amplify, and celebrate the work of HRDs focused on business-related activities, and work in solidarity with them to safely influence how business actors respect the rights of defenders. We push for rights-respecting business practices and accountability, help enable remedy for harms, and advocate for environments free from restrictions.
  • We aim to increase rapid action and longer-term involvement of selected business actors in support of HRDs and civic freedoms to prevent attacks against HRDs so that they can safely champion human rights, including through the Business Network on Civic Freedoms and Human Rights Defenders.