Human Rights defender (HRD) is a term used to describe people who, individually or with others, act to promote and protect human rights in a peaceful way [UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders]. Respect and support for the activities of human rights defenders, including investigating and reporting on human rights abuses, are essential for the full realization of human rights, the rule of law and sustainable development. HRDs play a critical role in monitoring state and business conduct in the context of economic activities by identifying concerns, and advocating for redress and accountability of government and business actors involved in human rights abuses.
The UNGPs recognize the key role of HRDs in human rights due diligence. Businesses are urged to consider HRDs as an important expert resource that may help companies assess their human rights impacts, and enable them to understand the concerns of affected stakeholders, particularly “in situations where consultation with affected stakeholders is not possible.” (UNGP 18 and Commentary, p. 20).
In practice, HRDs are often subject to persecution and harassment, punishment, arbitrary arrest or detention, especially in countries lacking effective rule of law. According to the Global Fund for Women, Women Human Rights Defenders face additional threats due to their gender. While they experience the same threats as other HRDs, they also face additional threats including sexual abuse and harassment, domestic violence, threats against their children, and smear campaigns. The UNGPs acknowledge the risks faced by HRDs (Commentary to UNGP Principle 26), which requires states to ensure that “the legitimate and peaceful activities of human rights defenders are not obstructed.”
In a 2015 report presented to the UN General Assembly by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of HRDs, HRDs working on business and human rights were considered as one of the most vulnerable groups of defenders. Particularly at risk are HRDs working on the intersection of land and environmental rights. Over 200 HRDs were killed in 2016 for protesting against negative environmental impacts and land-grabs affecting the livelihoods and rights of indigenous peoples and local communities. A 2016 report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of land and environmental rights defenders noted the responsibility for or complicity of business actors in various human rights violations against defenders and communities working to protect fundamental rights and freedoms.
In June 2016, the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) and the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR) developed the Human Rights Defenders in National Action Plans (NAPs) on Business and Human Rights, as guidance on how human rights defenders should be considered in the process of developing NAPs.
The B Team, a non-profit initiative launched by global business leaders to see the private sector do business responsibly, published a study, The Business Case for Protecting Civic Rights. The study shows that restrictions on civic liberty may have negative outcomes on the economy and that it is important for business to take the lead in protecting civic freedoms.
In 2018, business leaders initiated landmark collaborations supporting human rights defenders.
- Eight major corporations from different sectors issued a joint statement with human rights defenders through the Business Network on Civic Freedoms and Human Rights Defenders, advocating the “protection of civic freedoms and respect for the rule of law”. Notably, the statement acknowledges the importance of the HRD role in finding problems in business operations and promoting due diligence.
- Adidas and Nike publicly defended labour rights activists against the Cambodian regime, urging the government to drop politically-motivated criminal charges.
- In the United States, Microsoft, Cisco, Airbnb, Apple, and others, with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spoke against the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
- In Germany, BMW and Daimler supported employees challenging far-right riots against immigrants; while the CEO of Siemens publicly affirmed tolerance as essential business values.
- Google abandoned its “Project Dragonfly” censored search engine for China in response to an outcry from its own employees and human rights organizations.
A special group of HRDs are whistleblowers, which are individuals who have and report insider knowledge of illegal activities (such as wrongdoing, corruption, immoral behavior) occurring in an organization. Whistleblowers may be employees, suppliers, contractors, clients or any individual who somehow becomes aware of illegal activities taking place in a business either through witnessing the behavior or being told about it, and discloses this information publicly to expose the existing wrongdoing and prevent it from happening in the future. The law should protect whistleblowers, yet this is often not the case in many countries. Instead, they are often fired or treated unfairly (e.g. not promoted) for having ‘blown the whistle’. However, recent years have seen an increase in whistleblower protection legislation (See: Blueprint for Free Speech website). For example, Norway amended its Working Environment Act 2005 in 2007 to add provisions for the protection of employees who report “censurable conditions” in the organization [Blueprint for Free Speech, Norway: Overview]. In the United States, federal law (The Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989, Pub.L. 101-12 as amended) protects federal whistleblowers who work for the government and report agency misconduct, while the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) of 1970, Section 11(c), protects employees from being discriminated against by employers for exercising their rights under the OSH.
In February 2019 the Australian Parliament passed the Treasury Laws Amendment (Enhancing Whistleblower Protections) Bill, which will require public companies and ‘large proprietary companies’ to have mandatory whistleblower policies. Such a policy must set out information on:
- the protections available to whistleblowers;
- the person/organisations to whom protected disclosures may be made, and how they can be made;
- how the company will support whistleblowers and protect them from detriment;
- how the company will investigate protected disclosures;
- how the company will ensure fair treatment of employees of the company who are mentioned in protected disclosures, or to whom such disclosures relate;
- how the policy is to be made available to officers and employees of the company; and
- any other matters prescribed by the regulations.
The Australian Bill introduces penalties for corporations and individuals which contravene the legislation including large civil fines and criminal sanctions including imprisonment.
Both companies and human rights defenders have a shared interest in an environment that respects the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, and is characterized by non-discrimination, transparent and accountable government, freedom from corruption, and respect for the rule of law.
In September 2018, ISHR and the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre published a new guidance, “Shared Space Under Pressure: Business Support for Civic Freedoms and Human Rights Defenders,” that provides an analytical and operational framework, with specific examples from different countries, sectors and initiatives, to inform companies as they decide whether and how to act.
As OHCHR states in its recommendations to governments and businesses on SDG implementation, “protecting, respecting and supporting human rights defenders needs to be an essential component of SDG implementation efforts.”
Specifically, protection of human rights defenders is addressed in the indicator for SDG target 16.10 (Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements), which measures the “number of verified cases of killing, kidnapping, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention and torture of journalists, associated media personnel, trade unionists and human rights advocates in the previous 12 months.”
Protection of human rights defenders is critical for the achievement of SDG 16, but as human rights are of cross-cutting relevance for the 2030 Agenda as a whole, ensuring adequate protection of human rights defenders assumes a critical importance in a cross-cutting manner.