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Recent UN report calls businesses to assume responsibility for ensuring the safety of human rights activists. In 2015 and 2016, at least 450 attacks against human rights defenders worldwide involved complicity of a private company.

The Complicity

The alarming report, issued recently by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Michel Forst, documents the detrimental impact of businesses on the safety of human rights defenders.

In 2015 and 2016 alone, at least 450 human rights activists suffered a violent attack with a proven complicity of state and business actors. Some attacks, however, go unreported, authors of the report claim. Some victims fear retaliation or don’t trust the authorities.

Over half of the attacks took place in Latin America. The top three most dangerous countries for activists are Guatemala (10%), Colombia (10%), and Mexico (9%), according to the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, the organization that provided the UN with statistics. Additionally, the study reveals that a quarter of the companies involved in the attacks have headquarters in one of those three countries: Canada, China, or USA.

Land Defenders

While defenders face abuse and harassment across all sectors, the land-consuming industries are the most dangerous for human rights defenders. Environmental defenders are often in a vulnerable position due to the disproportion of “legal logistical, defensive and financial resources available” when dealing with resource extraction corporations. Furthermore, factors such as corruption and illicit relations between the police forces and companies lead to “a situation in which the police become the asset of private interests and fail to protect local communities.”

 The finding confirms previous studies on the situation. For instance, Global Watch, a human rights watchdog, reported 200 environmental activists murdered in 2016, with mining and oil extraction identified as the most deadly sectors.

Call for Action

With this in mind, the report calls businesses to assume responsibility for the situation faced by grassroots activists. “Although the primary responsibility to investigate attacks against defenders rests upon the State,” concedes the report, “companies also have an important role to play.”

It is necessary that companies employ the human rights situation as an investment criteria, and “exclude ‘countries and companies with extensive track-records of threats and attacks against defenders,” urges the report.

The release of the report coincides with the ongoing negotiations in Geneva to adopt binding international measures with regard to state and business practices and human rights. The five-day session of the Open-ended Intergovernmental Working Group (IGWG) started on October 23, 2017. At least in principle, enhancing human rights standards within business practices is a goal shared by all members of the UN. In reality, however, that’s as far as the consensus goes. Disputes over issues such as the scope and functioning of the future treaty mean that reaching a final resolution will be an arduous task.

In the meantime, it’s up to businesses whether they want to continue the cycle of impunity, or they are ready to acknowledge the mutual benefits that accrue from maintaining a safe work environment in the human rights sector.


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