The term human rights defender refers to individuals or groups that strive to protect and promote human rights in a peaceful manner. They play a critical role in fostering corporate respect for human rights, including civil, political, social and economic rights. The activity of human rights defender leads to achieve sustainable development by promoting gender equality, protecting environment and combating corruptions worldwide. Even though there is a normative network which foreseen an inclusive dialogue, the consultations about business projects often take place only once key decisions have already been taken and are used simply to stage “approval”.
In the context of business activity, the protection of human rights is often dangerous, and even deadly, work. Attacks are recorded in all sectors and regions across the world. Most common forms of attacks are judicial harassment and criminalization. Human rights defenders are targeted by companies, which use State forces, private security groups or organized crime to defend its economic interest. Under the current situation and business practice, women human rights defenders are particularly vulnerable to attacks when reporting human rights abuses. A deeply rooted patriarchy system is still common for many companies and undermines the position of women and their actions. The threats faced by women are often extended to their families.
In order to address the threats posed to human rights defenders, the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. This document, even though not legally binding, it provides a normative framework for states, non-state actors, private sector to promote and respect the rights of defenders. It also salutes and acknowledges the activity of human rights defenders across the world. The responsibilities and commitments included in Declaration has been reflected in the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, a document endorsed by Human Rights Council to address the regulatory gap between corporate influence and accountability.
Both documents highlight the duty of States to protect citizens from human rights abuses by third parties and acknowledged an independent corporate responsibility to respect human rights. There is a need to reinvigorate the advocacy process for its implementation through greater access for victims of business-related abuse to effective remedy.
In this regard, States are responsible for creating an enabling environment and regulative framework to protect human rights, including protecting against abuses by business enterprises and other third parties. It can be translated through adoption of new laws that protect human rights defenders, recognize their rights and do not subject them to attacks from State actors or third parties for their activities. Implementation of laws and policies which legitimize and guarantee the participation of communities in the decision making process which affect their lives. Laws should also make human rights due diligence a legal requirement for private sector and increase level of public access to information in order to unveil human rights violations. In addition, national guidelines on human rights defenders and national action plans on business and human rights can ensure greater policy coherence.
State should promptly and impartially investigate all attacks against human rights defenders and on the other hand, not prevent investigation, punishment and redressal of human rights abuses. It is critical to ensure that the security of defenders is guaranteed at all times. Existing protection mechanisms are very often not implemented and led to an alarming situation in which many defenders find themselves with no protection at all. Judicial proceedings against companies are lengthy, costly and rife with obstacles.
In this context, there is a need to increase public awareness of the critical role of human rights defenders. It can be achieved through public campaigns initiated by the government in collaboration with human rights civil societies. Only by identifying the vulnerable and non-equal position of the human rights defenders, states can combat impunity.
Enterprises should act with due diligence to avoid violations on the rights of others caused by business activities and its business relationships. They should assess the situation of civic freedoms and human rights defenders, identifying gaps and more actively engage with defenders. The respect of human rights needs to be demonstrated in their commitments, internal guidelines, and policies. Private sector should to greater extent foster a safe and enabling environment for defenders and reconsider an act of withdrawing from a business relationship if it poses a risk to have an adverse human rights impact.