At the World Economic Forum in Davos FIDH calls on businesses to protect endangered human rights defenders

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Copyright by World Economic Forum / Ciaran McCrickard

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) participated this week in the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. In Davos, the organization urged corporate actors to commit to defending human rights and to adapt their business practices accordingly.

Half of the world lives in repressed or closed societies, [1] and human rights defenders (HRDs) are the first victims of this trend. While the number of cases of intimidation or attacks against defenders reach record highs, a disturbing trend emerges : HRDs are more and more repressed when they speak out or oppose economic projects. Last December, Frontline Defenders counted that among 321 defenders targeted and killed for their work in 2018, 77% were defending land, environmental or indigenous peoples’ rights, "often in the context of extractive industries and state-aligned mega-projects".  [2]

Businesses have a significant role to foster respect for human rights and protect defenders. Although States bear a primary responsibility in this respect, corporations have a duty to respect human rights, even if States fail to do so. [3] On Thursday, as a panellist of a session entitled "Defending the Shared Space", Debbie Stothard, Secretary General of FIDH, particularly underlined the responsibility of businesses to commit to defend human rights and adapt their corporate practices accordingly. She called for measures to end the criminalisation and repression against human rights defenders and to counteract the closure of civic space around the world: «Corporations have an incredible power to influence respect for human rights. (...) They should take action. But business as usual is basically condemning us to even more crimes.»

Businesses must hear Human Rights Defenders’ call

In Davos, FIDH echoed the recent call from the second Human Rights Defenders World Summit, which was held on the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. [4] The summit developed a plan of action for how to protect and promote the work of activists fighting for rights, [5] which was later presented before the UN General Assembly. The plan calls on key stakeholders, including businesses, to enhance protection of defenders worldwide. It notably recommends businesses to:

 Implement and support robust, transparent and effective human rights due diligence processes, that should ensure that the human rights of individuals and communities, including human rights defenders affected by activities of companies, their subsidiaries, subcontractors, suppliers or business partners, are respected. Gendered human rights impact assessments should specifically cover the potential risks for human rights defenders who may oppose their business activity, paying special attention to the impacts to women defenders who are generally disproportionately affected.

 Adopt a policy of zero-tolerance towards acts of violence, threats or intimidation committed against defenders opposing or expressing their views about the company’s projects. Should such incidents take place, press state authorities to take effective action to investigate and protect defenders; if incidents continue, suspend implementation of the project until a safe environment for defenders is guaranteed.

 Respect the principle of free, prior and informed consent of affected communities, conduct meaningful and transparent consultations with communities and human rights defenders in critical phases of project planning and implementation.

 Make public statements on the important role of human rights defenders and civil society, publicly condemn attacks, threats and intimidation against them and refrain from making statements or expressing views that discredit, denigrate, discriminate against or stigmatize them.

 Fully cooperate with the state authorities in the investigation of any attack, threat or intimidation perpetrated against defenders

 Information and communication technology companies to review their policies to ensure that the freedom of expression and other rights of human rights defenders are fully protected

The Plan also sets out a series of recommendations to financial institutions towards better respect of human rights. Many of these recommendations are defended by NGOs, UN Special Procedures, and also some businesses themselves.

Talks on responsible investment have now been carried for several decades. As civic space keeps shrinking, defenders count on businesses to urgently take further action to protect human rights.

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