Published on 16 November 2018


The UN pressures business to protect human rights defenders

Local communities, workers and unionists can be at risk of corporate retaliation when defending their land, union rights or working conditions. The growing power of multinationals makes these actors increasingly vulnerable. In addition to existing and developing international texts, new actions must be put in place such as "name and shame" policies and more shareholder engagement to protect the human rights of those at risk. Novethic talked with Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders for the United Nations (UN)

The UN wants to operate new levers to compel multinationals to respect human rights.

In 2017, at least 312 human rights defenders were murdered, twice as many as in 2015. Hundreds more are regularly threatened for defending community members, the environment and the most vulnerable populations, such as indigenous people and migrants. States, and increasingly businesses, are being called into question over their responsibility in this situation.

Human rights defenders increasingly threatened by corporations

"Defending human rights from the negative impact of business activities exposes ordinary people, communities, workers and union representatives to stigmatisation, criminalisation, physical attacks and sometimes death", notes the report on "the situation of human rights defenders", issued by the UN in July 2018.

20 years after the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, business-centred guidelines concerning the consultation and protection of human rights defenders are expected. Currently, a human rights treaty is being negotiated at the UN.

"Name and shame"

Along with these actions, other tools can be employed, said Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. "When I receive complaints about the government, I send allegation letters, report on the facts and ask a series of questions to see how the state has approached the problem and how it responds. The Letter and the answer are made public. It's pretty effective. I decided to do the same with the most controversial companies (e.g. Barrick Gold and Anglo American, Ed.) based on NGO reports, complaints from human rights defenders and my own observations. The country where the company’s headquarters is located, and the country where it operates, also receives a copy the report," Forst notes.

In response, the Special Rapporteur receives hundreds of pages of documents written by lawyers, followed by meetings to explain the company’s position. "Seeing their names quoted in NGO reports like Global Witness does not make them happy but seeing them in official reports from the United Nations, and being consulted by other States, that really bothers them. Many understand the strategic need to do better by involving more people in their projects," Forst said. To verify their arguments, Forst then goes on an official mission to conduct a field visit. Most businesses are far from cooperative, however, with some not responding and others threatening legal action.

A financial sector alliance?

Another lever explored by the Special Rapporteur is an alliance with financial actors, particularly investment and development banks, and international or regional banks. "They have the real power to convince states and companies to do more and to do it better," Forst said. Confidential work is being conducted with the World Bank and other regional banks on the "retaliation" that human rights defenders may face when denouncing the actions of the businesses they fund.

Private investors are already at the forefront of human rights issues, such as the Norwegian, Dutch and Swedish pension funds.  They are also keen to establish drastic rules on the advanced consultation of populations impacted and their protection, going as far as to withdraw funding.

Finally, the Rapporteur says he is ready to intervene himself by calling out the most reluctant companies during meetings with shareholders, or even at their annual general meetings.

Béatrice Héraud @beatriceheraud

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