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Not ‘in this together’: Business human rights defenders at increased risk during pandemic says Business & Human Rights Resource Centre




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Businesses and governments are putting the welfare of workers and communities at risk as evidence gathered during the pandemic reveals attacks against those standing up against abuse have continued unabated. And far from being ‘in this together’, attacks against human rights defenders have in fact increased compared with this period in previous years. Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has recorded attacks in industries including mining, construction, renewable energy, apparel and agri-business, and in 44 countries across the world, with cases recorded in the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia.  

The institution said: “We reaffirm our concern for indigenous human rights defenders, who are persecuted, criminalized and murdered for defending their territories and indigenous rights. We need concrete and joint actions - by states and businesses - to protect and respect human rights defenders. In this sense, we request the recognition and strengthening of individual and collective protection mechanisms.” 

Indigenous peoples’ representatives at the 5th regional forum on Business & Human Rights (Sep 2020) 

The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre research report, Just recovery in peril: Human Rights Defenders face increasing risk during COVID-19 has been launched to coincide with the 2020 UN Forum on Business and Human Rights session Time for action: the role of Human Rights Defenders in defending rights during crisis and when ‘building back better’. 

The report found that from March to September 2020: 

·       On average, a defender was attacked every day during this period for standing up for human rights or environmental protection.  

·       At highest risk of attack were community members and indigenous people, representing more than a third of all cases. Almost one quarter of attacks were against women defenders. 


·       The most common type of attack was arbitrary detention, with 108 cases. Other types of attacks also occurred, including intimidation and threats (51), killings (46) and beatings (15). 

·       At least 105 cases were linked to retaliation for advocacy focused on specific companies. None of these companies have policies that mention the protection of defenders. 

·       Local and state authorities were involved in more than one third of cases, often in relation to cases brought against defenders in local courts or authorizing heavy-handed police interventions in protests. 

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre Business, Civic Freedoms & Human Rights Defenders Project Manager Ana Zbona said, “Since the onset of COVID-19 (March 2020) until the end of September 2020, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has tracked 286 cases of attacks against human rights defenders focused on business-related activities – part of an ongoing pattern of abuse. There were almost 20 more attacks during this period than on average for the last 5 years during the same period. This represents a 7.5% increase, suggesting opportunistic repression from business, governments and other actors. 

“Low paid workers are on the frontline are toiling to keep the global economy going, regardless of the risk to their health and well-being. Many workers considered ‘essential’ have been put at higher levels of risk through their often precarious work in industries such as agriculture and meatpacking. Others, including care workers, have been overlooked and not included in the COVID-19 response programmes of governments. Demands from these workers, communities and civil society supporting them have been met with intimidation, violence, obstruction and wilful disregard.”  

Case studies 

The experiences of palm oil workers and the local community in Peru and journalist Hopewell Chin’ono, plus the worrying rise in the use of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) against defenders, show how business-related human rights defence in the context of COVID-19 aggravates risks for defenders – and how the pandemic is used as a pretext to silence them and their constituencies.  

Zbona added: “In Zimbabwe, the government has used COVID-19 as an excuse to disperse mass protests against corrupt practices related to purchasing personal protective equipment (PPE). Hopewell Chin’ono was one of the defenders that exposed corruption in the government procurement of coronavirus supplies. He reported that the son of President Emmerson Mnangagwa was the head of the fictitious company, which was denied by Mnangagwa. Chin’ono was arrested and held for several weeks. He was recently rearrested. 

“In Peru in June 2020 Ocho Sur P continued operating its palm oil plantation in Ucayali, despite a rapid COVID-19 test process allegedly identifying positive results in 90% of workers tested. In response, the company said it had increased pay and other forms of support to offset price collapse during the crisis. There have been two previous orders from Peruvian authorities demanding the company cease operations due to deforestation of the Amazon. Despite these multiple alleged abuses, Ocho Sur P reportedly supplies fruit to several companies that are part of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, which certifies best practices in this sector and has a policy on human rights defenders. 

“And there are other ways defenders and their communities are being targeted. Between March and August 2020 there were at least seven SLAPPs filed against defenders: one recent victory was the dismissal of a case against journalist, brought by Thammakaset Limited Company in Thailand, which alone has filed 38 criminal or civil complaints against 22 individuals in the past four years.” 

Hope for change 

There is hope, with an increasing recognition of the important role of defenders in law. The Escazú agreement in Latin America would be the first international treaty to explicitly protect the rights of environmental defenders. Another opportunity will be the European Union’s mandatory human rights due diligence legislation next year, putting an onus on businesses to clean up their practice or face the consequences and could institute a duty for businesses to consult with stakeholders, including defenders, and to make sure such consultation is safe and meaningful. 

Zbona added: “The pandemic has exacerbated inequalities in markets. It highlights the need for a just recovery to a more equitable world, we need business to respect human rights and the crucial role human rights defenders play in exposing abuse. Governments, companies and investors must act to ensure defenders are not only protected from attacks but are also leading participants in a just recovery.” 

 Find out more 

·       Read the research Just recovery in peril: Human Rights Defenders face increasing risk during COVID-19. 

·       Please join the UN Business & Human Rights Forum session: 14:00-15:30 CET, Tuesday 17 November: Time for action: the role of Human Rights Defenders in defending rights during crisis and when ‘building back better’. The 9th annual UN Business & Human Rights Forum is being held in Geneva, 16-18 November 2020.

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