Urgent need for companies to address attacks against rights defenders

REPORT | 12 December 2019

In a new report, Swedwatch and six other Swedish civil society organisations urge European companies to step up efforts to identify and address risks to human rights and environmental defenders. They also call on the EU and its Member States to adopt laws requiring companies to do so.

Human rights and environmental defenders play a key role in holding companies and states accountable for business-related human rights violations. Still, many face severe reprisals for safeguarding workers’ rights or opposing projects such as dams, mines or plantations: so far over 2,000 attacks on defenders have been reported between 2015 and 2019. The number increased by more than 10 percent between 2017 and 2018.

Defenders at Risk: Attacks on Human Rights and Environmental Defenders and the Responsibility of Business, compiled by Swedwatch in cooperation with ACT Church of Sweden, The Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, Diakonia, Afrikagrupperna, Solidarity Sweden-Latin America and Fair Action,  provides an overview of the situation for defenders working on business-related rights violations in high-risk sectors. The report is based on interviews with ten defenders from nine countries and a survey of 22 Swedish and European companies in high risk areas – including Siemens, ArcelorMittal, Tesco, Adidas and Ericsson. The report highlights the grave situation defenders face and the urgent need for companies and states to take action.

The report found that many major European companies, while acknowledging the issue, still lack procedures for dealing with risks to human rights defenders in their supply chains. It outlines steps companies should take to meet their responsibilities and help ensure that defenders can work in a safe and enabling environment. These measures can also benefit individual companies and the business sector as a whole. For instance, consulting with defenders is an effective way for companies to identify and address risks in their value chains, and to minimise risks of financial and reputational damage.

The defenders featured in the report are from some of the world’s most dangerous countries in terms of business-related attacks on trade unionists, journalists, civil rights activists and smallholder farmers, from Colombia and Guatemala to Azerbaijan, Bangladesh and the Philippines.

Their testimonies provide evidence of grave and systematic oppression of critical voices and point to common ways in which companies may increase risks and put them in danger:

  • By contributing to existing tensions and exacerbating local conflict dynamics;
  • By cooperating with state-owned companies or state-prioritised projects in countries where governments target defenders;
  • By offering resources or technology that can be used against defenders.

“In my country, food companies work with the military who target community workers,” said Ryan Mendoza, a defender forced to leave the Philippines because of his work with indigenous peoples. “Many of my colleagues have been killed, only for defending human rights. These companies need to be held responsible.

Companies can also contribute to human rights abuses by providing technology that is used against defenders, such as telecom networks and ICT.

“It has become almost like a norm that our phone calls are listened to,” said Arzu Geybulla, an Azerbaijani journalist and human rights defender. “The government use the technology to determine who has been present at a demonstration and to arrest them. As an ICT company operating in Azerbaijan it is very hard not to get involved in all that.”

The report calls on companies to identify and address risks to defenders as part of their human rights due diligence processes and to implement a zero-tolerance policy towards attacks on defenders, including in contracts with business partners. It also highlights the failure of European states to fulfil their international commitments and urges them to adopt national and EU legislation – including on mandatory human rights due diligence – to ensure that companies respect defenders throughout their value chains.