Swedwatch urges investors to support defenders as pandemic adds to dangers

ARTICLE | 11 November 2020

Human rights and environmental defenders play a key role in contributing to upholding democracy and sustainable development. Investors should prioritise support to them, says a new Swedwatch policy briefing which underlines the added impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on their safety.

Defending human rights and the environment can be a deadly activity in many parts of the world. The growing number of attacks, as well as a record number of killings in 2019, has highlighted the risks involved in exposing negative effects from corporate activities. Mining, agribusiness and renewables are the sectors where most attacks have occurred in recent years.

When defenders are attacked and silenced, opportunities to hold companies and other actors accountable are reduced along with the ability of investors to identify, prevent and address risks of potentially severe human rights and environmental impacts of their investments.

The Swedwatch briefing The role of investors in supporting human rights and environmental defenders in the Covid-19 era examines how an already alarming situation has been worsened by the pandemic. It argues that identification and assessment of risks related to defenders, as well as appropriate action to support their ability to work without fear of retaliation, should be a priority for all investors committed to respecting and advancing human and environmental rights.

“The most progressive investors agree with United Nations calls to support defenders in the interest of all sections of society,” said Swedwatch researcher and author of the briefing Davide Maneschi. “Our experience is that far from all investors carry out effective human rights and environmental due diligence, and when they do defenders are almost never in focus. This needs to change.”

The briefing also argues that from a business perspective, attacks against defenders that are linked to investors’ assets can damage reputations and have negative financial consequences.

The briefing coincides with a global summit of public development banks aimed at shaping a common understanding of how these major investors can help “build back better” after the pandemic. As previously reported by Swedwatch, the role of civil society, human rights and community-led development is regrettably missing at this forum.

Defenders can be activists, journalists, whistleblowers or community organizers. They play a key role in holding companies and states accountable for business-related human rights abuses and environmental degradation – particularly where human rights and environmental protection are not effectively enforced by states.

As governments take measures to limit the spread of Covid-19 – including restrictions on civic freedoms such as freedom of movement and of assembly – risks to defenders have increased. Financial actors, including institutional investors, development finance institutions and other investors must take action to address the escalation of violence and intimidation, in line with international human rights frameworks.