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Roundtable of Multilateral Development Banks and Independent Accountability Mechanisms

"Addressing the Risk of Reprisals in Development Finance"

Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet

12 April 2019

Dear Colleagues,
Dear Friends,

Thank you very much for the opportunity to be with you today, to engage with you on such a vital topic.

I am addressing you in two capacities: the first, as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. But I also bring to this conversation perspectives as a former Head of State from a region where intimidation and reprisals against civil society have reached crisis point.

Civil society space is shrinking worldwide, and democratic norms and institutions are fracturing. An increasing number of environmental and human rights defenders is threatened, harassed, tortured and killed each year.

Over one thousand human rights defenders – four people every week – were killed over the last three years alone. As disturbing as this is, reported killings are just the tip of the iceberg. The ripple effects of each death on development and societies’ wellbeing are incalculable.

This is a human rights emergency. It is also a cost for businesses and a source of risk for development financing institutions. Intimidation silences human voice and agency, undermines legitimacy and trust, and impedes information flows and accountability, all factors on which successful, sustainable development depends.

Beyond actual killings, there are other worrying trends. Repression is increasingly being undertaken through the deliberate application, or better said mis-application, of national laws, including with respect to NGO registration and regulation, financing restrictions, abridgements of freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, and abuse of anti-terrorist laws.

Repression is increasing in technical sophistication, through on-line harassment, abuse of social media, internet shutdowns, digital security attacks, mass surveillance, and facial recognition and video manipulation technologies.

Our increasingly polarised and toxic information system multiplies the potential for vilification and violence.

Last September, the UN Special Rapporteur on indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli Corpuz, branded a “terrorist” for her work in her home country, reported to the UN Human Rights Council. She highlighted the increased attacks and criminalization of indigenous peoples in the context of agribusiness, extractives, forestry, infrastructure and other large-scale development projects.

The murder of indigenous leader Sergio Rojas Ortiz last month in Costa Rica, exemplifies these worsening trends.

International and regional organizations, including Multilateral Development Banks (MDBs), have an increasingly important role to play in setting and encouraging high standards for stakeholder engagement, to help counter the erosion of norms and laws at national level.

I warmly welcome the increasing momentum among MDBs and Independent Accountability Mechanisms (IAMs) to recognise and address these challenges, within the scope of their operations.

In particular, I endorse the very practical and detailed Reprisals Toolkit published by MICI (the IDB’s Independent Consultation and Investigation Mechanisms) a few months ago, which I am sure will be a valuable resource for all development organizations.

I note that the author of the Toolkit, Tove Holmstrom, was a former staff member of my Office, and a former secondee to the Inspection Panel. I welcome this very concrete illustration of “mainstreaming” in action, and I take this as an indicator of the depth and directions of our collaboration.

I also note that we will be discussing reprisals, remedies and related issues during a one-day consultation with the IAM Network in Abidjan in June, within the framework of my Office’s Accountability and Remedy Project. My thanks go to MICI, as Network chair, for facilitating that opportunity.

Within the UN system, we have strengthened our own policies and responses to intimidation and reprisals. There are two inter-related challenges in this regard: identifying and assessing risks of reprisals ex ante, so as to avoid harm, and responding to threats and acts after the fact.

As a physician, I know that prevention is better than a cure. But both are needed in practice. The killing of an environmental defender can have a profound, enduring and deeply damaging demonstration effect. In fact, that is exactly what the perpetrators desire. However, a “zero tolerance” policy on reprisals, backed up by action, can resonate with equal power.

The UN has a long way to go in this area, yet we have managed to achieve positive outcomes in particular cases even after threats have emerged, including in very challenging operational environments.

Along the way, we have been wrestling with a number of challenging questions, which I am sure you are familiar with, such as:

  • What is our role and responsibility when others are the actual perpetrators?
  • What do we do when governments – our main project partners – are part of the problem?
  • What do we do when our influence is limited, or when the threats materialise long after we’ve gone?
  • How can we offer help without raising expectations beyond reasonable limits, and without putting people further at risk?
  • How can we contribute to effective remediation, commensurate with our relative responsibility?

These questions beg easy answers or cookie-cutter solutions, but this would be falling short of what can be done. Solutions need to be worked out in context, guided by principle and professional judgement, in consultation with protection experts and the rights-holders themselves.

While the threats are great, and constantly growing, so are our opportunities.

Firstly, while national laws are being weakened in many countries, international and regional systems offer higher, more prudential standards for risk assessment purposes. For example, the 2018 Escazú convention on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters, the first international treaty to explicitly protect environmental defenders, embodies the welcome, progressive evolution of international law and is a foundation stone for more effective risk assessment and responses to reprisals risk.

Secondly, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are gaining traction among major business and increasingly integrated within development financing institutions’ due diligence frameworks and impact assessment guidelines (including, recently, those of the OECD and the Inter-American Development Bank). Among other things, the UN Guiding Principles provide a framework for identifying risk and attributing responsibility, and provide guidance on the concepts of “leverage” and grievance redress, relevant to reprisals policies.

Thirdly, technology can be a powerful cure. Enhanced communications, social media, geospatial mapping technologies and digital protection technologies can make vital and sometimes life-saving contributions to social risk assessment and protection responses.

And finally, as the Reprisals Toolkit lays out, there is an increasing number of actors and sources of financial and technical support for reprisals work, from the international and regional human rights systems and regional organisations through to civil society organisations, funds and protection mechanisms.

It is only through committed, creative collaboration that we will address our common goals and challenges in this area.

In this spirit, I pledge the continuing support of my Office, and I thank you again for the opportunity to be part of this vital conversation.