Role of human rights defenders in COVID-19 recovery crucial


Workers sit inside a shop selling iron pipes at a wholesale iron market, Kolkata, India © REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

“Human rights and environmental defenders are on the frontline of this struggle for a better future to be born. They will play a leadership role from the local to the global levels. We must all – governments, civil society, companies, and investors - protect them from abuse and seek to amplify their voices.”

Phil Bloomer, the Executive Director of the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, was speaking at last week’s Business and Human Rights Forum.

The session, focusing on the role of human rights defenders in defending rights during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the process of ‘building back better’ brought together a range of activists from around the world, as well as UN experts and other stakeholders. Anita Ramasastry, Chair of the Working Group on Business and Human Rights, referred to the discussion as “one of the most important” in the Forum.

Since the start of the pandemic, attacks against human rights defenders have continued, and in many parts of the world, have even risen. According to the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, from March to October, there have been 286 cases of attacks against defenders focused on business-related activities, a 7.5% increase from the same time last year.

For Bloomer, these statistics point to “opportunistic repression perpetrated by business, governments and other actors.”

Yet during this period of acute crisis, the voices of human rights defenders, according to the session’s panellists, are ever more critical. Central to the discussion was a strong call for companies to consult human rights defenders before embarking on business activity as a key part of their human rights due diligence, and support defenders when they are threatened. The session highlighted that States should ensure that the work of human rights defenders is not only unobstructed, but is actively listened to and welcomed.

Pandemic creating leverage for business to commit abuses

Vann Sophath, a human rights defender from Cambodia, gave the example of a rubber company clearing indigenous sacred land “under the cloak of the pandemic,” destroying burial grounds, wetlands and forests. He said that despite a previously agreed decision to return the land to the communities, and even the fact that people were taking shelter to protect themselves against the virus, the land-clearing proceeded regardless.

He highlighted a lack of willingness from business and government to hear the concerns of human rights defenders.

From India, Deepika Rao, from CIVIDEP, an organisation which promotes workers' rights and corporate accountability, spoke of the challenges facing workers “at the lowest rungs of the global supply chain”, who were the “hardest hit” by India’s 21 day lockdown. Implemented at short notice, the lockdown left them with no daily income and living in cramped quarters with a heightened fear of the virus.

While labour rights activists routinely faced threats and intimidation from companies, Rao said that since the pandemic began, companies have used it as an excuse to lay-off “difficult” workers. She called for labour rights experts and trade unions to be listened to and consulted with, and underlined that the pandemic should not be used as an excuse to clamp down on trade unions.

And from Brazil, human rights defender Antonia Flavia’s story, represented by Maria-Isabel Cubides, told of steel and cement companies extracting natural resources from her village. For years, her community has been pushing for relocation, their current homes uninhabitable due to severe health and environmental impacts. The pandemic has put their plans on hold, and while the companies continue their work, villagers have been forced to face the simultaneous challenges of isolation, pollution and flooding.

“The decisions taken by most companies have privileged profit at the expense of the destruction of the environment and human health,” said Cubides. “If the necessary measures were taken, the disjunctive of work vs. health, and environmental preservation vs. economic benefits would be surmounted.”

Cooperation between business and civil society more difficult

The company perspective was offered by Lisa Isakson of Greenfood, who emphasised the need for people to speak freely about the human rights risks in company supply chains. She noted that getting information has become more difficult during the pandemic: “Due to the risk of spreading the virus we cannot travel like before, there are restrictions on visiting local sites, supplier audits and inspections have been delayed or cancelled and, at the same time, we know many risks are higher, not least for workers in agricultural supply chains.”

For Isakson, cooperation with civil society and, through that, engagement with human rights defenders themselves, is essential to overcoming these challenges.

Human rights defenders’ proposals for a just recovery

On the issue of a just recovery from the pandemic, the participants heard from Maja Kristine Jåma, a Sámi reindeer herder from Norway and a political advisor to the Governing Council of the Norwegian Sámi Parliament. Calling for society to change its understanding of the value of indigenous land, she spoke of loss of pastureland due to the construction of hydroelectric power plants, wind farms, roads and power lines.

“It’s not vacant space that should be filled with more infrastructure projects, but, especially in light of climate change, it is valuable space crucial to the survival of our planet”. She urged early engagement with indigenous land users when development projects are being considered.

A call for better collaboration between defenders, business and governments

“A just recovery from the pandemic is not possible if human rights defenders are not free to speak out,” observed Anita Ramasastry.

Mary Lawlor, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, reiterated this point. “If we really want to build back better, human rights and human rights defenders need to be a priority for both States and businesses,” she said.

Lawlor urged companies who are launching projects to engage with potentially affected communities and human rights defenders at the earliest possible stage, and for States to collaborate with defenders during legislative processes.

“They (companies) have to keep the door open, even if objections of the defenders might render a project more costly, less profitable or even unviable. Free, prior and informed consent by the community is a must.”

She stated that engagement is an essential part of the effective due diligence called for in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Concluding the session, Anita Ramasastry highlighted the UN Working Group’s ongoing work to design a roadmap for action on the UN Guiding Principles in the next decade (UNGPs10+).

She stressed that the voice of human rights defenders is key in collective efforts to build the future we want.

25 November 2020

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