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Human rights defenders face worsening risks for challenging firms, UN expert warns

Human rights defenders

25 October 2017

NEW YORK (25 October 2017) - States and companies must do more to protect and respect human rights defenders working on business-related issues, amid a worsening climate of attacks, a United Nations expert has said.

“Human rights defenders who are pressing for companies to be held accountable should not be criminalised or threatened,” said Michel Forst, presenting his fourth report to the UN General Assembly. 

“They play a critical role in ensuring sustainable development and the enjoyment of fundamental rights.

“Human rights defenders, local communities, trade unionists and whistleblowers who denounce business scandals are all facing increasing dangers worldwide, and the responses so far have not matched the challenges,” Mr. Forst added.

The Special Rapporteur said there was a “worrying tendency to silence critics”, even though more and more companies were developing guidelines to ensure that development projects respected the rights of communities and defenders.

“Human rights defenders are often depicted as anti-development, but it is high time we change the narrative and show that those who act against human rights are actually those who are against progress and development,” Mr Forst said.

In many regions of the world, human rights defenders paid a high price for exposing human rights violations in the context of business-related activities, he said. The increasing number of threats and attacks could largely be explained by the lack of preventative measures such as consultations of affected communities and reactive measures like grievance mechanisms.

“I am also appalled by the number of cases in which companies benefit from corrupt political systems that favour short-term profits over human rights,” the Special Rapporteur added.

He highlighted a number of concrete steps which States could take to prevent human rights violations of people trying to hold companies to account.

For example, countries could introduce laws obliging companies to show due diligence in protecting human rights and guaranteeing the participation of communities and rights defenders in business-related decisions.

International finance institutions also had to ensure their projects avoided any negative impact on human rights on the ground, he added.


Mr. Michel Forst (France) was appointed by the Human Rights Council as the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders in 2014. Michel Forst has extensive experience on human rights issues and particularly on the situation of human rights defenders. In particular, he was the Director General of Amnesty International (France) and Secretary General of the first World Summit on Human Rights Defenders in 1998. He is a former UN Independent Expert on the human rights situation in Haiti.

The Independent Experts are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For inquiries and media requests, please contact Lucía de la Sierra  (+41 22 917 9741 [email protected]), or write to [email protected]

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Bryan Wilson – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9826 / [email protected]

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