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Threats to human rights defenders and to civic freedoms are increasing concerns globally. A large number of human rights defenders are under threat and attack because they raise concern about adverse human rights impacts of business operations, often in the context of large development projects that affects access to land and livelihoods. At the same time, the space for civil society actors to raise concerns about human rights impacts is shrinking, and human rights defenders face criminalization when engaging in public protest or civil dissent.

Concerns are being raised about the role of business in contributing to attacks against human rights defenders or in failing to take action against such attacks. Questions are also being raised about the role of business in helping to protect human rights defenders and civic space.

States have the primary obligation to ensure the rights and protection of human rights defenders, as set out in various human rights instruments—in particular the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders—and as reaffirmed in many UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly resolutions.

The importance of human rights defenders in the context of business-related impacts on human rights is recognized by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. They highlight the key role human rights defenders can have in human rights due diligence and enabling companies to understand concerns of affected stakeholders. In particular, the Guiding Principles:

  • Urge businesses to consult human rights defenders as an important expert resource as part of their human rights due diligence, as defenders have a key role as watchdogs, advocates and voice for affected stakeholders.
  • Urge States to ensure that the legitimate activities of human rights defenders are not obstructed.

Relevant Working Group’s work on protecting and respecting HRDs in the context of business operations

The Working Group on Business and Human Rights, as part of its mandate to promote the UN Guiding Principles, decided to give focused attention to the issue human rights defenders and civic space by:

This guidance was developed based on multistakeholder consultations and submissions received in response to an open call for inputs. The Working Group issued a discussion paper to guide suggestions from interested parties: Discussion paper: identifying elements for guidance on human rights defenders and the role of business.

The Working Group worked in consultation with the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, whose report to the 2017 UN General Assembly addressed the situation of human rights defenders raising concerns about business-related impacts.

Relevant consultations

Additional related outputs