The UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights has launched a consultation on "human rights defenders" (HRDs). According to the website of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the project was initiated in response to ‎perceived concerns about the challenges HRDs face in the field of business and human rights. Here we provide brief background on this initiative and what the consultation aims to achieve.‎

Background

There is no accepted definition of HRD. The Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1998 and was the first UN instrument to expressly recognize the role of HRDs, however, describes HRDs as “individuals, groups and associations … contributing to … the effective elimination of all violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms of peoples and individuals.” HRDs broadly encompass individuals working at many levels and contexts worldwide to investigate and address human rights violations, help victims, and advise and assist countries and companies in improving their policies, operations and practices. Common examples include union organizers, labor rights activists, environmental interest groups and individual campaigners.

In 2015, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of HRDs highlighted the range of threats and obstacles that HRDs were seen to face from both state and non-state actors in certain jurisdictions. This was a key theme of the 2016 UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, which is the world’s largest assembly dedicated to business and human rights.

Corporate response

As the working paper attached to the UN consultation announcement notes, only a small number of companies have considered HRD protection issues. A few have dedicated policy statements and some have spoken out in response to attacks, either individually or as part of multi-stakeholder groups. The pilot 2017 Corporate Human Rights Benchmark rankings appear to corroborate this: this year, in assessing the corporate human rights performance of 100 companies in the extractives, apparel and agricultural products industries, the benchmark identified only three corporations that have expressed public commitments not to interfere with HRDs’ activities – including campaigns targeting their own companies – and communicated to business partners their expectations that they do the same.

National Action Plans, which we will describe in more detail in an upcoming post, and which some countries use to more clearly define their commitments to human rights and pave the way for national laws and regulations in the field, highlight the work of HRDs and the need to support them. The UK NAP is one example, but it does not go into a great amount of detail. As the working paper notes, detailed practical guidance on HRDs consistent with the UNGPs has not yet been developed. Looking to the UNGPs, the touchstone for human rights compliance, they address HRDs but at a high-level only.

Commentary to Principle 18, which deals with the human rights due diligence a company should conduct, urges companies to consult stakeholders potentially affected by business and, where direct consultation is not possible, to explore reasonable alternatives, including HRDs and other civil society experts. Commentary to Principle 26, which deals with the state duty to ensure that effective judicial mechanisms are in place for those who have suffered business-related human rights abuses, urges states to take care that HRDs’ legitimate and peaceful activities are not obstructed.

Next steps

Back to the consultation, the UN Working Group has organized a workshop in Geneva in May and plans to consult with a wide range of stakeholders. Ultimately, it plans to issue guidance for business on engaging, respecting and supporting HRDs and preserving civic space in line with the UNGPs. It is currently seeking input and information from stakeholders by Sept. 1. Areas that the consultation intends to explore include: the future relationship between business and HRDs and specific protections for HRDs. This is a new and challenging development We will continue to monitor.