Human Rights Day 2021: Highlighting the work of human rights defenders

10th December 2021

Written by Eva Thorshaug, Intern at Business for Peace Foundation

Human Rights Day is celebrated by the international community every year on December 10th. The anniversary commemorates the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. The 10th of December also marks the annual ceremony of the Nobel Peace Prize. This years’ Laureates and human rights defenders Maria Ressa and Dmitrij Muratov are awarded the prize for their “efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace”.

Nobel Peace Prize Laureates Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov (Photo: The Nobel Peace Prize)

Businesses have a role to play in the advancement of the human rights agenda and the protection of human rights defenders. Meaningful progress has been made in the decade since the publication of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) whereby committed companies are monitoring their own activities more carefully. Human rights due diligence (HRDD), a practice by which companies have to identify and act upon potential human rights abuses connected to their activities, has also gained traction in the last few years.

Unfortunately, this has not been enough. Great challenges such as breaking the cycle of poverty, pervasive inequality and structural discrimination all require a human rights approach in order to be solved effectively — and businesses have a role to play.

Protecting the Civic Space: The Business and Human Rights Dimension

While progress has been made in advancing human rights in the corporate world, the role of business has also been called into question specifically on the issue of protecting human rights defenders. Human rights defenders as well as civic society at large are essential in protecting and expanding civic freedoms, also in the spaces in which business operates. They play a key role in alerting businesses of potential human rights-related risks, and concerns of affected communities. Moreover, the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders stressed that the 2030 Agenda is “doomed to failure if the individuals and groups on the frontline of defending sustainable development are not protected at the national, regional and international levels”.

Yet, there are grave concerns that many businesses potentially play a role in contributing to attacks against human rights defenders by failing to take action when abuse is revealed. The unfortunate fact is that human rights defenders — especially those who work against business-related abuses — face a rising number of grim and sometimes fatal threats. The organisation Front Line Defenders reported that last year alone 331 human rights defenders were killed around the world, a majority of which were working on land, indigenous peoples’ and environmental rights. Excluding killings, the most reported violations against human rights defenders were detention and arrest (29%), legal action (19%) and physical attacks (13%). In other words, human rights defenders are operating in an increasingly constrained civic space. Such developments ought to prompt serious reflection on the part of businesses as major actors in these spaces — and the role they want to take.

Leveraging the Power of Business to Promote Human Rights

Civil society and businesses alike benefit from a civic space built on accountability, transparency and predictability. These are also key elements of an environment where growth and innovation can flourish. It is thus in the interest of businesses themselves to protect human rights and empower its defenders. To do so, businesses first need to understand their leverage and how to utilise it in the best possible form.

In the context of human rights, “leverage” refers to the ability of a business to effect change in the wrongful human rights practices of others, either by private or public means. Businesses can for example have leverage over suppliers or contractors, or they can use their influence to promote and protect the work of human rights defenders vis-à-vis aggressive governments. Leverage is an ambiguous concept because businesses oftentimes have more leverage than they realise or even want to acknowledge. Many businesses also do not utilise their leverage beyond narrow commercial priorities as acting on human rights violations is perceived as too high risk. In other words, respecting the rights of human rights defenders is simply not seen as a priority.

This, however, is a rather short-sighted view of business that is not beneficial in the longer term. At Business for Peace, we believe that business can both do good and do well at the same time. While advocacy and using leverage might not come naturally to many companies, inaction is to the detriment of both business and civic society. By engaging with human rights defenders and respecting their rights, businesses are more successful in building trust with the communities they operate in and in turn improve the durability of their operations. Human rights defenders are also uniquely positioned to identify risks and offer solutions on how to mitigate them, creating positive outcomes for all parties.

A year-long effort

It is important that businesses sustain their efforts and commitment to human rights and human rights defenders beyond the 10th of December every year. Respecting human rights is a year-long effort and businesses have a fundamental role to play. On this Human Rights Day, let’s celebrate human rights defenders and advocate for better business practices that put human rights at their core.