By Elisa Giuliani
December 30, 2020
In Honduras, Berta Caceres – who in 2015 was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize – was assassinated for leading a protest against a hydroelectric power dam. This dam was promoted at the time by a joint venture between the Honduran company DESA (Desarrollos Energéticos, S.A.) and the Chinese company Sinohydro, amongst other financial partners. Caceres’s life is one of hundreds taken each year for protecting human and environmental rights. The United Nations reported that, from 2017 to 2018, there were 431 confirmed killings of human rights defenders. The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) has documented over 2,400 attacks launched from 2015-2020 against human rights defenders in conflicts involving the business sector; 572 of those attacks occurred in 2019 alone. While defenders work on a range of social, economic, and environmental issues, this article looks specifically at land and environmental rights defenders. This includes individuals focused on business operations linked to natural resources-based industries (mining, oil, logging, agri-food) and big hydro-electric projects (e.g., dams). In 2019, according to a Global Witness report, 212 land and environmental rights defenders were killed. Four people murdered every week.
These killings and other serious human rights violations are committed both by State actors (often through the military) as well as by non-State actors, including businesses (who may rely on security guards or hitmen to perpetrate the abuses, and who may use their lawyers to file strategic lawsuits to silence or intimidate defenders). In 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders reported that “the overwhelming majority of human rights abuses committed against human rights defenders remain unpunished” while many defenders are stigmatized and become the victims of State- or corporate-led smear campaigns, accused of being “terrorists”, “spoilers of peace” or “enemies of the government”.
According to my own calculations based on BHRRC data, 95,5% of the human rights defender attacks occur in a low to middle income country, with particularly high numbers of attacks in countries like Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, the Philippines and India, followed by smaller countries in Central America (Honduras and Nicaragua) and in Africa (Democratic Republic of Congo) (see also Global Witness, 2020). For about half of these attacks, BHRRC has been able to identify the companies involved and their home countries. Roughly one-third (36%) of them are companies that are headquartered in a high-income country, and which are associated with the attacks in connection with their subsidiaries’ operations or in the context of joint projects with other local partners (e.g. joint ventures). The remaining attacks (64%) involve companies from low to middle income countries which in nearly all cases (98%) perpetrate the abuse in their home country or in other similarly low-to-middle income host countries.
As attention to these attacks on human rights defenders has been growing, so too have the calls for changes in corporate practice and accountability. These calls for change, in turn, raise questions about
- how companies headquartered or investing in low-to-middle income countries – thus including many emerging economies - are involved or implicated in these abuses,
- whether and how their conduct differs from companies in or from high income countries,
- the factors behind such differences, and
- what policy and other levers exist to bring about corporate change and put an end to these abuses.
These questions are relatively untouched areas of research for management and international business scholars. While in both these scholarly communities, interest has been increasing in how Multinational Enterprises (MNEs) are addressing human rights responsibilities and incorporating (or not) human rights policies in their strategies (see, e.g., Wettstein et al., 2019; Fiaschi et al., 2017; Whiteman and Cooper, 2016; Crane, 2014;), it is less clear how - either in words and practice – they are managing interactions with human rights defenders. Other important questions are how home countries, host countries, and other actors such as shareholders under different corporate structures and governance systems shape corporate practices and outcomes in this area.
It would be desirable if national or supra-national legislations incorporated explicit provisions on human rights defenders as part of the mandatory human rights due diligence laws. While some countries have already taken steps to enforce legislation asking companies operating in their jurisdictions to perform human rights due diligence (as in the case of the 2017 France Loi du Vigilance law or the Dutch Child Labour Due Diligence Act of 2019), a EU-wide human rights diligence law is in the making and constitutes a timely opportunity for thinking about how human rights defenders can be ensured greater protection and access to justice, and how they can be more explicitly included in the monitoring part of the due diligence process. Among other things, this will empower them and award them greater legitimacy.
Mandatory requirements are even more important given that companies do not yet seem to have taken voluntary steps to seriously tackle the issue. Some companies that have faced allegations for their involvement in attacks to human rights defenders have ad hoc policies or statements as part of their human rights policy. An example is Adidas, which was exposed to criticisms for attacks to labour rights defenders in its value chain in Vietnam, Cambodia, and China. Yet, having a policy on human rights defenders does not guarantee that there will not be attacks. Coca Cola, for instance, revised its human rights policy in 2017 to engage more fully with human rights defenders, but intimidation practices against unionists at Coca Cola plants were reported in 2018 and 2020.
Firms from emerging economies, where these attacks are more frequent, seem to have so far almost neglected the issue. According to my study of 245 Forbes Global 2000 companies headquartered in Brazil, China, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Russia, South Africa and Thailand, there is only one reference to human rights defenders among the 2600 CSR or annual reports produced by the companies between 2000 and 2018. The single mention of human rights defenders was by Vale S.A. in 2018. In its 2019 Human Rights Policy, the Brazilian mining giant has a chapter devoted to human rights defenders, which includes the statement that “Vale does not tolerate or contribute to threats, intimidation, and attacks against human rights defenders and provides grievance mechanisms for registering and handling potential adverse impacts from its activities”. Yet, this remains an isolated example.
Despite these discouraging numbers, I expect to see this topic rising in some of the emerging market firms, in particular for emerging market MNEs with investments in countries characterized by strong speech and press freedoms. In an earlier study I conducted with colleagues at the Responsible Management Research Center of the University of Pisa, we find that Brazilian and Mexican multinationals are less likely to abuse human rights, the more intensively they invest in countries with high speech and press freedoms, where any evidence of human rights infringements get broadcasted and given resonance, thus undermining the companies’ sought-after legitimacy. Hence, my hope is that these kinds of multinationals will take the lead in addressing the human rights defenders issue – not necessarily because of pressure in their home country, but because they will have to face greater international scrutiny of their performance. My guess is that there will be growing attention to human rights defenders by the press and watchdog organizations in the near future because attacks to defenders have a unique powerful characteristic: they give a face and a name to the victims courageously standing up for their moral values, and risking their lives to defend the environment and the rights to land, life, labour and health of their communities. Thus, it is possible that corporate accountability efforts will not only have to deal with the general subject of “human rights”, but will have to more openly face individuals who are moral exemplars with a name and a story to be told. These individual stories will probably have to be addressed by engaging more directly with human rights defenders and providing concrete answers to their requests. My intuition here is that CEOs will need to play a bigger role.
In the US and Europe we see the emergence of CEO activism on different sustainability issues, a phenomenon by which CEOs take the stage to speak out against the apparent aberrations of our times – often concerning hot issues in their home countries such as LGBTQ+ rights and racism. With human rights defenders, the victims are – either legally or morally – likely to fall under the responsibility of CEOs. Hence, these are not occasions for CEOs to look good by expressing their general progressive values; rather, these are occasions where CEOs – and other executives likewise - are confronted with people that have been attacked, raped, tortured or killed in retaliation for their advocacy. This may possibly enter CEOs’ sense making processes as well as their intimate spheres of private emotions, and perhaps take them to the next stage where they internalize the relevance of respecting human rights and transfer these values to the whole corporate community. This is unprecedented and we know very little about how facing defenders will shape business-related human rights policies and conduct in the future.
To conclude, my view is that there is a pressing and promising area of research that can develop at three interconnected levels:
- the level of national and supra-national policies – how can new human rights due diligence policies more effectively incorporate provisions on human rights defenders?
- the level of MNEs’ voluntary policies – when the policies are set forth at the parent company level, how are they operationalized, monitored and evaluated across a firm’s subsidiaries and joint ventures? How are the policies designed or adjusted to take into account circumstances in different regions and countries? and
- the individual level – how do CEOs respond to human rights defenders? Based on their experience with dealing with human rights defenders, how will future corporate leaders make sense of human rights and will this shape a new corporate culture about human rights?
Elisa Giuliani is Professor of Management and Director of the Responsible Management Research Center at the University of Pisa. Email: [email protected]