The European Union has a chance to set an example for the entire world by protecting people who risk their lives standing up for human rights in the context of business activities, a UN expert said on Monday.
The European Union legislative initiative on mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence “must include safeguards for human rights defenders,” said Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, in a call echoed by two other mandates.
Human rights defenders often risk their lives confronting violations along supply chains, Lawlor said in a statement issued in Geneva. “Parent companies must carry out human rights and environmental due diligence throughout their supply chains to ensure human rights defenders are not subjected to reprisals from their subsidiaries, sub-contractors and suppliers,” she said. “The EU must ensure that where such retaliation happens, these companies can be held accountable.”
In the 10 years since the Human Rights Council adopted the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, business compliance has remained extremely low. In the same period, increasing numbers of human rights defenders have been killed for their work.
The UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights has recently developed guidance setting forth expectations that businesses address risks to defenders and that States address this as part of their own mandatory human rights due diligence regulations.
People who stand up for human rights related to environmental protection, community land rights, indigenous peoples’ rights, poverty, minorities and business accountability – often intertwining issues – are most at risk of being attacked or killed.
“Where human rights defenders come under attack in the context of business activities it is a clear sign of other underlying human rights issues.” Lawlor said. Potential risks for human rights defenders should be seen as a key component of companies’ due diligence duty to identify and assess human rights risks connected to their projects, and must be specifically included in the expected EU proposal.
“Risks for defenders evolve over time and due diligence must be an ongoing process. Companies should accompany this commitment with zero tolerance policies for attacks against defenders anywhere along their supply chain. “Now is the time for the EU to give new life to its founding principles by delivering a strong law that could help reduce the number of lives lost in defence of human rights,” Lawlor said.