How many more deaths? Companies and human rights defenders: some thoughts from Latin America

The anniversary of the tragic murder of indigenous rights defender Berta Cáceres was commemorated last week. The highly-regarded, awarded-winning human rights activist from Honduras was working to defend the rights of the Lenca people, who are opposed to the hydroelectric project being developed by the Honduran company DESA (financed by FMO and Finnfund), given the negative impact it would have on their way of life and the failure to respect their right to consultation.

In a recent interview, Laura Zúñiga, Cáceres’ daughter, stressed the need for those financing such projects to follow ethical principles by refusing to “finance a project or a company that has a history of human rights violations…listening to the people, always, understanding the contexts, understanding the states in which they are investing…”.

“Perhaps,” said Zúñiga, “firm action by companies could save lives.”

The murder of Berta Cáceres is by no means an isolated incident but emblematic of the violence faced by communities defending their right to land and a healthy environment.

Our new database documents over 400 attacks perpetrated against human rights defenders working on corporate accountability around the world. Over 52 per cent of these attacks took place in Latin America: Guatemala (10 per cent), Colombia (10 per cent), Mexico (9 per cent), Brazil (9 per cent), Peru (8 per cent) and Honduras (6 per cent).

It is, precisely, in response to the urgency of the situation, given the alarming number of attacks against people standing up in opposition to projects such as hydrocarbon extraction, mining, agribusiness, dams and wind farms, for example, that the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights have urged financing institutions and companies to take resolute steps towards recognising the importance of the role played by people defending human rights, condemning attacks and taking action.

But a great deal of effort still needs to be made to achieve this. In 2016, the ICHRP published a report based on 156 calls made to companies to respond to alleged attacks against defenders in Latin America.

The companies’ responses vary; some deny any involvement, others condemn the incidents. As a rule, however, no mention is made of the measures they intend to take to stop being a party to the conflict, to prevent it, or to avoid a repeat of such incidents.

Hence the need to reflect on the actions companies could take. Some ideas to stimulate the discussion are:

-  Companies and funders should conduct due diligence and human rights impact assessments and should be prepared to suspend or even cancel projects in cases where there is strong opposition to them and attacks on defenders.
-  Companies should not disregard the context. Most attacks take place against a background of deep social conflict owing to unfair income distribution and competition for the use or conservation of resources.
-  Finally, companies and funders should also be proactive and develop a policy of committing to respect and to support civil society and civil liberties and human rights defenders.

Perhaps, by taking action, we will decrease the number of attacks and avoid a repeat of the Berta Cáceres case.

This article has been translated from Spanish.