Safeguarding Human Rights Defenders: Practical Guidance for Investors

Line of people protesting a pipeline in the United States

Two new companion briefings demonstrate practical actions companies and investors should take to safeguard defenders.

Safeguarding defenders briefing | Global Witness briefing  | Press release

Human rights defenders are at the forefront of protecting our rights and our shared planet. They are also vital in helping businesses identify and manage risks to people in their operations and value chains. Yet increasingly, defenders face threats and violence in the course of doing their work. Since 2015, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has tracked nearly 2,300 attacks against defenders focused on business-related activities. 

As attacks against human rights defenders continue to mount globally and the COVID-19 pandemic places defenders and the civic freedoms that enable their work in even greater jeopardy, the role of companies and their investors in protecting human rights is coming under increasing scrutiny.

The Investor Alliance for Human Rights, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, and International Service for Human Rights and Global Witness have published two separate, companion briefings highlighting the responsibility of companies and investors to prevent, mitigate, and account for how they address negative impacts on defenders and detailing practical actions they should take. 

Safeguarding Human Rights Defenders: Practical Guidance for Investors, by Investor Alliance for Human Rights, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, and International Service for Human Rights

Responsible Sourcing: The Business Case for Protecting Land and Environmental Defenders and Indigenous Communities’ Rights to Land and Resources, by Global Witness

Institutional investors can be connected to harmful impacts on defenders through their investments in companies that cause, contribute to or are directly linked to actions that undermine the rights of defenders. By protecting and supporting the work of human rights defenders, investors and companies contribute to advancing their human rights performance, improving supply chain resilience and managing financial, legal and reputational risks, while promoting peace, justice, and sustainability. 

Our joint recommendations call on businesses and institutional investors to:

1. Embed responsible business conduct into policies and management systems. Companies should publicly commit to safeguarding human rights defenders and take a zero-tolerance stance on threats or violence against them. Institutional investors should also adopt human rights policy commitments and communicate their human rights expectations to portfolio companies.

2. Identify and assess adverse impacts in operations, value chains and business relationships, including in investment decision-making. Companies should identify potential risks to defenders, conduct social, environmental, and human rights impact assessments, and review the human rights and environmental policies and due diligence processes of business relationships. For investors, this involves assessing whether potential investee companies have in place appropriate human rights policy commitments, due diligence processes, and grievance mechanisms, and whether they specifically consider risks to defenders.

3. Cease, prevent or mitigate adverse impacts. Companies should stop activities that cause or contribute to adverse impacts on defenders, tailoring the response to the circumstances and defenders’ needs, and improving practices throughout the value chain. Investors can address impacts that have occurred by expressing concerns in dialogues with portfolio companies, filing shareholder resolutions, exercising voting rights in support of defenders, collaborating with other investors, and engaging with policymakers and legislators.

4. Track implementation and results. Companies should monitor progress regularly through consultation with stakeholders and independent experts to evaluate and improve the effectiveness of initiatives, and regularly assess real and potential adverse human rights impacts.

5. Communicate how impacts are addressed. Companies should publicly disclose whether their business in connected to risks to defenders and how they manage these risks. Investors should call for meaningful human rights disclosure in line with the UN Guiding Principles Reporting Framework.

6. Provide for or cooperate in remediation when appropriate.Companies should establish operational-level grievance mechanisms to address human rights issues before they escalate. While the scope of investor responsibility may not extend to providing remedy, investors should still play a role in enabling remedy by ensuring companies provide or cooperate in remediation.

(Photo credit: Energy East Pipeline Protest. Nina Grossman, 2015. No Copyright Source: flickr)