GENEVA, Switzerland — The recent building collapse and tragic loss of more than 600 lives in a garment factory in Bangladesh has once more turned the spotlight on business and human rights. As with many such tragedies, there appear to have been numerous contributing factors, including weak workplace safety laws, inadequate inspections and enforcement, and a failure by Western retailers to ensure worker safety and basic labor rights in their supply chains.
A further factor — little remarked on to date — is the silencing of human rights defenders, including unionists, journalists and lawyers, who work on issues of corporate accountability. In a speech to the United Nations Human Rights Council in March this year, High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay referred to human rights defenders as "the promoters of change, the people who ring the alarm about abuse and poor legislation."
In the same speech, the high commissioner referred with grave concern to the fact that "so many state authorities continue to ignore or repress civil society organizations, human rights defenders and the media."
The repression of human rights defenders who work on corporate accountability is particularly harsh in Bangladesh. A recent Human Rights Watch report documents the arbitrary detention and torture of a prominent labor rights activist, Aminul Islam, by government security forces. It says that "over a dozen other labor rights leaders faced criminal charges on a variety of spurious grounds."
The criminalization of human rights defenders is just one aspect of an environment that is increasingly hostile to civil society organizations, with the de-registration and legislative restriction of NGOs being other examples.
The disturbing incidence of attacks, intimidation and reprisals against human rights defenders working on corporate accountability issues is not, of course, isolated to Bangladesh. In fact, the most recent report of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights details a litany of cases that relate to the "harassment and persecution of human rights defenders investigating, protesting, seeking accountability and access to remedies for victims of alleged abuses linked to business activities."
Around the world, human rights defenders who advocate for corporate accountability — whether in relation to labor rights, land rights, indigenous rights or otherwise — are increasingly subject to attacks, threats and harassment, including judicial harassment.
There are also increasing cases of human rights defenders being subject to restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and protest, despite the UN's Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights calling on all actors to ensure that "the legitimate and peaceful activities of human rights defenders are not obstructed."
The Guiding Principles, developed by Harvard professor John Ruggie and adopted by the UN Human Rights Council, set out three key responsibilities in relation to business and human rights. First, states have a responsibility to protect people from human rights violations by corporations. Second, corporations have an obligation to respect, uphold and not interfere with human rights. And, third, both states and corporations have a responsibility to ensure that people who are victims of corporate violations have access to an effective remedy.
So how does this apply to help prevent another Rana Plaza collapse and protect the work of human rights defenders?
For states, the framework should be interpreted to require the enactment of legislation and the enforcement of policy to protect civil society organizations and human rights defenders from harassment, persecution and reprisals linked to their corporate accountability work. This applies both to the home states of corporations and the states in which they operate.
States should also take positive measures to support and enable human rights defenders to exercise their fundamental rights and freedoms, including the rights to freedom of expression and association, to form and join trade unions, and to peaceful protest.
For business, the framework should be interpreted to ensure that corporations do not seek to restrict, impair or otherwise interfere with the legitimate work of human rights defenders. This includes refraining from subjecting human rights defenders to "judicial harassment" or vexatious legal proceedings, a disturbing trend around the world.
Corporations should also consult with human rights defenders about the human rights impacts of their work. Some simple due diligence and consultation by Western retailers supplied by the factory (including Benetton, Primark, Loblaw and Bonmarché) to ensure worker safety and labor rights in their supply chains could have gone a long way in avoiding the Rana Plaza tragedy.
And finally, for victims and their families, both states and corporations should ensure access to an effective remedy, including proper investigation and accountability in relation to harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders and others who seek to sound the alarm about corporate human rights abuses.
The issue of business and human rights is back on the global agenda at the Human Rights Council in Geneva in June. We owe it to the Rana Plaza victims and their families to ensure that the critical work of human rights defenders in ensuring corporate accountability and preventing further tragedies is acknowledged and supported.
Phil Lynch is director of the International Service for Human Rights in Geneva (www.ishr.ch). Michael Ineichen leads ISHR's work on human rights defenders and corporate accountability.
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