Human Rights Defenders are a Cornerstone of Sustainable Development
An Open Letter to States and Development Financiers on the need to ensure that development interventions support the realization of human rights, safeguard human rights defenders and guarantee meaningful public participation
2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, and the 25th anniversary of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. These instruments have been key to recognising fundamental rights globally and affirming the role that human rights defenders (HRDs) play in protecting these rights and ensuring sustainable and equitable development for all. While much progress has been made, HRDs face greater risk of retaliation and violence than ever before, especially those working in defence of land, environmental and indigenous peoples’ rights. While development interventions can be a powerful tool for the realization of human rights, too often activities undertaken in the name of development fail to adequately consider human rights conditions and impacts, and end up exacerbating the risks for defenders. In light of this, the Defenders in Development Campaign is calling on development finance institutions (DFIs) and their shareholder governments to ensure that development interventions support the realization of human rights, avoid causing or contributing to rights abuses, promote an enabling environment for public participation, and safeguard HRDs.
Human rights defenders are a critical force for the protection of human rights and integral to the success of other global initiatives like the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The important work of HRDs has been repeatedly recognised at the international and national levels and their contributions have been vital to protecting the land and the environment, securing just and safe conditions of work, combating corruption, and respecting indigenous cultures and rights. Indeed, through the Declaration on the Right to Development, states agreed that development must be carried out in a manner “in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realised” – with the “self-determination of peoples” and the “active, free and meaningful participation” of individuals and populations. HRDs play a key role in enabling the realisation of the right to development.
Despite the growing awareness of the role of HRDs in sustainable development, the human cost of defending rights remains unacceptably high. Those working in defence of land, environmental or indigenous peoples’ rights—rights most often violated in the context of development and related investment activities—are most at risk. They are routinely subjected to stigmatization, labelled as “anti-development,” often quickly leading to criminalization, threats and physical attacks. They are also more likely to be killed than defenders in other sectors. Since the adoption of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders in 1998, an estimated 3,500 human rights defenders have been killed because of their peaceful work defending the rights of others. In 2017 alone, at least 312 human rights defenders were murdered, 67 percent of whom were working in defence of land and territory in the context of large investments, extractive industries and big business. For women defenders and other marginalized groups, the risks are even more acute.
The Declaration on Human Rights Defenders recognizes that everyone has the right “to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Of particular importance for development processes, the Declaration affirms the right to effective access to participation in public affairs, including submission of criticism or opposing views or alternative proposals. It additionally “stresses that all members of the international community shall fulfil, jointly and separately, their solemn obligation to promote and encourage respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction…and reaffirming the particular importance of achieving international cooperation to fulfil this obligation…”
Unfortunately, too often development interventions are designed and implemented without adequate consideration of the human rights context in which they are executed and the human rights impacts that may result. We see this in austerity measures that result in loss of access to essential services, commercial reforms that exacerbate land grabbing, or infrastructure projects that result in social conflict. While development finance institutions and many states have undertaken commitments on transparency and participation, in practice, development decisions are often made without the meaningful participation of civil society, and imposed on communities without their consent or consultation. Where insufficient attention is afforded to community participation and human rights, even the best intentioned interventions can stoke conflict, fuel corruption, or entrench discrimination.
States have an obligation to ensure that human rights are respected and protected and that there is an enabling environment for defenders to do their critical work. This obligation includes states’ actions to implement or finance development activities, and extends to their membership within multilateral development finance institutions. Development banks themselves have human rights obligations and a critical role to play in ensuring that their investments are not causing or contributing to threats or attacks against defenders. DFIs exert significant influence both through their project lending as well as through policy promotion and standard-setting. As such they help shape local and national conditions which determine whether individuals and communities impacted by development activities are able to safely engage or influence development processes.
The Defenders in Development Campaign repeats its call to DFIs, states, and other development actors to take all necessary measures to ensure that their interventions support the realization of human rights and do not cause or contribute to human rights abuses, and to promote safe space for communities and civil society to engage and shape development processes and to exercise their fundamental freedoms. This includes developing policies on human rights defenders and protocols to prevent and respond to risks of reprisals, ensuring meaningful access to information, and robust free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples and consultation of other affected communities. DFIs must also conduct ongoing human rights due diligence to identify and address human rights risks in all of their activities and throughout the lifespan of a project, including those residual impacts that may continue to be felt long after a project is closed. DFIs must ensure effective mechanisms whereby defenders can safely alert them to deteriorating environments or risks of conflict and reprisal. We also emphasize DFIs’ responsibility to, through their research, public communications, and dialogue with states and the private sector, promote an enabling environment for public participation and accountability, in which people are empowered to engage in crafting their own development agendas and in holding their governments, donors, businesses, DFIs and other actors to account.
As owners and shareholders of development banks, governments must do more to ensure that DFIs are fulfilling their human rights obligations and promoting sustainable development. While we welcome steps taken by some states to support HRD protection, it is concerning that governments may actually be undermining these efforts through the actions of their national development banks, bilateral development cooperation, and other DFIs in which they participate. Given the alarming increase in attacks on defenders within development activities, we urge governments to bring more attention to this issue and to the critical role of DFIs. In this regard, as we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, and the 25th anniversary of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, we call on states and DFIs to:
Take urgent action toward enacting the reforms identified above and promoting an enabling environment for human rights and meaningful public participation in development processes;
Use the anniversary of these important human rights milestones to bring attention to the critical role that human rights defenders play in ensuring effective, equitable, and sustainable development; and
Make a public commitment to take all measures necessary to ensure that development policies, investments, cooperation, and other activities respect, protect, and fulfil human rights, prevent reprisals, and safeguard defenders.
Aporte Interdisiciplinario para la Región (AIRE), Argentina
Ministerio de la Defensa Pública de Provincia de CHUBUT, Argentina
South Sudan Law Society, South Sudan
Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, United States of America
Occupy Bergen County (N.J.),United States of America
 The Defenders in Development Campaign is a broad-based coalition of community activists, defender organizations and accountability groups around the world who have come together to address the increasing danger facing those who defend their rights in the context of development activities and investments. www.rightsindevelopment.org/hrd
 UN General Assembly, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, A/72/150 (July 2017).
 https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/resource-publication/annual-report-human-rights-defenders-risk-2017; https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/environmental-activists/defenders-annual-report/