Inclusive and sustainable development requires an environment where all people are free to express their views, to exercise their rights, and to fully participate in the decisions impacting their lives and their communities. Every day, indigenous peoples, communities, social movements, journalists, and individuals are doing essential

work protecting their lands and resources from destruction, fighting for equal access to housing and education, exposing corruption and abuse of power, and advocating for investments that reach the poor.

Yet today these human rights defenders are increasingly subjected to threats and attacks for their efforts, including harassment, physical violence, criminalization, arbitrary detention, and killing. What’s more, these threats and attacks are increasingly taking place in the context of activities undertaken in the name of development.

Through 25 case studies, Uncalculated Risks explores the nature of the threats and attacks against defenders in development, and examines the role of development finance institutions (DFIs) in mitigating or exacerbating these risks.

The Findings:

  • Threats and attacks against human rights defenders in the context of development activities are widespread.
  • Though they take many different forms, the threats and attacks often start with the labeling of communities, groups, and individuals as “anti-development.”
  • The imposition of development activities without the consent or meaningful consultation of local communities and marginalized groups is one of the key root causes of threats for defenders in development.
  • Development finance institutions have a duty to respect human rights and to ensure that their investments are not putting people at risk.
  • Yet too often, development interventions exacerbate risks for defenders due to lack of adequate attention to the rights and interests of local communities and marginalized populations, and to the contextual risks and power imbalances that may cause them to bear negative impacts or to be made vulnerable.
  • Early warning signs of potential threats to defenders are often missed or ignored.
  • DFIs have a wide range of resources and influence that can be utilized to change the risk equation for defenders under threat, but often fail to proactively develop this leverage or are reluctant to utilize the leverage they have.
  • DFIs often remain silent in the face of threats and attacks, or responses come too little, too late and defenders and communities are left without protection or remedy for harm.
  • Several DFIs are beginning to grapple with threats to defenders in development, but much more is needed.

Effectively addressing the shrinking space for participation in development processes and the growing threats to defenders will require not only a change in policy and practice, but a fundamental shift that places human rights and local communities at the center of how development is conceived and implemented.

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KEY Recommendations

1. Respect rights and avoid harm. Ensure that development activities respect human rights, including by undertaking robust human rights due diligence to avoid adverse impacts, screening projects for reprisal risk prior to approval, developing protocols, contractual requirements, and other necessary leverage to identify, prevent, and mitigate risks for defenders, and conditioning investment decisions and disbursements on the ability to prevent abuses, ensure an enabling environment for defenders, and adequately address human rights impacts.

2. Ensure an enabling environment for participation. Ensure that communities, defenders, and other at-risk groups are able to access information and fully and effectively express their views on, protest, oppose, and participate in development decisionmaking and activities without fear, and that development projects secure and maintain the free prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples or good faith broad community support of other communities, beginning at the earliest stages of design and preparation.

3. Listen to defenders and monitor for risks. Maintain a direct feedback loop with communities, establish systematic independent and participatory monitoring systems for human rights impacts and reprisal risks, and ensure that communities, including defenders and other marginalized groups and individuals, have access without fear to effective grievance and independent accountability and reprisal response mechanisms.

4. Stand up for defenders under threat. Combat the stigmatization of defenders by vigorously reaffirming their critical role in sustainable development, and work with defenders under threat to develop and execute an effective plan of prevention and response that utilizes all necessary leverage with companies, authorities, financiers and relevant actors to safeguard defenders and their right to remain in their territories and communities and continue their defense efforts, to investigate and sanction abuses and prevent recurrence, and to provide effective remedy and accountability for harm.

Contributing Organizations