Landmark report finds attacks on human rights defenders in name of ‘development’ on the rise

30 July 2019

Oakland march in solidarity with South Africa miners, August 2012. Credit: Daniel Arauz

In June, the Coalition for Human Rights in Development (CHRD) (see Observer Winter 2018), launched a landmark report with the Defenders in Development Campaign, exposing the risks of mega-infrastructure  and other ill-planned development projects on human rights defenders (HRDs). The report laid out 25 case studies demonstrating that HRDs are facing increasing threats and attacks in the context of their resistance to activities undertaken in the name of development, including harassment, physical violence, criminalisation, arbitrary detention and murder.

In examining the role of development finance institutions (DFIs) in exacerbating or mitigating risks to HRDs, the report found that, “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.” As a result, too often, DFIs, “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.” The report pointed out that, at the very minimum, “DFIs have the responsibility to respect human rights and to prevent, mitigate, and help provide access to remedy for any threats and attacks against defenders in the context of their investments,” yet, “hardly any DFIs systematically examine the enabling environment for public participation and human rights defense.” Mark Fodor with CHRD commented, “As public institutions, DFIs’ obligation to ensure a safe space for any member of the public, especially impacted people, to raise their voice about a project that the banks finance, could not be clearer. Threats, reprisals and attacks against defenders are probably the most flagrant illustration of their failure to meet this fundamental obligation.”

Bank projects take centre stage in attacks on human rights defenders

Among 25 cases studied, 11 were financed by the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the World Bank’s private lending arm, while other arms of the World Bank Group financed six of the highlighted projects.

Threats, reprisals and attacks against defenders are probably the most flagrant illustration of their [development finance institutions] failure to meet this fundamental obligationMark Fodor, Coalition for Human Rights in Development

Some of the case studies involving Bank investments included: the 2012 police suppression of a strike in South Africa against an IFC-financed mining company, known as the Marikana Massacre, which killed 34 people and is considered the bloodiest use of force by South African governments since 1960 (see Observer Autumn 2015); the 2016 murder of Gloria Capitan, who was opposing the intense air pollution caused by IFC-funded coal projects in the Philippines (see Observer Winter 2017-2018); and the arrest and imprisonment of Pastor Omot Agwa, who was helping the Anuak Indigenous group with displacement complaints against the World Bank in Ethiopia (see Observer Winter 2015).

The report concluded with a range of policy recommendations for DFIs to better protect HRDs, such as adopting robust human rights diligence requirements, and expanding sanctions lists for clients and agencies who have engaged in and repeatedly commit human rights abuses. While the IFC recently announced it is restructuring to better address environmental and social risks (see Observer Summer 2019), the report stressed that there is still much more to be done to protect HRDs: “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 to place human rights and local communities at the center of how development is conceived and implemented.”