Space for civil society is critical for business: Human Rights Defenders must be protected

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Nicky Black
Director - Environmental Stewardship and Social Progress

Today around 6,000 mining professionals will meet in Cape Town at the Investing in African Mining Indaba.  Over the next few days, mining executives, investors, government officials and others will discuss the latest technology, regulatory developments, and sustainability innovations.

But just around the corner, the Alternative Mining Indaba also opens today, with communities, civil society organisations and other stakeholders from the region casting a critical lens on the sector, as the forum provides a platform to “empower communities and realise their rights, and advocate for transparent, equitable and just extractive sector development based on inclusive decision making”. 

This type of debate and challenge to the mining industry is essential for the future of natural resource extraction.  Responsible business recognises that space for civil society, critical voices, and human rights defenders helps to create long-term value, inclusive economic growth and sustainable development.  

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - as relevant today as it was on the day it was proclaimed - and the 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. 

Alarmingly, civil society space is narrowing in many parts of the world. Defenders continue to face harassment and fear for their safety when they speak out.  This is deeply concerning for companies that are committed to human rights, openness and transparency.  As business, we have an ethical imperative to ensure that this is not done in our name.

Human rights defenders have experienced growing hostility over the last decade. In 2016, Global Witness reported at least 200 defenders were killed across 24 countries, making it the deadliest year on record.Defenders of human rights often challenge actions, policies and institutions that benefit extractives development, or campaign against projects of declared national interest, leading to a backlash against them as against development.

Women and indigenous defenders can be especially vulnerable to certain types of intimidation, threats and violence, such as sexual and gender-based violence. And the activities of defenders are increasingly being criminalised, a signal of the wider global trend of increasing restrictions on the space for civil society. When speaking out is criminalised, the ability to uphold and protect human rights is fundamentally undermined.

So what does this mean for ICMM and responsible businesses?

While we may not always agree with positions taken by human rights defenders, ICMM recognises freedom of expression and assembly as fundamental human rights.  Under ICMM’s third Sustainable Development Principle, our members are committed to implementing policies and practices designed to eliminate harassment and unfair discrimination in all our activities, and respect human rights and the interests, cultures, customs and values of employees and communities affected by our activities.

In instances where rights are restricted, we call on the relevant government authorities to take necessary action to protect the life and dignity of human rights leaders and defenders as part of a state’s duty to protect human rights. This includes cases where human rights defenders oppose projects of direct interest to our members. 

Responsible mining companies reject harassment, threats and attacks against those who promote and protect human rights.  They also recognise that restricting the legitimate right of defenders to express their concerns runs counter to creating long term value, enabling ethical conduct, fostering inclusive economic growth and supporting the rule of law.

In situations where human rights defenders speak out against a particular project and are persecuted, responsible companies face a choice. Stay silent, which may be perceived as being complicit in or colluding with the abuse or victimisation of defenders, or reject actions taken against those individuals or groups and clearly signal support for their legitimate right to freely express their concerns.

Looking through the agendas for the two mining Indabas being held this week the themes are surprisingly resonant; in both there will be debate around how to get the most value from resources for the communities and countries where it is found, through revenue arrangements, local socio-economic benefit programmes, and workers’ rights. 

But I expect the tenor and conclusions may be quite different. Protecting the space for that difference to be heard is in all our interests in this, the 70th anniversary year of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and beyond.