Human rights defenders and civic space – the business and human rights dimension


Threats to human rights defenders and to civic freedoms are increasing concerns globally and are also critical for the business and human rights agenda. A large number of human rights defenders are under threat and attack because they raise concern about adverse human rights impacts of business operations, often in the context of large development projects that affects access to land and livelihoods. At the same time, the space for civil society actors to raise concerns about human rights impacts is shrinking, and human rights defenders face criminalization when engaging in public protest or civil dissent.

Concerns are being raised about the role of business in contributing to attacks against human rights defenders or in failing to take action against such attacks. Questions are also being raised about the role of business in helping to protect human rights defenders and civic space.

States have the primary obligation to ensure the rights and protection of human rights defenders, as set out in various human rights instruments – in particular the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders – and as reaffirmed in many UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly resolutions, including through the March 2016 resolution on the protection of human rights defenders working on economic, social and cultural rights.

The importance of human rights defenders in the context of business-related impacts on human rights is recognized by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. They highlight the key role human rights defenders can have in human rights due diligence and enabling companies to understand concerns of affected stakeholders. In particular, the Guiding Principles:

  • urge businesses to consult human rights defenders as an important expert resource and highlight their role as watchdogs, advocates and facilitators
  • urge States to ensure that the legitimate activities of human rights defenders are not obstructed.

Working Group focus

OHCHR publications. © OHCHR Against this background, the Working Group has decided to give focused attention to the issue human rights defenders and civic space and identified activities it proposes to undertake to complement and support efforts by others, including to:

  • Develop guidance for business on engaging, respecting and supporting human rights defenders and preserving civic space in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights
  • Facilitate multi-stakeholder dialogue among stakeholders, so as to develop coordinated efforts
  • Help identify and support opportunities for collective action

The Working Group is undertaking this project in consultation with the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, whose report to the 2017 UN General Assembly addressed the situation of human rights defenders raising concerns about business-related impacts.

Key documents by the Working Group

Open call for inputs