Margaret Sekaggya: we need a rights based approach to large-scale development


Margaret Sekaggya, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, highlights the role that human rights defenders play in advancing development and calls for them to be protected from harassment, persecution and retaliation when they voice opposition to large-scale development projects.

UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

Since I took over the mandate on the situation of human rights defenders in 2008, I have strived towards making the work of defenders visible and contributing to their empowerment and protection.  However, it is clear today that claiming and defending rights still remains a dangerous business, particularly when it comes to large-scale development projects.

Human rights defenders working in this context commonly face threats, harassment, intimidation, criminalization and physical attacks. In many cases, defenders are labelled as “enemies of the state”, “anti-Government” or “against development” if they oppose development projects. I have also seen that women defenders and those working on women’s rights and gender issues, defenders working on access to land and environment and journalists and media workers are particularly vulnerable to retaliation.

Non-State actors are responsible for violations against defenders, often in collusion with State authorities. The affected communities and those defending their rights in this context are in dire need of protection and they also need access to appropriate remedy.

As a response to the deepening of this worrisome trend, my report to the General Assembly this year advocates for a rights-based approach to development policy making and programming.  I argue that the rights-based approach offers tools and principles that can help to redress discriminatory practices and the unfair distribution of power and resources.  The principles of equality and non-discrimination, participation, transparency and accountability can be an important guide to all stages of development policy-making, from assessment, project design and planning, to implementation, monitoring and evaluation.  I believe that such an approach can contribute to establishing the mechanisms and conditions which are necessary for people that are affected by development projects to safely and effectively claim their rights.  It also ensures that States are held accountable and meet their international obligations.

State and non-State actors responsible for large-scale development should engage with stakeholders, including affected communities and those defending their rights, in good faith, not just as a mere formality.  It is essential that communities and those defending their rights are able to participate actively, freely and meaningfully in all stages of development policy-making. Furthermore, those who are traditionally marginalised and excluded from decision-making should be allowed to voice their opinion.

And one crucial element is access to information and transparency about large-scale development projects.  Information about such projects should be available and accessible for rights holders. I think that the principle of maximum disclosure corresponds most closely with international human rights standards and should apply to in connection to large scale development projects that could have an impact on matters of public interest.  Lack of transparency can lead to the disempowerment and vulnerability of defenders and seriously undermine the credibility and legitimacy of both State and non-State actors involved. 

Access to information can allow defenders working on behalf of the affected communities to understand how their rights will be affected, how to claim rights that could be undermined by a large-scale development project and how to ensure the accountability of stakeholders and duty bearers.

States have a responsibility to provide protection to those claiming their legitimate right to participate in decision-making processes and voicing their opposition to large-scale development projects. I am deeply concerned about reports indicating harassment, persecution and retaliation against human rights defenders seeking judicial remedy for business-related violations. It is crucial that those who wish to report human rights concerns and violations are able to safely access accountability and grievance mechanisms.  

I conclude my report by underlining that communities and those defending their rights play a crucial role in shaping development policies and projects that are people-centred, non-discriminatory and sustainable for all.  Human rights defenders can play a key role in ensuring that dialogue is used to reinforce social cohesion and pre-empt conflict and the radicalization of positions. 

Rather than being against development, defenders play an important role in advancing development. This is particularly relevant in the context of the discussion on the post-2015 development agenda. Civil society is calling for meaningful participation, higher levels of accountability from Governments and international institutions, and the protection of human rights under the rule of law.


  • Corporate accountability
  • Human rights defenders
  • UN Special Rapporteur on HRDs
  • UN General Assembly