Opinion

The role of National Action Plans on Business and Human Rights in protecting human rights defenders

(Artículo en inglés y español)

National action plans on business and human rights should be developed in close consultation with human rights defenders and include concrete measures and commitments to protect and support their work, write Sara Blackwell and Katie Shay of the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable. Este artículo existe también aqui en español.

By Sara Blackwell and Katie Shay, International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR)

(Artículo en inglés y español)

In the build up to the third UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, ISHR will publish a series of articles by key human rights defenders and experts in this field, before launching a special edition of its Human Rights Monitor on 1 December, in both English and Spanish. Click here to join our Spanish language mailing list.

Around the world, business-related human rights abuses against individuals and communities continue to an astounding degree. In particular, and perhaps not as widely discussed, human rights defenders face significant risks to their lives and livelihoods on a daily basis as they work under the threat of extrajudicial killings, abductions, surveillance and intimidation as a result of their efforts to defend human rights in the face of harmful business activities. Essential to the protection of human rights defenders is the development of National Action Plans (NAPs) on business and human rights.[i]

Recently, a number of positive initiatives, including development of NAPs, have arisen with the aim of developing laws, policies, and regulations that effectuate standards on the role of the private sector in respecting human rights. Notably, the UN Human Rights Council unanimously adopted the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) in 2011, putting forth the first widely agreed-upon articulation of the State duty to protect people from human rights abuses perpetrated by business; the responsibility of businesses to respect human rights; and the indispensable role of access to effective remedy for victims of business-related human rights harms.

The UNGPs have generally been seen as a positive development, but the fact that they are non-binding requires further State action. In response, there has been a push for States to develop NAPs on business and human rights to articulate: (1) how the State has thus far implemented the UNGPs and other business and human rights frameworks; and (2) how the State aims to address gaps in implementation going forward. As such, NAPs on business and human rights have come to be viewed as something that every State can, and must, develop.

For human rights defenders who work on issues of corporate accountability and related issues, NAPs are essential. Through the development of NAPs, States can identify areas in which gaps in the existing law may put human rights defenders at risk or not offer adequate protection and then commit to addressing these. NAPs also provide an opportunity for civil society to hold States accountable for their existing policies and programs to protect and support human rights defenders, as well as for States’ future plans to supplement those policies and programs in order to address violations committed against human rights defenders working on business and human rights issues.[ii]

When developing NAPs, States should pay careful attention to both the process and content of the NAP to ensure maximum effectiveness.

To ensure an effective process, every State must first conduct a national baseline assessment of the State’s current implementation of the UNGPs and other business and human rights frameworks. This should form the basis for the content of the NAP. Furthermore, each State must ensure effective participation by all relevant stakeholders, including human rights defenders and the communities they represent. This should be done through stakeholder mapping, capacity building, and engagement of disempowered or at-risk stakeholders. Importantly, the NAPs process must involve consultation that reinforces the legally enforceable mechanisms regulating such engagement, including the guarantee of free, prior, and informed consent of all representatives of the community. This process must also be fully transparent, including the publication of drafts of the NAP and summary reports of any stakeholder engagement with human rights defenders and other impacted groups so that the incorporation of their experiences and inputs is clearly understood. Lastly, the NAP itself must identify the role of human rights defenders and other stakeholders in the implementation of individual action points within the NAP and overall follow-up.

In terms of relevant content, the human rights of freedom of association, assembly, and peaceful protest should be an essential component of every State’s NAP, and the de-criminalisation of human rights defenders and their work must be prioritised in States where the government itself has played a role in negatively impacting the rights of those working to hold corporations to account. States should also ensure that human rights defenders have access to effective remedies, both judicial and non-judicial. Furthermore, the content of NAPs must be specific and measurable, and effective judicial investigations and remediation for victims, training for government officials regarding human rights and human rights defenders that is in line with international human rights law, and practical guidance for diplomats on how to support human rights defenders, must all be taken into account.

As more and more States engage in the process of developing NAPs on business and human rights, it is essential that human rights defenders and their work be considered throughout the process. Across all world regions and across all stakeholder categories, a view is being expressed that States should undertake inclusive, rights-based processes to implement and embed the UNGPs and other business and human rights standards into their laws and policies. NAPs are a promising avenue for such implementation, providing a positive forum to address the many unabated violations that continue to be committed against human rights defenders and the communities they represent.

Sara Blackwell (@sara__blackwell) is the Legal & Policy Associate and Katie Shay is the Legal & Policy Coordinator (@km_shay) with the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (@theICAR)


[i] In June 2014, the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR) released a joint report with the Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR), entitled National Action Plans on Business and Human Rights: A Toolkit for the Development, Implementation, and Review of State Commitments to Business and Human Rights Frameworks. The “NAPs Toolkit” is intended to guide and assist governments and other actors in producing both National Baseline Assessments of current State implementation of business and human rights frameworks, including the UN Guiding Principles, and actual NAPs on business and human rights. It also presents a mapping and analysis of options at the international and regional levels for monitoring and review of NAPs once they are developed in order to improve governance, regulation, and, ultimately, respect for human rights. The NAPs Toolkit is available at http://accountabilityroundtable.org/analysis/napsreport/.

[ii] For more on the role of NAPs in the context of human rights defenders, see Peace Brigade International’s letter to President Obama in the wake of the U.S. government’s announcement that it will develop a U.S. NAP on responsible business conduct, available at http://www.mypbi.net/fileadmin/user_files/projects/colombia/files/press_kits/1410_PBI_Letter_US_NAP.pdf.

Related articles

Business & Human Rights | The UN asks private companies to protect the shared civic space

Should businesses advocate for human rights defenders? What is the relationship between companies’ economic activities and civil society? The United Nations, through the Working Group on Business and Human Rights, has shed further light on the role of businesses by recently releasing a guidance for companies on ensuring respect for human rights defenders.

HRC47 | ISHR welcomes new UN Guidance on Business and Human Rights Defenders and calls for its implementation

In a statement at the Human Rights Council, ISHR welcomed the UN Working Group’s recently released Guidance document for using the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights for engaging with, safeguarding and ensuring respect for the rights of Human Rights Defenders. Human rights defenders are at the forefront of protecting their communities, the environment and key natural resources that maintain the balance in our planet.

Annual Report | Supporting humanity's essential workers

It's difficult to encapsulate such a complex year in a word, but "interconnected" is one that comes to mind when reflecting on 2020. We are proud to have remained deeply interconnected with defenders and to have supported, protected and amplified their work at the national, regional and international levels. With them, the "essential workers" of our times, we strive for a 2021 full of freedom, equality, dignity and justice.

Annual Report | Supporting humanity's essential workers

It's difficult to encapsulate such a complex year in a word, but "interconnected" is one that comes to mind when reflecting on 2020. We are proud to have remained deeply interconnected with defenders and to have supported, protected and amplified their work at the national, regional and international levels. With them, the "essential workers" of our times, we strive for a 2021 full of freedom, equality, dignity and justice.

Myanmar | Multinational companies asked to protect civic freedoms and defenders

Civic freedoms, including freedom of expression, association and assembly are essential to stable, profitable and sustainable businesses and investment environments in which companies thrive and economies prosper, writes Andrés Zaragoza, Programme Manager (Business and Human Rights) with ISHR. Multinationals have a role to play in protecting the “shared civic space” in Myanmar.

HRC2021 | Blueprint for States to ensure that the Human Rights Council continues to be credible, accessible and effective

For many rights holders, victims and activists, the UN Human Rights Council provides the last or only opportunity to get international attention and support for their vital work towards a world that’s more fair, equal and sustainable. We need the Council to continue being credible, effective and accessible to everyone. This is only possible if States demonstrate leadership, take principled action, ensure that Council members live up to their responsibilities and expectations, and fully cooperate with the Council’s mechanisms.

Mexico | Genuine commitment urgently needed to protect environmental and human rights defenders

The 'Mayan Train', a touristic train cutting across numerous areas of rich environmental and cultural diversity in Eastern Mexico, may sound like a fancy development project. But what the shiny brochure doesn't display are the terrible consequences for the indigenous communities who call this area home, and for the environment. Six UN experts have addressed those in a letter to the Government, raising expectations of a meaningful commitment by Mexico, as a re-elected member of the Human Rights Council, to address human rights concerns and protect defenders.

Stay in the loop!

Would you like to be informed of future events, news, updates on our work, invitations and appeals? Please enter your email address below!