Human Rights Defenders Are a Cornerstone of Sustainable Development


An Open Letter to States and Development Financiers on the need to ensure that development interventions support the realization of human rights, safeguard human rights defenders and guarantee meaningful public participation

2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, and the 25th anniversary of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. These instruments have been key to recognising fundamental rights globally and affirming the role that human rights defenders (HRDs) play in protecting these rights and ensuring sustainable and equitable development for all. While much progress has been made, HRDs face greater risk of retaliation and violence than ever before, especially those working in defence of land, environmental and indigenous peoples’ rights.  While development interventions can be a powerful tool for the realization of human rights, too often activities undertaken in the name of development fail to adequately consider human rights conditions and impacts, and end up exacerbating the risks for defenders. In light of this, the Defenders in Development Campaign[1] is calling on development finance institutions (DFIs) and their shareholder governments to ensure that development interventions support the realization of human rights, avoid causing or contributing to rights abuses, promote an enabling environment for public participation, and safeguard HRDs.

Human rights defenders are a critical force for the protection of human rights and integral to the success of other global initiatives like the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The important work of HRDs has been repeatedly recognised at the international and national levels and their contributions have been vital to protecting the land and the environment, securing just and safe conditions of work, combating corruption, and respecting indigenous cultures and rights[2]. Indeed, through the Declaration on the Right to Development, states agreed that development must be carried out in a manner “in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realised” – with the “self-determination of peoples” and the “active, free and meaningful participation” of individuals and populations. HRDs play a key role in enabling the realisation of the right to development.

Despite the growing awareness of the role of HRDs in sustainable development, the human cost of defending rights remains unacceptably high. Those working in defence of land, environmental or indigenous peoples’ rights—rights most often violated in the context of development and related investment activities—are most at risk. They are routinely subjected to stigmatization, labelled as “anti-development,” often quickly leading to criminalization, threats and physical attacks. They are also more likely to be killed than defenders in other sectors. Since the adoption of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders in 1998, an estimated 3,500 human rights defenders have been killed because of their peaceful work defending the rights of others.[3] In 2017 alone, at least 312 human rights defenders were murdered, 67 percent of whom were working in defence of land and territory in the context of large investments, extractive industries and big business.[4] For women defenders and other marginalized groups, the risks are even more acute.

The Declaration on Human Rights Defenders recognizes that everyone has the right “to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Of particular importance for development processes, the Declaration affirms the right to effective access to participation in public affairs, including submission of criticism or opposing views or alternative proposals. It additionally “stresses that all members of the international community shall fulfil, jointly and separately, their solemn obligation to promote and encourage respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction…and reaffirming the particular importance of achieving international cooperation to fulfil this obligation…”

Unfortunately, too often development interventions are designed and implemented without adequate consideration of the human rights context in which they are executed and the human rights impacts that may result. We see this in austerity measures that result in loss of access to essential services, commercial reforms that exacerbate land grabbing, or infrastructure projects that result in social conflict. While development finance institutions and many states have undertaken commitments on transparency and participation, in practice, development decisions are often made without the meaningful participation of civil society, and imposed on communities without their consent or consultation. Where insufficient attention is afforded to community participation and human rights, even the best intentioned interventions can stoke conflict, fuel corruption, or entrench discrimination.

States have an obligation to ensure that human rights are respected and protected and that there is an enabling environment for defenders to do their critical work. This obligation includes states’ actions to implement or finance development activities, and extends to their membership within multilateral development finance institutions. Development banks themselves have human rights obligations and a critical role to play in ensuring that their investments are not causing or contributing to threats or attacks against defenders. DFIs exert significant influence both through their project lending as well as through policy promotion and standard-setting. As such they help shape local and national conditions which determine whether individuals and communities impacted by development activities are able to safely engage or influence development processes.

The Defenders in Development Campaign repeats its call to DFIs, states, and other development actors to take all necessary measures to ensure that their interventions support the realization of human rights and do not cause or contribute to human rights abuses, and to promote safe space for communities and civil society to engage and shape development processes and to exercise their fundamental freedoms. This includes developing policies on human rights defenders and protocols to prevent and respond to risks of reprisals, ensuring meaningful access to information, and robust free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples and consultation of other affected communities. DFIs must also conduct ongoing human rights due diligence to identify and address human rights risks in all of their activities and throughout the lifespan of a project, including those residual impacts that may continue to be felt long after a project is closed. DFIs must ensure effective mechanisms whereby defenders can safely alert them to deteriorating environments or risks of conflict and reprisal. We also emphasize DFIs’ responsibility to, through their research, public communications, and dialogue with states and the private sector, promote an enabling environment for public participation and accountability, in which people are empowered to engage in crafting their own development agendas and in holding their governments, donors, businesses, DFIs and other actors to account.

As owners and shareholders of development banks, governments must do more to ensure that DFIs are fulfilling their human rights obligations and promoting sustainable development. While we welcome steps taken by some states to support HRD protection, it is concerning that governments may actually be undermining these efforts through the actions of their national development banks, bilateral development cooperation, and other DFIs in which they participate. Given the alarming increase in attacks on defenders within development activities, we urge governments to bring more attention to this issue and to the critical role of DFIs. In this regard, as we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 20thanniversary of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, and the 25th anniversary of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, we call on states and DFIs to:

Take urgent action toward enacting the reforms identified above and promoting an enabling environment for human rights and meaningful public participation in development processes;

Use the anniversary of these important human rights milestones to bring attention to the critical role that human rights defenders play in ensuring effective, equitable, and sustainable development; and

Make a public commitment to take all measures necessary to ensure that development policies, investments, cooperation, and other activities respect, protect, and fulfil human rights, prevent reprisals, and safeguard defenders.

[1] The Defenders in Development Campaign is a broad-based coalition of community activists, defender organizations and accountability groups around the world who have come together to address the increasing danger facing those who defend their rights in the context of development activities and investments.

[2] UN General Assembly, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, A/72/150 (July 2017).




Bank Information Center Europe, Regional

EcoLur Informational NGO, Armenia

Asian Peoples Movement on Debt and Development, Asia Region

Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), Americas

Aporte Interdisiciplinario para la Región (AIRE), Argentina

Ministerio de la Defensa Pública de Provincia de CHUBUT, Argentina

FARN, Argentina

Foro Ciudadano de Participación por la Justicia y los Derechos Humanos (FOCO), Argentina

Fundación Cambio Democrático, Argentina

Fundación para Estudio e Investigación de la Mujer (FEIM), Argentina

Fundación TEA Trabajo – Educación – Ambiente, Argentina

Oil Workers’ Rights Protection Organization Public Union, Azerbaijan

Open Azerbaijan Initiative, Azerbaijan

CLEAN (Coastal Livelihood and Environmental Action Network), Bangladesh

Catapa, Belgium

Counter Balance, Belgium

European Network Oscar Romero Commitees, Belgium

Sociedad Civil (Fico Motors), Bolivia

Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes, Bolivia

Gabriela Ribera, Bolivia

Eva Ribera Montoya, Bolivia

Oscar Aguilar, Bolivia

Gabriel Millán, Bolivia

Carlos Miguel Colque Montoya (AIESEC), Bolivia

Christian Aid, Brazil

Za Zemiata, Bulgaria

Centre for Environmental Information and Education, Bulgaria

Social Justice Connection, Canada

MiningWatch Canada, Canada

TSEU/ECSD, Commonwealth Independent States

Christian Aid, Colombia

Equipo Nizkor – Radio Nizkor, Colombia

Comité Ambiental en Defensa de la Vida, Colombia

Corporación Regional Yareguíes-Grupo de Estudios Extractivos y Ambientales del Magdalena Medio, Colombia

Zelena Akcija – Friends of the Earth Croatia, Croatia

Hnuti DUHA – Friends of the Earth Czech Republic, República Checa

Centre for Transport and Energy, Czech Republic

Centro de Derechos Económicos y Sociales (CDES), Ecuador

Estonian Green Movement, Estonia

Mexico Group, Finnish Peace Union, Finland

Indigenous Peoples and the Earth, Activist Specialist Group, Finland

Collectif Guatemala, France

FIACAT, France

Avocats Sans Frontières France, France

Agir Ensenble pour les Droits de l’Homme, France

Alliance of Lawyers for Human Rights, France

Terre des Hommes France, France

Green Alternative, Georgia

Urgewald, Germany

Protection International, Global

International Accountability Project, Global

Asociación para la Promoción y el Desarrollo de la Comunidad “CEIBA”, Guatemala

Action Aid Guatemala, Guatemala

CBM, Guatemala

Oxfam en Guatemala, Guatemala

AJKEMAB’, Guatemala

Equipo de Estudios Comunitarios y Acción Psicosocial – ECAP, Guatemala

Asociación de Entidades de Desarrollo y de Servicios No Gubernamentales de Guatemala -ASINDES-, Guatemala

National Society of Conservationists – Friends of the Earth Hungary, Hungary

Centre for Research and Advocacy Manipur, India

Indigo Law, India

Aksi! for gender, social and ecological justice, Indonesia

Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), International

Front Line Defenders, Ireland

Avvocato, Unione forense per i diritti umani, Rete In difesa di, Commissione diritti umani Ordine avvocati Milano, Italy

Unione forense per i diritti umani , Osservatorio solidarietà carta di Milano, Italy

Public Association “Dignity”, Kazakhstan

Water partnership for Central Asia, Kazakhstan??

Center for Introduction of New Environmentally Safe Technologies, Kazakhstan??

Save Lamu, Kenya

Jamaa Resource Initiatives, Kenya

Narasha Community Development Community, Kenya

Kijiji Yeetu, Kenya

Tinada Women Group, Kenya

Inuka Success Youth Group, Kenya

Young Advocates Community Project (YACOP), Kenya

Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention Initiatives (COSAI), Kenya

Livero Consortium Community Based Organization, Kenya

Local Initiatives Development Agency (LIDA), Kenya

Tinada Youth Organization (TIYO), Kenya

Jamaa Resource Initiatives, Kenya

Human Development Center “Tree of Life”, Kyrgyzstan

Green Liberty, Letonia

Green Advocates International, Liberia

Atgaja, Lituania

Eko-Svest, Macedonia

EnvironSolutions Ltd, Mauritius

Red de Género y Medio ambiente, Mexico

Project on Organizing, Development, Education and Research (PODER), Mexico/Latin America

Oyu Tolgoi Watch, Mongolia

Informal Sector Service Center (INSEC), Nepal

Youth for Environment Education And Development Foundation (YFEED Foundation), Nepal

Community Empowerment and Social Justice Foundation (CEMSOJ), Nepal

Both ENDS, Netherlands

Labour, Health and Human Rights Development Centre, Nigeria

Africa Law Foundation (AFRILAW), Nigeria

Arctic Consult, Norway

CooperAcción, Peru

Derecho, Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (DAR), Perú

Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, Philippines

Saint Louis University, Philippines

Alliance of Associations Polish Green Network, Poland

Polish Green Network, Poland


Actions pour les Droits, l’Environnement et la Vie ( ADEV), Congo

NGO Forum on ADB, Regional

Asociación Interamericana para la Defensa del Ambiente (AIDA), Regional

CEE Bankwatch Network, Regional

WoMin African Alliance, Regional

Center of satellite monitoring and civic watch, Russia

Biodiversity Conservation Center, Russia

Plotina.Net, Russia

Sakhalin Environmental Watch, Russia

Center for Ecology and Sustainable Development, Serbia

Friends of the Earth – CEPA, Eslovaquia

Focus Association for Sustainable Development, Eslovenia

Centre for Applied Legal Studies, South Africa

CIVICUS World Alliance for Citizen Participation, South Africa

Human Rights Institute of South Africa (HURISA), South Africa

South Sudan Law Society, South Sudan

Asociacion de Investigacion y Especializacion Sobre Temas Iberoamericanos (AIETI), Spain

Plataforma Internacional contra la Impunidad, Swisserland

Environmental Law Center, Swaziland

SweFOR Swedish Fellowship of Reconciliation, Sweden

International Service for Human Rights, Swisserland

Peace Watch Switzerland (PWS), Swisserland

Community REsource Centre, Thailand

Collectif des Associations Contre l’Impunité au Togo, Togo

Association Tunisienne de Droit du Développement, Tunisia

Friends with Environment in Development, Uganda

National Union Of Disabled Persons of Uganda, Uganda

Buliisa Initiative for Rural Development Organisation (BIRUDO), Uganda

Defenders Protection Intiative -DPI, Uganda

ABColombia, United Kingdom

Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHHRC), United Kingdom

Forest People’s Programme, United Kingdom

Global Human Rights, United Kingdom

Global Witness, United Kingdom

Law Society, United Kingdom

Minority Rights Group, United Kingdom

Peace Brigades International UK, United Kingdom

The Bretton Woods Project, United Kingdom

London Mining Network, United Kingdom

Ecoaction, Ucrania

National Ecological Centre of Ukraine, Ukraine

Partnership for Global Justice, United States of America

The Altai Project, United States of America

Indigenous Concerns Resource Center, United States of America

Institute for Policy Studies, Estados Unidos de América

Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, Estados Unidos de América

Occupy Bergen County (N.J.), Estados Unidos de América

Judith Blau, United States of America

Sisters of Mercy of the Americas’ Institute Justice Team, United States of America

China-Latin America Sustainable Investments Initiative, United States of America

Accountability Counsel, United States of America

International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), United States of America

International Indigenous Fund for development and solidarity “Batani”, United States of America

Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights (UAF), United States of America

Share your Mana, United States of America

Said Yanyshev, Uzbekistan

Zambia Council for Social Development, Zambia

Southern African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (SACCORD), Zambia