Globally, 10 human rights defenders protesting harmful business practice attacked every week in 2022
India recorded the second highest number of attacks on defenders protesting harmful business practices in 2022, according to a new report.
The country saw 54 such incidents of attacks (affecting one or more individual), which is lower only than Brazil’s record of 63, the report by Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), an international non-profit.
India’s Jindal Steel Ltd (JSW) was also among the companies associated with the highest number of attacks, the group noted, along with Otterlo Business Corporation (UAE), TotalEnergies (France, East African Crude Oil Pipeline majority shareholder), Inversiones los Pinares (Honduras), and NagaCorp Ltd and its subsidiary NagaWorld (Cambodia).
JSW’s 13.2-million-tonne integrated steel plant at Odisha’s Jagatsinghpur district was met with local opposition since it was proposed in 2018.
The project site spread over eight villages in three Gram Panchayats, Dhinkia, Nuagaon and Gadkujang, and the adjacent forest lands, is home to around 22,000 people, many of whom are Dalits.
The residents have been actively protesting the project, “raising concerns about land acquisition and displacement, negative environmental and health impacts, and harm to their right to food and traditional livelihoods, which include betel vine farming”.
In the half decade of protests, over 1,000 people, including elderly villagers, have been slapped with criminal charges, while many other demonstrators suffered police brutality and detention.
The residents have also alleged that the police officials have colluded with the company to repress voices of protest.
JSW was contacted by BHRRC that wrote the report for comments. Here is a condensed version of the company’s response found in the website of the non-profit.
The report included a disconcerting case study from Tamil Nadu:
ArpudhaKani is a farmer and land rights activist from Ramanathapuram, India. He is an active member of Maan Meetpu Kulu, an organisation which works for the protection of agricultural lands in Kadaladi Taluk, and has raised concerns about the release of industrial waste by chemical company ChemFab Ltd.
On 14 March 2022, Mr. Arpudhakani was beaten and stabbed by a group of assailants near the main gate of Chemfab Ltd. In November 2021 and March 2022, members of Maan Meetpu Kulu submitted complaint letters to the District Collector asking for protection against potential attacks. We invited Chemfab Ltd. to respond; it did not.
Globally, there were 4,700 attacks on human rights defenders raising concerns about harmful business practice from January 2015-March 2023, the organisation observed. Of them, 555 were in 2022, “revealing that on average more than 10 defenders were attacked every single week for raising legitimate concerns about irresponsible business activity”, the report mentioned.
As much as 75 per cent of the attacks were against climate, land and environmental defenders, the findings showed.
“Over a fifth of attacks (23 per cent) were against Indigenous defenders, who are protecting over 80 per cent of the world’s remaining biodiversity, although they comprise approximately six per cent of the global population,” the authors noted.
Mining has remained the most dangerous sector for defenders, with 30 per cent of all the attacks in 2022 being linked to it, according to the report. “The sector is even more dangerous for Indigenous defenders — 41 per cent of attacks against Indigenous peoples in 2022 related to mining.”
The people fighting against human rights violations and environmental crimes by corporates faced a multitude of attacks, with 86 per cent of them being non-lethal. These are often precursors to lethal violence, the researchers wrote.
“Non-lethal attacks are generally left uninvestigated and unpunished, which can have a chilling effect on the work of defenders and promote impunity that feeds further violence where defenders persist in their critical work,” they added.
Judicial harassment, which include arbitrary arrest, unfair trial and strategic lawsuits against public participation, was the most common form of attack against protesters across the world.
Around half the cases of attacks tracked by the organisation were of this nature.
“Judicial harassment causes significant distress and harm to defenders and diverts time away from their human rights work while draining their resources, the authors noted. “It can have a chilling effect, deterring others from speaking out against abuse.”
Nearly a quarter of the attacks were against women who challenged “both corporate power and patriarchal gender norms”, the report highlighted. Many of these attacks were online threats and smear campaigns that caused them immense long-term psychological harm, women interviewed for another study cited by the report said. “These tactics are meant to stigmatise, isolate and silence women defenders.”
The researchers suggested a slew of measures states, companies and investors can adopt to prevent such gross acts of human rights violations.
States should “pass and implement legislation recognising the right to defend rights and the vital role of defenders, both individual and collective, in promoting human rights, sustainable development, and a healthy environment and committing to zero-tolerance for attacks,” they mentioned among other suggestions.
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