Yellow Pad

This week sees Human Rights Day, celebrated globally every 10th December to mark the UN General Assembly’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 61 years ago. The contribution of former Filipino general-turned-diplomat, Carlos P. Romulo, in drafting and negotiating that historic document remains well known at a time when human rights face severe challenges in the Philippines and around the world.

Over the last seven decades, the fate of human rights is no longer defined entirely by governments and international institutions — but increasingly by civil society and private sector actors, who share a responsibility to protect and respect human rights through the range of institutions and instruments, standards and norms, which have been built since Romulo made history in New York.

Two weeks ago, over 2,000 delegates gathered in Geneva for the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, to discuss once again how the pursuit of profit should not harm the planet or its people. Previous years have seen more corporations participate, making stronger commitments to tackle corporate greed and ensure that business operations improve, rather than harm, the lives of ordinary citizens. Yet, still, every year we hear more gruesome tales of “business gone wrong” and the innocent civilians harmed as they got in its way.

Recently we have seen the killing of Ronaldo Corpuz, an official of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), and weeks ago, the ambush and murder of Brazilian forest guardian Paulo Paulino Guajajara in Araribóia. In 2018 alone, we saw at least 164 land and environmental defenders killed globally — and many others injured, intimidated, and criminalized, in the name of business at all costs.

A recent investigation from international NGO Global Witness dug deeper into the deaths of four such people in the Philippines, and used a country-wide analysis to demonstrate the impact of irresponsible business on their and their communities’ lives. The report makes for grim reading.

Indigenous leader Renato Anglao, murdered after protesting violent agribusiness land grabs in Bukidnon. Village head Ruben Arzaga killed apprehending illegal loggers profiting off the tourist boom in Palawan. Farmers’ association leader Jimmy Saypan, murdered by hitmen after protesting irregularities around a gold and silver mine. Anti-coal campaigner Gloria Capitan, shot in front of her grandchildren for standing up to a coal-power plant.

Since Global Witness began publishing data in 2012, the Philippines has consistently recorded the highest number of killings in Asia of people who oppose illegal logging, destructive mining, or corrupt agribusiness. Few of the perpetrators are ever prosecuted.

By 2018 this trend of spiralling violence reached a disturbing new landmark: the Philippines became the country with the highest total number of such killings in the world, with many others attacked or imprisoned. Many of the victims simply wanted a say on how their land and the country’s natural resources are used.

Of course, it is first and foremost up to the Philippines government to support community leaders and NGOs at risk, and to tackle the root causes of attacks on these activists. In his first State of the Nation Address, President Rodrigo Duterte himself promised to safeguard the country’s rural and indigenous communities, tackle corruption, and protect the environment, using his strength to stand up to big business and powerful vested interests. Yet in practice, Duterte has so far failed to keep his promises as the killings of those protecting their land and our planet in the Philippines have reached record levels.

It is precisely in this context that business must take a stand, especially where governments are unable to protect human rights. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights establish the corporate responsibility to respect human rights alongside the state duty to protect human rights; both are necessary but neither is sufficient on its own, nowhere more urgently than in the Philippines.

Filipino business leaders can join with the multinational corporations operating in the agriculture, extractives, and other sectors connected to these attacks to demand both accountability for the perpetrators and action to address their root causes.

If they take action, they will join a growing number of business leaders around the world who are recognizing their responsibilities, from speaking out against the persecution of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar and suppression of freedom of association in Cambodia’s garment industry to taking a stand against racism in the United States and Europe.

There is a growing international recognition that there is a “shared space” of the rule of law, accountable governance and civic freedoms that links civil society and business. Launched in September 2018, the Shared Space Under Pressure: Business Support for Civic Freedoms and Human Rights Defenders report and executive summary responds to the growing pressure on civic freedoms and civil society around the world — and the increasing attacks on human rights defenders.

It offers an analytical and operational framework to guide companies as they determine whether — and if so, how — to act in support of this agenda. It also supports initiatives such as the Business Network for Civic Freedoms and Human Rights Defenders, both a learning forum and action platform for companies around the world.

The Philippines is hardly alone in being home to these kinds of attacks. But this can be a season of hope that Filipino business leaders — and leaders of the multinationals who operate here and those who finance and invest in them — can come together with civil society and take a stand.


Bennett Freeman is Chair of the Global Witness Advisory Board and a former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. He is the principal author of the Shared Space Under Pressure Report on behalf of the Business and Human Rights Resource Center and International Service for Human Rights.