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CSR Institute Session/Project: Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) - Multistakeholder Statement of Support for HRDs

September 29, 2017
1:30 PM EDT - 3:00 PM EDT
Global Affairs Canada [125 Sussex Avenue, Ottawa] // Teleconference (1-877-413-4788) toll free Cda/USA: conf ID: 2970658

The Ryerson University Institute for the Study of Corporate Social Responsibility (Ryerson CSR Institute) invites all interested individuals and organizations to participate in a discussion facilitated by the Ryerson CSR Institute concerning development and online publication of a Multistakeholder Statement of Support for Human Rights Defenders. The Ryerson CSR Institute wishes to thank Global Affairs Canada for providing the meeting facilities and teleconference arrangements.

Quick Summary:
Around the world, those who speak out on human rights issues and act to promote and protect human rights (human rights defenders, or HRDs) play a vital role in bringing public attention to potentially problematic activities. Unfortunately, HRDs continue to face attempts to suppress or intimidate their voice when they publicly make known a potentially problematic human rights issue. Governments have a primordial duty to protect human rights, and as part of this, a duty to protect those who may be the subject of unacceptable acts of suppression when they speak out on potentially problematic human rights practices. In this regard, in December 2016, the Government of Canada published Voices at Risk, external link, a policy guidance document for officials at Canadian missions abroad and at Headquarters.‎

But individuals and organs of the private sector and civil society are also often in a position where they can act to support HRDs and their activities, and it is increasingly accepted that businesses have a PDF fileresponsibility to respect human rights, external link in all their activities and relationships. The immediate purpose of the Multistakeholder Statement of Support for Human Rights Defenders is to provide an opportunity for private sector, civil society actors (and governments) with an opportunity to publicly express their non-partisan constructive support -- on the neutral, accessible Ryerson CSR Institute online platform -- for the work of HRDs, and to indicate their willingness to assist in developing further guidance so that HRDs everywhere can operate without threats of violence or other unacceptable acts of suppression.

Beyond development and publication of this statement and an opportunity for parties to express support for the statement, there may be value in the Ryerson CSR Institute creating a nonpartisan forum for private sector and civil society actors to come together (with or without governments) to explore in greater detail the issues associated with HRDs, to discuss how to support HRDs and to develop broad-based all-sector-wide good practice guidance for support of HRDs. If there is interest and need for same, the Ryerson CSR Institute is prepared to take on this role.

[Sept 29, 2017] Update on Ryerson CSR Institute multistakeholder work in support of Human Rights Defenders (HRDs)
On September 29, 2017, the Ryerson CSR Institute initiated an exploratory discussion via teleconference concerning possible multistakeholder support for Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) -- those who speak out and promote human rights, and too often experience threats of violence or worst for being human rights defenders.  The following is a brief description of that September 29, 2017 teleconference discussion, which attracted more than 30 government, private sector and civil society participants.  

There was first an opening "setting the scenes" description of work and activity pertaining to support of HRDs that addressed:

(1) the importance of HRD activity as part of broader government duties to protect and business responsibilities to respect human rights, as reflected in the UN work in this area, external link, and the value of government, external linkPDF fileprivate sector, external link and civil society, external link support for the work of HRDs;

(2) recognition that businesses, civil society organizations and governments share a common interest in promoting the rule of law, transparency, due process, and non-violence -- foundational underlying tenets for support of HRDs -- and that each has unique roles and capabilities in terms of support of the work of HRDs; 

(3) the important connection, external link of HRDs to the human rights responsibilities of business enunciated in the PDF fileGuiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, external link. Reporting to the group on a discussion that took place earlier on Friday, September 29 with Rachel Davis of SHIFT, there is a tension between on the one hand the desire of businesses to engage with stakeholders concerning their human rights due diligence activities, and on the other hand, the desire of businesses to avoid putting stakeholders (including HRDs) at risk by engaging with them. Secondly, businesses are in a position to leverage their influence to have a broader impact on particular issues (such as support of HRDs), and some have done so (see below). With any particular HRD issue and situation, it will be important to identify the right interlocutor (e.g., community, government representative, government, NGO) to take on particular roles in support of HRDs;  

(4) the integral role that PDF filebusinesses already play in support of HRDs, external link (noting the proactive support of HRDs by individual companies such as PDF fileadidas, external linkS Group, external link and Tiffany & Co, external link);

(5) the fact that Global Affairs Canada has now published "Voices at Risk" (Guidelines on Recognizing and Supporting Human Rights Defenders, external link) to provide practical advice re: HRD support for officials at Canadian missions abroad and at Headquarters; 

(6) the fact that the multistakeholder Canadian Centre for Excellence in CSR for the Extractive Sector, external link will be developing guidance in the area of HRD support for the extractive sector. Early discussions suggest the the work will focus on "skills and sensitivities" concerning business interactions with HRDs.   

Following this, there was a description and discussion of the federal "Voices at Risk" Guidelines on Recognizing and Supporting Human Rights Defenders, provided by one of the authors of the "Voices at Risk" document. The document was provided as an example of tools that can be created to support the work of HRDs. The main principle is “Do no harm”: the document stresses the importance of adopting a collaborative approach – consultations are necessary to ensure the government is not worsening the situation or adding an element of risk. Any use of the document in other contexts would necessitate a review to ensure its applicability. 

Next, there was an open discussion of possible multistakeholder work that could be undertaken in this area.  Building on the interest expressed by those participating in the teleconference, there was agreement that the next step will be a multistakeholder workshop to further explore the topic of support for HRDs, facilitated by the Ryerson CSR Institute.  Officials from Global Affairs Canada confirmed that they will provide financial support for this workshop.  Accordingly, the Ryerson University Institute for the Study of Corporate Social Responsibility is now turning its attention to developing the agenda and identifying an HRD subject matter expert who will play a key role at this workshop.  Among other things, the workshop can explore "best practices", and suggestions of best practices would be appreciated.  The Ryerson CSR Institute will develop an online repository of human rights defenders documents.  A key outcome of the workshop will be agreement on next steps to be undertaken by the multistakeholder group (e.g., agreement to develop broad, multi-sector guidance for use by government, the private sector and civil society).

Those who would like to assist in working out the agenda or have best practice suggestions or otherwise help are encouraged to contact me at your earliest opportunity.  Updates will be provided on the Ryerson CSR Institute website and by email. If you have any questions or comments on any of the foregoing, please do not hesitate to contact Dr. Kernaghan Webb at