According to the Business and Human Rights Centre, in the context of company activities, the year 2019 alone witnessed 572 attacks on human rights defenders and environmental activists, of whom about a third were women. The violations range from instant dismissal – such as in Bangladesh, where 12,000 textile workers were fired after protests – to intimidation, police violence and murder. In most cases, the perpetrators face no consequences, as governments and companies close ranks in the name of "development". People who defend themselves against land grabs, the poisoning of rivers or the destruction of their livelihoods are often lumped together and branded "enemies of development" by the governments and companies concerned.
Development banks are often involved in such activities. A report published in 2019 by the Coalition for Human Rights in Development explores the role of development banks in 25 infrastructure and development projects associated with massive repression. Eleven of the projects studied involved funding through the International Finance Corporation (IFC), while six were funded by other World Bank agencies. The case studies include, among other things, police repression of a strike in South Africa against an IFC-funded mining company in 2012, known as the Marikana massacre – 34 people were killed and it is deemed the bloodiest deployment of violence by a South African regime since 1960; the murder of Gloria Capitan in 2016, for activism against extensive air pollution by IFC-funded coal projects in the Philippines, and the imprisonment of Pastor Ormot Agwa, who had supported Ethiopia’s indigenous Anuak people in their complaint against the World Bank over eviction from their land. The report concludes that in most cases development banks do nothing against the repression entailed in projects funded by them. Reactions come too late and do not go far enough. The activists concerned rarely obtain compensation and remain exposed and vulnerable to further repression. The governments and firms involved in human rights violations often continue to receive development bank funding, even after acts of repression and reprisal become public.
Recent years have seen the further curtailment of the rights of civil society in many countries, making it ever more difficult and dangerous for activists to challenge the policies of their government or of supposed development projects. Measures to combat the current corona pandemic are exacerbating this trend in many countries. This makes it all the more important for companies, investors and development banks to work to counter this trend by taking affected population groups on board in their projects from the very start and acting clearly to safeguard human rights. Still, in March 2020 a group of 176 international investors with over 4.5 trillion US dollars in assets under management addressed an open letter to the 95 worst performing companies on human rights due diligence, urging them to assume their responsibility. In parallel, the World Bank published a statement against reprisals and retaliation.
But beautiful rhetoric alone is not enough. The concept of development must be discussed critically, alternative development models that diverge from the neoliberal, resource-intensive growth model must be given consideration. The UN 2030 Agenda can serve as a starting point. It offers a holistic view of development in which all countries – rich and poor– are urged to reduce inequality and promote environmental, social and economic sustainability; and according to the leave no one behind principle, the needs of the poorest and most marginalised in society should be at the heart of development.