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Will Businesses Stand Up for Human Rights Defenders?

An event with Dr. Harpreet Kaur, Prof. Anita Ramasastry, Dr. Wora Sukraroek, Ms. Sutharee Wannasiri, Mr. Bill Anderson, Mr. Bennett Freeman, H.E. Mr. Staffan Herrström, Ms. Mary Lawlor and Ms. Cynthia Veliko
United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights, EarthRights International Asia, Independent, Adidas, Bennett Freeman Associates LLC, Embassy of Sweden to Thailand, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and OHCHR Regional Office for South-East Asia

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About this event


The UN Guiding Principles recognize the importance of human rights defenders (HRDs) in the context of business-related impacts on human rights. The UNGPs highlight the critical role human rights defenders can have in human rights due diligence and enabling companies to understand the concerns of affected stakeholders. However, when HRDs bring attention to abuses, they are often harassed, intimidated, and some cases killed. In 2018, Asian States were among the deadliest places for human rights defenders according to Global Witness. The fast-shrinking of civic space in Asia makes it even more challenging for defenders and activists to demand accountability from governments. Environmental and land, indigenous and women rights defenders are even more likely to be harmed. Growing international concern over this ill-treatment is now recognized as a priority issue for States, and is becoming a reputational and operational risk for businesses. However, to date the role of business has not been sufficiently explored, though some promising examples are emerging. It is against this background, that this session will assess the roles of businesses in standing up for human rights defenders – why they should stand up, examples of how they can do so.


While the perspectives of defenders and affected rights holders will be evaluated, this session will primarily focus on the role businesses can play to promote civic space and stand up for human rights defenders in Asia. Discussions will thus focus on the action that businesses can take in respect of their own activities such as through human rights due diligence, as well as their role in advocating for change and working together with States. The session will provide a platform for businesses to present existing good practices, thereby building momentum and facilitating peer-learning.


The key objectives of this session are to:

  • Explore how businesses can positively contribute to civic space in Asia;

  • Provide constructive platform for businesses and others to debate gaps in corporate commitments;

  • Present case study/studies outlining promising examples in standing up for HRDs.


  • To what extent, and under which circumstances, can businesses positively contribute to building or preserving civic space in Asian States?

  • What are the promising examples businesses have been using to stand up for HRDs?

  • What are the recommendations for concrete actions by businesses and investors to address the root causes of violence, criminalization and intimidation affecting collective and individual human rights defenders in the field of business and human rights?

  • What are the specific recommendations to businesses different sectors?

Dr. Harpreet Kaur

Harpreet Kaur is a Business and Human Rights Specialist at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Bangkok Regional Hub.

Dr. Wora Sukraroek

Wora is Mekong Campaign Coordination on Business and Human Rights at EarthRights International Asia. She leads campaign and legal advocacy on business and human rights in ASEAN countries and monitoring human rights compliance of foreign investors in the Mekong countries.

Ms. Sutharee Wannasiri

Sutharee Wannasiri is a human rights activist who works to promote the protections of vulnerable and grassroots communities in Thailand. She documents violations against human rights defenders, particularly those working on environmental and labor rights issues. In 2018, Wannasiri was charged with 2 criminal defamation complaints and 1 civil defamation lawsuit for using Twitter to amplify the voices of Myanmar migrant workers who suffered labor rights abuses at a Thai poultry farm. Her case is part of a series of spurious legal cases brought by corporations in Thailand to intimidate workers, journalists, and others who demand corporate accountability.

H.E. Mr. Staffan Herrström

Staffan Herrström has been Ambassador of Sweden to Thailand, Myanmar and Lao PDR since 2015/2016. He has previously served as Ambassador to Poland, Vietnam and Tanzania. He was Deputy Director General for the Swedish Development Cooperation Agency, Sida,1995-2007. Before that he served for three years as State Secretary in the Prime Minister’s office under Deputy Prime Minister Bengt Westerberg.

Ms. Mary Lawlor

Ms. Mary Lawlor took up the mandate of Special Rapport on the situation of human rights defender on 1 May 2020, following the Human Rights Council decision 43/115. Ms. Lawlor is currently an Adjunct Professor of Business and Human Rights in the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI), School of Business, Trinity College Dublin. She is a member of the Advisory Board of the School of Business.

Ms. Cynthia Veliko

Ms. Cynthia Veliko has worked across the UN system since 1999. She has served with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) since March 2006 as Human Rights Advisor in three countries - Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Philippines and was appointed in August 2017 as Regional Representative to OHCHR Regional Office for South-East Asia.

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