Learning session on ‘shrinking civic freedoms and the position of human rights defenders (HRDs)’

On 16 November 2018, a learning session on shrinking civic freedoms and the position of human rights defenders (HRDs) was held at the Dutch development bank FMO. This session was one of a number of follow-up actions to the report ‘Increasing Leverage’, published recently by the Dutch Banking Agreement (DBA). Oxfam and Amnesty International were the initiators and the Social and Economic Council of the Netherlands (SER) moderated the well-attended meeting.
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The aim of the session was to inform DBA parties and participating banks about the worrying worldwide trend of increasing restrictions on the freedom of civil-society organisations and HRDs to work and to express themselves. Participants in the session looked at ways of reversing this trend.

Developing the topic

During the meeting, Oxfam Novib, Amnesty Netherlands, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), FMO and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs gave presentations on current developments and the steps taken by these organisations. The BHRRC discussed its recently published report entitled ‘Shared space under pressure: Business support for civic freedoms and human rights defenders’. Among other things, the report presents examples of companies and investors that have taken action in defence of civil liberties and HRDs. The risks of action and inaction by a company or investor were described. An important source of information for everyone regarding the state of civil liberties in a country is the international non-profit organisation CIVICUS, and parties can also approach Oxfam, Amnesty and the BHRRC.

Breakout sessions

Breakout sessions used two cases to explore further what banks could do for HRDs and their families, and how to ensure that the voices of HRDs are heard clearly as part of human rights due diligence. The cases related to situations prior to and during a funding relationship between a bank and a client. Participants also discussed possible methods of cooperation between the DBA parties and banks in order to increase the opportunities for civil society to act and to improve the position of HRDs. An important and logical option for the DBA is to look more closely at improved access to financial resources for HRDs. It will always be necessary to consider on a case-by-case basis what steps are most desirable and most effective (for example, whether they should be visible or invisible). The parties agreed that they would follow up on the learning session.