I thank the committee for the opportunity to speak this morning. I work with Front Line Defenders, an Irish organisation that works to support and protect human rights defenders who are at risk around the world. There are many causes of the risks faced by peaceful activists but, as Ms Curran pointed out, the sector of human rights work which is most dangerous is work on the defence of land rights, indigenous people’s rights and environmental rights. Unfortunately, the threats and dangers often result in the killing of human rights defenders. These frequently take place in the context of big business or mega projects where defenders objecting to environmental degradation or corruption, or indigenous communities objecting to the appropriation of their land, are targeted in an effort to silence them and their communities.
The role of business and the need for states, including Ireland, to do more has already been addressed. To add to this, I wish to bring in the role played by development finance institutions, DFIs, that fund or part-fund many of the projects where violence is being carried out against those who stand up for the rights of others. Occasionally, the DFIs will even be shareholders of the companies behind the project. While development interventions can be a powerful tool for the realisation of human rights, too often activities undertaken in the name of development fail to adequately consider human rights conditions and impacts and end up exacerbating the risks faced by human rights defenders, who are arrested, smeared, attacked and killed. The most infamous case in this regard was the murder of Honduran human rights defender, Berta Cáceres, who was killed in 2016 for defending the territory and rights of the indigenous Lenca people in the face of a dam being built, which was being funded by the Dutch and Finnish development banks.
Despite numerous previous threats and attacks against Ms Cáceres, the respective banks did not respond adequately. In November of last year a Honduran court convicted employees of the company which was constructing the dam of Ms Cáceres's murder, although the intellectual authors have not been apprehended.
While Ireland does not have a national development bank, it does have a voice in the strategic direction of a number of multilateral development banks, including the European Investment Bank, the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, as a shareholder and funder. We fully recognise Ireland's supportive position on human rights defenders but it is concerning that we may be partially undermining these efforts through the actions of the DFIs in which we participate. At present, DFIs are failing to assess adequately the risks and are too slow to act, if they act at all, when informed that threats have been made against local communities for peacefully opposing a project. They tend to be too quick to accept the word of their local project partners that human rights defenders are "criminals" or "violent" or that the arrests and killings that take place are totally unrelated to their work in the context of the project. Threats and attacks often start with the labelling of communities, groups and individuals as "anti-development". The imposition of development activities without the consent or meaningful consultation of local communities and marginalised groups is one of the root causes of threats to human rights defenders in this context. At Front Line Defenders, we have documented numerous such cases over recent years and have been trying to engage with DFIs as part of a wider campaign for them to raise their human rights standards.
This leads me to the question of what Ireland can do to push these banks to be better in this area. We believe that Ireland, in line with its supportive position on human rights defenders more generally, should take the lead in urging banks from within to develop policies on human rights defenders and protocols to prevent and respond to risks of reprisals and to ensure meaningful access to information, robust, free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples and consultation with other affected communities. We believe it is essential that DFIs conduct ongoing human rights due diligence to identify and address human rights risks in all their activities. They must ensure effective mechanisms whereby defenders can safely alert them to deteriorating environments or risks of conflict and reprisal. DFIs must look to take measures to prevent any form of retaliation against defenders who might come under threat in a project in which they have invested and must set up a protocol to respond to any retaliation if and when it occurs.
Finally, I encourage the committee to ask the Government to update it regularly on measures it is taking as a shareholder to ensure DFIs act in line with Ireland's supportive position on human rights defenders.