Unless you are a serious foreign policy wonk, you probably haven’t heard of the United States Development Finance Corporation (DFC). This U.S. federal government agency gives U.S. taxpayer money to private corporations to run projects in developing countries. The agency is little-known outside the Beltway but is playing an increasingly important role in advancing U.S. foreign policy and economic interests, including in countries with poor human rights records. 

It also finances projects in business sectors – including oil, mining, and agribusiness – implicated in abuses against human rights defenders. For these reasons, EarthRights and other organizations are calling on DFC to significantly strengthen its human rights safeguard policies to ensure that its clients are not implicated in abuses, particularly those targeting, threatening, or criminalizing human rights defenders. This is especially urgent now, given the global crisis of threats and violence directed at defenders.

A Global Human Rights Cataclysm 

Globally, human rights defenders, particularly Indigenous peoples working to protect their rights vis-à-vis fossil fuels, mining, and agribusinesses, experience unprecedented levels of violence and criminalization. In some situations, corporations have been directly implicated in threats and violence against defenders. This includes contracting with private or public security forces to intimidate defenders, publicly denouncing defenders, and criminalizing them through retaliatory legal tactics, including SLAPP suits, as my EarthRights colleague Kirk Herbertson documented in a recent report

This is set against a global context of shrinking civic space and retreating democratic norms, which is, in turn, coupled with a rise in organized criminal activity in the natural resource sectors. Even in situations where there is no direct evidence linking corporations to attacks on defenders, their non-engagement or silence in the face of attacks related to their operation can create an impression of indifference or even encouragement of the attacks.

Non-Retaliation Policies 

In 2018, the International Finance Corporation, which is the private sector arm of the World Bank and roughly equivalent in function to the DFC, adopted a Position Statement on Retaliation Against Civil Society and Project Stakeholders. This was a direct response to pressure from civil society and legal action against it by EarthRights over human rights violations at an IFC-funded palm oil project in Honduras. In the position statement, IFC states clearly that the corporation does not tolerate any action by an IFC client that amounts to retaliation — including threats, intimidation, harassment, or violence – against those who voice their opinion regarding the activities of IFC or its clients.

Non-reprisal policies of this type recognize the legitimate and important role of human rights defenders in achieving positive development outcomes. Financial institutions such as DFC and IFC have an important role to play in further expanding the use of this standard across global industry sectors.

Corporations and financial institutions are increasingly being called on to recognize the legitimate role of human rights defenders and to commit to a policy of non-retaliation. These issues are under discussion now with individual corporations and sector initiatives and associations, including the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM), the association of many of the world’s largest mining companies, the revision of the OECD’s Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises, and within the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights.

Congress Calls for Action

Last year, the U.S. House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, which oversees funding for DFC, directed the DFC CEO to establish a comprehensive policy on non-retaliation by DFC partners and to strictly monitor DFC assistance for transactions in countries with patterns of killings, physical abuse, and harassment towards environmental and human rights defenders. Such countries include ones in which DFC finances projects, including Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Honduras, the DRC, and the Philippines. This directive was echoed by a letter sent in August by five senators to DFC’s CEO calling for similar action on non-reprisal. 

Last year, IFC and IDB Invest, the private sector arm of the Inter-American Development Bank, published a Good Practice Note on Addressing the Risk of Retaliations Against Project Stakeholders. The best practice note provides guidance to IFC and IDB Invest clients on ways to take action to prevent retaliation, including through the adoption of a “screen, prevent, respond” framework for assessing potential risks of retaliation.

DFC should incorporate into its human rights policy a clear commitment of zero tolerance for retaliation against human rights defenders and civil society stakeholders by DFC clients and their subcontractors. Such a commitment would clarify where the corporation stands on these issues and the expectations it has for its clients in this regard, particularly those operating in sectors and countries characterized by high levels of threats and violence against defenders.  

By adopting a clear policy in support of human rights defenders, DFC, despite its relative obscurity, can play a leading role in changing global standards for protection and respect for the rights of human rights defenders, which in turn can hopefully lead to fewer of them being threatened, criminalized and killed.