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The bold activists around the world who stand up to corporate and government economic interests frequently face a harsh backlash. Individuals and communities are threatened, and activists may be arrested or killed with impunity in retaliation for speaking out against abuses of worker rights, hazardous environmental conditions, and displacement from large-scale infrastructure projects, to name some all-too-common examples.

The retaliation against activists who promote corporate transparency and combat business-related corruption is less well-known, but just as dangerous. Rafael Marques de Morais, a globally prominent human rights advocate and investigative journalist from Angola, may be the exception, He is known for exposing abuses tied to oil-fueled corruption and “blood diamonds” and for naming the companies and individuals allegedly responsible. Marques has been imprisoned, repeatedly harassed, and beaten. In the latest effort to silence his reporting, he faces trial on criminal libel charges.

Many of Marques’s fellow anti-corruption campaigners face similar challenges. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has recognized that activists working on “good governance” can be considered human rights defenders. Indeed, their work to prevent bribery, promote government openness, and ensure corporate transparency advances the cause of economic and social rights by combating the diversion of public funds and encouraging sound social investments. And they seek to promote space for public participation, in line with a rights agenda. Some of these activists avoid that label, though, because protecting human rights is highly controversial in their countries.

Yet transparency work can touch on very sensitive issues, such as the lucrative deals between governments and companies to extract natural resources. A large and growing movement pushes for public disclosure of payments to governments by oil, gas, and mining companies. Nongovernmental groups are asking how those revenues are spent, who owns the businesses that benefit from concessions, and the terms of the contracts they sign with governments. Powerful players can feel very threatened by such moves.

In July, activists calling for greater transparency and fairness in dealings between the government of Niger and a foreign mining firm were arrested. They were released under international pressure.

In Azerbaijan, independent groups working on corporate transparency and anti-corruption have been targeted amid a far-reaching government crackdown in which leading human rights figures have been imprisoned or exiled. Transparency activists have been smeared in the press as traitors and pressured by government officials to end criticisms that could harm Azerbaijan’s business reputation. The authorities have frozen their personal and organizational bank accounts arbitrarily and without recourse. They have been subjected to intimidating interrogations, spurious tax inspections, and direct threats to their safety.

The UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, during a mission to Azerbaijan in August, identified some of these concerns and expressed hope that the government would ease harsh restrictions on foreign financing of civic groups. Instead, in October the parliament approved changes that will make it even harder for them to receive outside funds.

Curiously, the only international body to censure Azerbaijan for its crackdown is not a human rights organization. The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) is an international coalition of companies, governments, and civil society groups formed to encourage public disclosures about the oil, gas, and mining sectors. It aims to improve governance and development by making data available to citizens that they can use to press for better management of natural resources and the resulting revenues.

EITI’s rules recognize that, for the process to work, civic groups require an “enabling environment” to freely engage, critique, and help shape public debate and government decision-making on natural resource governance. The initiative is finalizing a new edition of its Civil Society Protocol to entrench these requirements, which have been applied unevenly.

Azerbaijan’s worsening clampdown eventually triggered action by EITI’s leadership. In October, the initiative’s chair announced that “clearly problematic” conditions had sparked “deep concern” and would prompt a formal review in January. This move signaled that Azerbaijan’s continued membership in the initiative was at risk.

The Open Government Partnership, another international effort from which Azerbaijan draws prestige, also recently approved a new policy on defending civic space in participating countries. The updated EITI and OGP provisions seek to strengthen protections for transparency activists. While far from perfect, they will hopefully bring these initiatives into closer alignment with international human rights standards.

With the UN Forum in Geneva set to again emphasize the “protect, respect, and remedy” framework of the UN Guiding Principles, it is time to consider how to ensure that all defenders working on business and human rights issues are protected from harm and that their rights are respected and they have access to justice. As we confront this serious challenge, we should include many more transparency activists in our understanding of human rights defenders.

Lisa Misol is senior adviser for business and human rights at Human Rights Watch. Follow her on Twitter at @LisaMisol

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