Defending Human Rights Against Corporate Interests

In the tobacco fields, sun and heat can take a serious toll on workers, especially if they don’t get sufficient breaks or clean water. Photo: Briana Connors / FLOC

Communities across the global south on the frontlines of mega development projects – such as pipelines, dams, and large-scale farms – must navigate profound disruption and the inequities of corporate power on their doorstep. Often, they do not have a say in how these projects are pushed forward. Challenging this inequality starts with evidence-driven advocacy grounded in community demands. Oxfam’s community-based human rights impact assessment tool is one route to rebalance powers and defend the rights of frontline communities.

Development projects risk violating a spectrum of human rights – from the right to a clean and healthy environment to the freedom of expression – especially in countries or regions where governance is weak or absent. Indigenous communities without access to political power are particularly vulnerable. And confronted to large-scale investment projects, women often face disproportionate impacts and increased vulnerabilities. Given these realities and the potential for major disruption from risky business operations, responsible companies are increasingly turning to robust human rights due diligence before greenlighting projects.

The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, unanimously endorsed by the international community in 2011, bring clarity to what is expected of responsible business. But how the Guiding Principles are implemented in practice can vary widely by sector and company.

Various tools exist for companies to perform robust human rights due diligence. While only a part of the process, a human right impact assessment represents a key first step in the effort to identify a project’s risks or impacts. These assessments can take various shapes, but should share the ultimate goal of protecting human rights and improving accountability among companies and governments.

Unfortunately, many of these processes are top-down, managed by the companies and focused largely on corporate risk. They are insufficiently focused on transparency, accountability, or stakeholder engagement and lack the independence and participation necessary for companies to sufficiently understand their human rights risks. Moreover, company-led human rights due diligence processes do little to solve the inequality of power and information facing frontline communities. (To read more, see Community voice in human rights impact assessments)

Community-led approaches to HRIA can provide a tool to counter this imbalance of power. For more than a decade now, Oxfam has been an active proponent of community-based human rights impact assessments (COBHRAs), so that those who live and work in the shadow of these projects can defend their rights, avoid or mitigate harmful impacts, and take advantage of possible benefits. A COBHRA offers an alternative path to company-led processes, allowing frontline communities to drive information gathering, seek fuller participation, and frame their concerns and aspirations. Crucially, COBHRAs must be led by impacted communities.

COBHRAs carry the potential to completely change the nature of the dialogue between companies and communities affected by their operations, allowing communities to engage in solving human rights threats by working with those powerful actors on a more equal footing.

Oxfam is working with its network of communities, practitioners, and advocates to increase awareness and use of Getting it Right, a powerful tool to conduct COBHRAs. Initially created by the Canadian organization Rights & Democracy, the Getting it Right tool is a dynamic participatory approach for analyzing the human rights impacts of private and public foreign investments. The tool starts with educating communities about their rights and translating the language of needs into the language of human rights. It enables communities and the organizations that support them to identify human rights impacts, propose responses, and engage government and corporate actors to take action to respect human rights. The tool focuses on local communities as experts and advocates. Getting it Right puts an incredibly powerful tool in the hands of communities.

A powerful tool gets better

After more than ten years of experience using the Getting it Right tool, Oxfam launched a revamped version of the tool, incorporating a thorough gender-based analysis. For too long, mega development projects have disproportionally impacted women, girls, and gender-diverse people. In the spirit of shifting power, the new tool incorporates the perspectives of people not traditionally represented in decision-making forums – and incorporates their solutions for getting it right.

At the global level, Oxfam seeks to build a network of knowledgeable organizations that want to challenge the inequality of corporate power and support communities on the frontlines of mega development projects.

The challenge now is putting this tool into their hands.

Oxfam and COBHRA

  • To increase awareness and use of the COBHRA tool, Oxfam developed, in collaboration with the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), a training manual. The manual provides useful information for backbone organizations in their support role with community-based organizations. This training is designed to be replicated so that backbone organizations can train other organizations and thus increase interest among community-based HRIAs. Training manual (English) (French) (Spanish)

Oxfam and other NGOs, community-based organizations, and communities have used Getting it Right in more than 20 cases.


East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP), Tanzania and Uganda

  • Empty Promises Down the Line highlights the social, environmental, cultural, and human rights risks of the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) for communities located along the proposed pipeline corridor in Uganda and Tanzania. Co-researched and produced by Global Rights Alert (GRA), Civic Response on Environment and Development (CRED), Northern Coalition for Extractives and Environment (NCEE), and Oxfam, it identifies and documents the actual and potential human rights implications of this major infrastructure project and makes recommendations to the governments and the companies to mitigate the adverse impacts, and to increase the positive impacts of this project and advocate for inclusiveness, transparency and accountability.

Pascua Lama and El Morro, Chile

  • El Observatorio Ciudadano - The HRIA focuses on the impacts of two large scale mining projects on the rights of the Diaguita Agricultural Community of Los Huascoaltinos (CADHA). The first project, Pascua Lama, involving Barrick Gold, is a binational mining project of Chile and Argentina. El Morro involves Goldcorp and New Gold. Both projects seriously affect the hydrological system of Diaguita’s territory and could endanger the economic, social and cultural rights of the community. The HRIA carried out is consistent with the work done so far by El Observatorio Ciudadano, which advocates for indigenous rights in the territory.

Usina Trapiche, Brazil

  • Comissão Pastoral da Terra – Regional Nordeste II (CPT NE 2), Brazil: The project seeks to hold one of the largest sugar producers in country, the multinationals that purchase from it, and the Brazilian state, accountable for the adverse social and environmental impacts of its corporate activities in the region Pernambuco, located in the northeast of Brazil. This area of Brazil has a history of human rights violations. The project will research the key impacts and human rights violations suffered by artisanal fishermen and fisherwomen community of River Estuary Sirinhaém. This HRIA came out of Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign research linked to land rights in the sugar sector. Currently Coke and Pepsi are conducting impact assessments of their sugar supply chain in Brazil so this particular case with CPT is a critical one to identify lessons between community-based and company-based HRIA approaches.


Between 2009 and 2011, Oxfam piloted, with partner organizations, an earlier version of the COBHRA tool and contributed, through those experiences, to the refinement of the tool.

  • Migrant and undocumented farmworkers, USA: In partnership, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) and Oxfam used the Getting it Right tool to study the tobacco’s industry’s impact on the human rights of farm workers in the fields of North Carolina. FLOC used the assessment process to complement ongoing campaign efforts to improve working conditions of tobacco pickers for RJ Reynolds suppliers. The process opened up additional dialogue between FLOC and the company.

  • Guarani indigenous communities, Bolivia: From 2007-2008, Oxfam’s partner the Centro de Estudios Aplicados a Derechos Económicos, Sociales y Culturales (CEADESC) supported communities in assessing the impact of a natural gas exploration by Total E&P in five communities on the ancestral territory of Muyupampa Guaraní People in the Luis Calvo province, Chuquisaca Department of Bolivia. The assessment focused on four human rights: the right to free, prior and informed consent, the right to reparations of damages, the right to work and the right to water. The final report made several recommendations to Bolivian state institutions as well as Total E&P. CEADESC conducted a follow up study in early 2015 to understand the continued impacts of the natural gas project on the Muyupampa Guaraní communities.


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