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Dangerous to be business and human rights defender in Southeast Asia

People defending labour, land and environmental rights often experience strong backlash by both State and non-State actors and face high levels of violence and repression, including threats, judicial harassment and killings, as well as smear campaigns. Between 2015 and 2021, BHRRC recorded more than 4,200 attacks on human rights defenders raising concerns about business-related human rights abuses. Asia-Pacific and Latin America have consistently been the two most dangerous regions. Three out of the four most dangerous countries for human rights defenders in Asia-Pacific were located in Southeast Asia: the Philippines, Cambodia and Indonesia.

Human rights defenders in Southeast Asia often experience smear campaigns and “red-tagging”, and are labelled as anti-development, terrorists or communists as a means to discredit their legitimate human rights work. Burdensome administrative requirements and legislation limiting NGO registration and the ability to receive funding from international sources are also challenges for human rights work in the region.

Since Myanmar’s military illegally seized power in February 2021, overthrowing the democractically-elected government, the country has seen a significant deterioration of civic freedoms, including heavy restrictions on freedom of association and increasing repression of human rights defenders. This has included killings and arrests of garment workers and trade union activists who have been on the front line of Myanmar’s Civil Disobedience Movement. Research by Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (the Resource Centre) shows that garment workers and union leaders across South and Southeast Asia continue to face discrimination, threats, violence, false charges and arrests, declining wages and severe restrictions on freedom of association, with factories persistently using COVID-19 as a pretext for these attacks and other attempts to suppress organising efforts and suspend collective bargaining agreements.

Key findings:

● Between January 2015 and October 2022, BHRRC recorded 916 attacks in Southeast Asia.

● The Philippines recorded the highest number of attacks (303), followed by Cambodia (200) and Indonesia (132).

● Attacks against human rights defenders in Southeast Asia relate to almost every sector. The top three most dangerous sectors are all natural resource sectors: mining (230), agribusiness (207), and logging and lumber (89).

70% of attacks in Southeast Asia in 2021 were against climate, land and environmental rights defenders; 27% of attacks were against labour rights activists and trade unionists.

Three in 10 attacks in Southeast Asia were against women.

Three in five attacks were judicial harassment (including arbitrary detention, criminalisation and strategic lawsuits against public participation - SLAPPs), which is the most common type of attack against human rights defenders in Southeast Asia.

Read more details and recommendations in the report.

Database of attacks

The Resource Centre collects data on attacks on defenders that are targeted because they raise concerns about business sectors and operations. Explore the database here.


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