Interview with Marti Flacks, Deputy Director & Head of North America Office of Business and Human rights Resource Centre


The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre has launched various projects about the impact of renewable energy on human rights. Why has the organisation decided to work on this topic?

Climate change is one of the greatest human rights challenges of our time.  It has enormous consequences for the rights to life, health, housing, and food, and will cause widespread displacement.  Climate change has a disproportionate impact on certain populations, especially poor and marginalised groups such as women and indigenous peoples.

The expansion of the renewable energy sector is central to addressing the climate crisis and ensuring sustainable energy access for all. A fast transition to a low carbon economy is also a human rights imperative, as it will help expand access to electricity (and therefore to health and education) while helping to reduce emissions, pollution, and displacement. But as we witness the growth of a new energy industry, this is a key moment to ensure that the vital transition to a low-carbon economy is both fast and fair.

Sadly, the renewable energy sector is increasingly associated with serious human rights abuse. Since 2010, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has identified more than 150 allegations of human rights abuses related to renewable energy projects globally, involving more than 100 companies. Allegations include harm to communities’ lives and livelihoods; killings, threats, and intimidation; land grabs; dangerous working conditions; and poverty wages. The supply chains used to develop renewable energy technology also require minerals which are sometimes sourced under abusive conditions.

We seek to bring transparency and accountability to this vital sector, and to create tools and provide resources to those who are advocating for human rights within it, in order to help address the fundamental imbalance of power that exists between companies and the people whose lives they impact. Business has an essential role to play in mitigating climate change, both by addressing their climate footprint and by supporting a rights-respecting transition. But communities often lack access to information, or the capacity or expertise to effectively identify and engage with companies or governments on the potential negative impacts of new projects, or advocate for opportunities to equitably benefit from projects. If more companies do not act to prevent, mitigate, and remedy these harms, they risk jeopardizing the social license to operate for the entire renewables sector, which imperils our collective global goal of transitioning away from fossil fuels. We believe it is imperative that indigenous and affected communities, civil society, and investors be empowered to hold renewable energy companies accountable for their human rights impacts, so that we can push towards our collective goal of an environment that is safe and sustainable for future generations.

Can you describe the main projects that Business and HR Resource Centre has launched or has taken part in the field of renewable energy and human rights, as well as those, which are under way? (we are particularly interested in the Transition Minerals Tracker, if you can describe it more thoroughly, it will be great)

We are working to raise awareness about the human rights risks in the sector in three areas – the human rights risks related to the deployment of renewable energy, including the allegations of abuse I described above; the risks in the supply chains for renewable energy technology, especially from mineral sourcing; and efforts to support a just transition for workers who are displaced by changing industries.

From 2016 to 2018 the Resource Centre surveyed more than 100 renewable energy companies on their approach to human rights. In our first survey of 50 wind and hydropower companies, we found that only five out of 50 companies had a public commitment to respect indigenous peoples’ right to free, prior, and informed consent. And three out of these five companies nevertheless faced allegations that called their implementation of these commitments into question. Our analysis of 59 solar, bioenergy and geothermal companies’ human rights policies and practices found that only five met a set of very basic criteria on human rights. In mid- 2020, we will release a pilot ranking of the human rights policies and practices of 16 of the largest wind and solar companies in the world, to help identify best and worst practice, as well as the leaders and laggards, in this field.

In September 2019, we launched the Transition Minerals Tracker, which identifies the largest producers of six of the most important minerals for renewable energy technology, and analyses their human rights records. Demand for these six minerals – cobalt, copper, lithium, manganese, nickel, and zinc – is expected to grow exponentially due to demand from solar panel and wind turbine manufacturers and electric vehicle companies. We know that the mining sector is one of the highest-risk sectors for human rights abuse, and rapidly-growing demand for minerals increases this risk by encouraging companies to move to new regions and to develop mines as quickly as possible. Our Tracker seeks to improve the human rights practices of companies that produce these minerals by shedding light on the key human rights risks in the places where they operate, and the human rights policies and practices of the most important companies in this sector.

Users of the Tracker can therefore:

  1. Understand who the biggest producers of six key minerals needed for the low-carbon transition are, and where they operate;
  2. Explore the key human rights risks related to mining of these particular minerals, including key reports by partner organizations shedding light on abuses;
  3. Identify whether these companies have human rights policies in place;
  4. Track hotspots where these companies have had human rights allegations against them, and what those allegations were.

What are the main findings?

Our research found that while the shift to renewable energy is driving significant mineral demand, mining companies’ human rights practices are not keeping pace with this rise in demand. 87% (20/23) of the top global companies mining key minerals for the transition to a low-carbon economy have been linked to human rights abuse allegations since 2010. Meanwhile, 61% of the companies (14/23) have human rights policies in place – revealing a clear need for companies to move from commitments on paper to rigorous and comprehensive human rights due diligence in practice. The issues most often associated with allegations globally were: environmental impacts, access to water, health impacts, indigenous peoples’ rights, tax avoidance and labour rights, including child labour. We give some examples of these allegations and how they impact mineral supply chains in dedicated case studies for solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicles.

We also did a deep dive into the main companies mining these minerals in Southern Africa, and found that less than half of them (46%) have a human rights policy, while more than half (54%) have allegations against them – suggesting a gap in both policy and practice in that region. The Tracker also includes a library of other resources on this topic, in order to highlight the excellent work being done, especially on specific minerals and regions, by partner organizations all over the world.

Based on the results above, what are the general recommendations of the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre regarding renewable energies? What are the most disturbing trends and the most promising solutions?

It is imperative that renewable energy companies, and the investors and financers that support them – both public and private – account for the human rights impacts of their operations and supply chains. Companies should start with human rights policies based on international standards, including robust due diligence to identify and address human rights risks, and ongoing engagement with affected communities and rights-holders, both before and during project development and implementation. This includes a commitment to respecting the rights of indigenous peoples on whose land they may be operating, as well as the rights of workers and affected communities throughout their supply chains, including mineral sourcing and component manufacturing. We also urge companies to collaborate with peers within and across industries, as well as with workers and communities, to rapidly adopt and lift human rights standards across the renewable energy sector, as industry reputations are often defined by their poorest-performing company.

One area of particular concern is the growing number of attacks on activists who oppose or file complaints about renewable energy projects. Since 2015, the Resource Centre has tracked attacks on human rights defenders whose work relates to business activity. For the last three years, the renewable energy sector has been either the third or fourth most dangerous sector for activists to operate in – behind sectors like agribusiness and mining. This disturbing trend requires urgent action by companies to commit to not retaliate against those who oppose their projects, and by investors to question the policies of the companies they invest in on this issue.

The recommendations and tools that you developed are not only aimed at miners and actual producers but also at investors. What are the reactions that you have received from the different actors?

Absolutely – we hope this data and analysis is used not just by companies and for civil society groups who engage with them, but also by the public and private sector investors who are critical to the expansion of the renewable energy industry – as well as other end-user companies like electric vehicle manufacturers. Our Practical Guide for Investors lays out the key human rights questions that an investor should be asking about a new or existing renewable energy project in order to understand the company’s human rights policy and practices.

We have seen significant interest in this topic from companies as well as investors. A number of companies participated in consultations we held last year to develop the methodology for our upcoming renewable energy benchmark, and several investor groups, including the UN-supported Principles for Responsible Investment and the Investor Alliance for Human Rights, sit on the advisory committee for that project. This recent podcast with our project manager Annie Signorelli lays out some of the opportunities for investors to play a role.

Are there any countries, which consider the impact on human rights when they design their renewable energy policies? If yes, how are they ensuring that there is no negative impact?

We have not seen countries adopt human rights policies specifically for the renewable energy industry, however we have begun to see countries take a more proactive stance towards requiring companies to perform human rights due diligence that would also apply to the renewable energy sector. For example, the French Duty of Vigilance Law is applicable to companies of a certain size regardless of their industry; in fact French renewable energy company EDF was among the first companies to receive a formal request to comply with its duty of vigilance obligations. This request, served by indigenous human rights defenders and community representatives from Union Hidalgo, ProDESC and ECCHR, concerned EDF’s wind project in Oaxaca, Mexico and asked the company to explicitly identify and mitigate human rights risks to local communities in its vigilance plan.

We have also seen some public-sector supporters of renewable energy focus on this issue. For example in 2017 the US government’s Power Africa initiative issued a Guide to Community Engagement for Power Projects in Kenya, after one of its projects was cancelled due to community opposition. The independent complaints mechanisms of several multilateral development banks, such as the Inter-American Development Bank, have issued guidelines or statements regarding reprisals against human rights defenders who engage with them. (For a complete list, see our tracker of company and investor statements on human rights defenders.)