By Paola Totaro

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - International development banks should ensure their investments do not violate human rights or risk the lives of the activists who defend them, a group of global campaigners said on Thursday.

The Coalition on Human Rights in Development, representing 150 human rights and environment groups including Oxfam, Greenpeace and Bankwatch, signed a petition urging banks and funders to think about risks to people's rights before approving projects.

The petition is directed at international financial institutions including the World Bank and regional banks in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas as well as newer institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the BRICS New Development Bank.

"International Financial Institutions (IFIs) should also ensure that their activities do not cause or contribute to human rights violations, including taking necessary measures to identify and address human rights risks in all of their activities," the petition states.

Major development banks have long touted the importance of public participation for effective development, the organizations said.

However a growing number of national governments have been undermining community participation in development by criminalizing the activities of land and human rights activists and putting restrictions on non-governmental groups.

"Development banks and their member states can't hope to achieve sustainable development or eliminate poverty if their investments are contributing to human rights violations or if those who are meant to benefit from development find themselves subjected to abuse," said Adam Shapiro, spokesman for the human rights group Front Line Defenders.

In March, Berta Caceres, a renowned indigenous land and environment rights defender in Honduras was murdered at her home. Caceres' colleague, Lesbia Urquia, was found dead with wounds to her head last week.

Five people have been arrested in connection with Caceres' murder, including an employee from a company behind a hydroelectric dam project she helped block. The company said it had no connection to the killing.

Human Rights Watch has recently documented what it said were abuses against individuals and communities impacted by projects financed by the World Bank and its arm for corporate loans, the International Finance Corporation.

"Those who try to engage in development processes have suffered threats, harassment, physical assault, or worse," said Jessica Evans of Human Rights Watch in a statement.

"Development banks have a responsibility to ensure that their investments don't interfere with human rights, and that people can participate in or express their opinions about development projects without fearing for their safety."

In a statement, a World Bank spokesman said the bank's new rules to protect people and the environment in its investment projects "enshrine critical human rights principles".

(Reporting by Paola Totaro, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit