Environmental human rights defenders must be heard and protected


Amnesty International activists gather around 64 crosses in front of the Colombian Embassy in Brussels, Belgium, 22 April 2021. The sixty-four crosses bearing the names of the sixty-four environmental defenders who were murdered in Colombia in 2019 because of their commitment in favor of human rights. © EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ

Environmental human rights defenders face danger and sometimes even death for their tireless work protecting the environment.

In 2020, the non-profit organization Global Witness documented an average of four killings of environmental human rights defenders every week making it the deadliest year recorded by them so far for these brave protectors of the planet. There are most likely many more fatalities that haven't been documented.

"Every day, environmental human rights defenders face abuse, threats and harassment for their work addressing the triple planetary crisis of climate change, pollution and nature loss," said Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, during a high-level panel on environmental human rights defenders.

The virtual event was co-organized by Sweden and UN Human Rights during the 49th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland.

Protection and accountability

The environmental human rights defenders who are most exposed to abuse and reprisals include women, farmers and indigenous peoples who fight against deforestation, extractives, or loss of cultural heritage or identity. People are also threatened and killed for opposing large scale-agribusinesses and development projects, including those meant to produce clean energy, such as mega dams, Bachelet said.

"States have an obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of environmental human rights defenders and the communities they represent," she said. "They must also prevent and ensure accountability for attacks."

Bachelet also mentioned the current situation in Ukraine as human rights defenders there have expressed fear of reprisals during the ongoing military actions.

"Protecting the environment goes hand-in-hand with protecting the rights of those who defend it," Bachelet said. "Their voices must be heard and protected. We must have zero tolerance for killings or threats and attacks against them."

Matilda Ernkrans, Minister for International Development Cooperation of Sweden, stressed that the global transition to renewable energy and a sustainable economy will only be successful if it is fair and leaves no one behind - including environmental human rights defenders.

"Those protecting our land are at threat," she said.

While there are tools in place to help protect defenders, including Human Rights Council resolution 40/11, "Recognizing the contribution of environmental human rights defenders to the enjoyment of human rights, environmental protection and sustainable development," Ernkrans said there needs to be a stronger commitment by States to hold companies and other stakeholders accountable.

A personal fight

Joan Carling, Global Director of Indigenous Peoples Rights International, knows first-hand the dangers of this work – several of her colleagues have been killed for standing up to protect the environment. The non-profit organization works to protect and prevent violence against and the criminalization of indigenous peoples.

"One of the young sons of my colleagues asked me, 'Did my father do something wrong? Why was he killed?" she said. "I wish someone could explain to him why doing the right thing and defending his land is a death warrant."

Carling pushed for immediate action at the local and national levels to provide adequate protection for human rights defenders, especially women, from all forms of violence and to ensure access to justice for all members of social movements.

As global citizens, all stakeholders are responsible to fight climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution and to protect the people working to preserve the environment, according to Rodolfo Solano Quirós, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Costa Rica.

"As a Latin American country, we are committed to safeguard and protect the rights of human rights defenders," he said. "Many people place economic interests over common good. We have the fundamental right to live healthy."

Climate change and human rights

Isobel Coleman, Deputy Administrator for Policy and Programming at USAID, noted that the recent IPCC report on climate change has repeated the warning that the changing environment is threatening every aspect of human rights by displacing people from their homes, forcing migration, and threatening food security.

"We believe human rights defenders work to protect their communities and the ecosystems that provide vital services [for all of us]," she said.

Anabela Lemos is the Director of Justiça Ambiental, a non-profit organization in Mozambique that works directly with people who are impacted by land grabs, dams, and other issues that negatively affect the environment.

"Businesses need to be held accountable and provide reparations for victims," she said. "The work of human rights defenders and indigenous communities are fundamental to the protection of cultural heritage and identity."

Bachelet highlighted some of the progress made by UN Human Rights such as in the Pacific, where her Office trained over 200 human rights defenders on sustainable development, business, and human rights in the context of climate change and in South-East Asia, where the Office is monitoring cases of harassment, arrest, killings, and disappearances of environmental human rights defenders.

"Let us stand together to take immediate action and make the world a safer place for environmental human rights defenders," Bachelet said.

9 March 2022

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