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Asia Pacific Environmental Defenders Forum

Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

17 November 2021

Greetings to all of you.

My thanks go to the Asia – Pacific Network for Environment Defenders, and the many other civil society organisations who are jointly leading this event – the first ever forum in the Asia-Pacific region specifically aimed at supporting and empowering environmental human rights defenders. My Office is proud to co-organize it, alongside UNEP, with you.

Across Asia and the Pacific, environmental human rights defenders are doing exemplary work to uphold the universal human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment in the face of the accelerating crises of pollution, climate change, and biodiversity loss.

But many are doing so under significant threats and duress. Asia is the world’s second deadliest region after Latin America for land and environmental defenders. This is simply unacceptable.

Environmental human rights defenders are harassed, harmed and even killed in their work to protect their communities and environment against human rights abuses – whether related to extractive industries, large-scale development projects, intensive, large-scale or monoculture agribusiness practices, and illegal logging and fishing.

Women defenders face specific risks. In the Asia-Pacific region, there has been a growing trend of online and offline attacks against them. Abusive and threatening messages on social media, in explicitly sexual and deeply misogynistic language, are coupled with growing real-life attacks.

Moreover, in this region – which is home to the world’s largest number of indigenous peoples – indigenous lands and territories are under often intense threat, and indigenous human rights defenders continue to be disproportionately persecuted for protecting their human rights. And yet indigenous people's traditional knowledge and heritage are a trove of wisdom that can teach us how to better preserve biodiversity and manage our ecosystems more sustainably. States must act now to protect indigenous peoples from the continual cycles of poverty, violence, evictions and dispossession of lands, and exposure to significant ecological damage, which increasingly put at risk their very existence.

Indeed, decisive changes are urgently needed across this region to safeguard the work and lives of all people who are working to protect the environment, and to investigate and punish those who violate their rights.

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights stipulate that States and corporations are responsible for protecting human rights – and that, where violations have taken place, there must be timely access to justice and effective remedy.

While I welcome the adoption of National Action Plans and strategies on Business and Human Rights by some States in Asia, they often neglect the essential protection element – leading to little or no meaningful change for human rights defenders. In the Pacific, a NAP has yet to be developed; it would be an opportunity to include protection.

My Office is developing guidance for the entire UN system, to ensure we strengthen our support to environmental human rights defenders and our promotion of their right to participate meaningfully in decision-making.

It should be clear that access to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is the fundamental right of every human being. It is vital to every society; every economy; every community – today and tomorrow.

Yet Fiji, New Zealand and the Republic of Korea are the only countries in the Asia - Pacific that have adopted laws requiring the State to lower emissions and address climate change.

Meanwhile, 7 of the top 10 carbon-emitting countries are in Asia. And so are many of those who suffer most from climate change. In the Pacific's atoll nations, the climate crisis undermines the very basis of human dignity, threatening ways of life, livelihoods, and entire territories.

There is no time to lose.

There must be urgent action by States, private sector actors and development finance institutions to move to sustainable energy sources and reduce emissions.

Only through a human rights-based approach to climate action – with the effective and meaningful participation of the individuals and communities most affected – will we be able to effect the changes that can preserve human rights.

So I thank you. All of you, in defending environmental human rights, are working to safeguard humanity.

Thank you for standing up for human rights.