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Statement of United Nations Special Rapporteur John H. Knox on the conclusion of his mission to Madagascar

31 October 2016


31 October 2016

Today, I concluded my mission to Madagascar, which began on 25 October.  During my visit, I met with a wide range of people, including government ministers and officials, civil society organizations, academics, agencies of the United Nations, and the newly established National Human Rights Commission.  I participated in meetings in Antanananivo, Moramanga, and Andasibe, and I visited the Andasibe Mantadia National Park.   

I would like to thank the Government for its invitation, and for the warmth and openness of everyone I met on this visit. 

My mandate was established in March 2012, when the United Nations Human Rights Council decided to appoint its first Independent Expert on the human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.  In March 2015, the Council renewed the mandate for another three years and changed the title to Special Rapporteur.  As the Special Rapporteur, I have been asked by the Council to study the relationship between human rights and the environment, and to promote the implementation of human rights obligations relating to the environment. 

Human rights and environmental protection are interdependent.  Environmental degradation undermines the ability to enjoy a wide range of human rights, including rights to life, health, food, and water, which depend on a healthy and sustainable environment.   

One of the leading global examples of this effect is climate change, which threatens the enjoyment of a vast range of human rights around the world.  Madagascar, unfortunately, is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change.  Its low-lying coastal regions are susceptible to rising seas, and the intensity of extreme weather events such as cyclones is likely to increase.  Most immediately, southern Madagascar is currently experiencing a severe, life-threatening drought attributed to the El Niño effect and exacerbated by global warming. 

Last week, UN agencies announced that nearly 850,000 people in southern Madagascar are acutely food insecure. To assist them, the World Food Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and UNICEF are expanding their commitments and resources as quickly as possible.  To avoid a catastrophe, they need more than $115 million in additional funding.  I urge donors as a matter of extreme urgency to respond to their call for help.

More generally, countries around the world should quickly begin to take steps to implement the Paris Agreement on climate change, which will enter into force this Friday, 4 November.  Major emitters of greenhouse gases must not delay in implementing and strengthening their commitments to reduce their emissions, and developed countries must carry out their commitment to provide assistance to vulnerable countries such as Madagascar, so that they can adopt effective measures to adapt to the unavoidable effects of climate change.      

At the same time that the full enjoyment of human rights depends upon a healthy environment, the exercise of human rights helps to ensure the protection of the environment.  For example, under international human rights law, everyone has the right to information about environmental matters, the right to participate in environmental decision-making, the rights of freedom of expression and association on environmental matters, and the right to access to effective remedies for environmental harm.  The free and full exercise of these rights enables people to ensure that environmental policy is fair and effective.    

Unfortunately, in much of the world today, it is increasingly dangerous to be an environmental human rights defender – that is, someone who speaks out to defend human rights related to the enjoyment of a healthy environment.  Environmental defenders are often harassed, sued, subjected to violence, and even murdered.  Governments have obligations to protect environmental defenders from such threats, to ensure that they can participate fully and without fear in the environmental decision-making process. 

While Madagascar is fortunately not among the countries that have been identified as suffering the murder of an environmental defender, I did hear concerns from environmentalists during my visit about threats that they have received, and I was provided examples of suits brought against Clovis Razafimalala, coordinator of the Lampogno coalition, who is currently imprisoned,  and Armand Marozafy, who was imprisoned last year for four months, after trying to bring attention to illegal rosewood trafficking. 

Without attempting to judge the facts of any particular case, I must underscore again that individuals have the right to freedom of expression, including when they are bringing attention to alleged environmental wrongs, and they should never be harassed or punished for the exercise of that right.  On the contrary, the authorities have an obligation to encourage and protect those who seek to protect the environment on which we all depend. 

Many of my interlocutors during this visit emphasized that illegal trafficking in rosewood and other precious woods, as well as in endangered species, became much more prevalent in Madagascar as a result of the political transition period.  As many people, including Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, have pointed out, illegal trafficking strikes at the heart of Madagascar’s invaluable natural resources, depriving present and future generations of their heritage. It endangers the security of national park and other officials who work to prevent such illegal activity, as well as the safety of those who speak against it.   

Illegal trafficking is also corrosive of good governance, because illegal traffickers use their proceeds to contribute to corruption, which I heard repeatedly has been a major threat to Madagascar’s economic and environmental well-being.  With respect to environmental protection in particular, corruption undermines all efforts to conserve the natural environment and to ensure that natural resources are sustainably used.   

I welcome the assurances I received from the Government of Madagascar that it has committed to concrete steps to address corruption, including by strengthening the judicial system.  These will be steps in the right direction, but it is critical that the steps are taken quickly and effectively, in order to restore complete trust in the judicial and other institutions that safeguard the human rights of the people and protect the environment. 

I also encourage the Government to work with environmental organizations on the problem of illegal trafficking. In this regard, a noteworthy development is the project ALARM (Application de la Loi contre les Abus dur les Ressources naturelles de Madagascar) which is focusing on illegal trade in the radiated tortoise, a critically endangered species. Alliance Voahary Gasy (AVG), a network of Malagasy environmental organizations, informed me that since August 2016, it has contributed to the arrest of nine traffickers with 428 radiated tortoises, worth more than one-half million dollars. Such good practices in cooperation between the authorities and civil society should be continued, replicated and strengthened.

Human rights are also important to the protection and sustainable use of mineral resources.  To ensure that human rights and the environment are respected, mining permits should be issued only after a full assessment of environmental and social impacts is completed, all relevant information is provided publicly, and local communities are consulted for their views on the proposed operation.  When done correctly, this process can and should result in benefits not only for the country as a whole, but also for the local communities directly affected by the mining.  In Moramanga, I visited a training center operated by Ambatovy that provides a concrete example of such benefits. 

However, when these steps are not followed correctly, as it appears that they were often not followed during the transition period, it becomes much more likely that there will be difficult and long-lasting conflicts with local communities.  During my visit, I heard of such conflicts, and I met with members of the VONA Fitiavan-Tanindrazana organization in the Soamahamanina area.  They shared their concerns over the mine, and in particular the recent arrest of five people (Pierre Robson, Tsihoarana Andrianony, Fenohasina Andriaendrikiniarivo, Tona Guillaume Andriarajoniana and Augustin Ranaivoarivelo) who engaged in protests against the mine.  I raised these concerns with the Government, and I reminded it that people have the right to engage in peaceful protests.  I concur with the National Commission on Human Rights, which called the Government to apply the principle of presumption of innocence, proceed with the case without delay and respect the rights of detainees. Without attempting to judge the conflict, I urge the Government and all those involved to resolve the dispute peacefully, as quickly as possible, and to avoid any measures that could escalate the conflict. 

Conflicts over mining are very common around the world, and a common theme is that they can easily escalate in ways that serve no one’s interest.  I suggested to the Government that it consider the institution of a standing mediation/conciliation commission with the authority to hear grievances of local communities about mines and to work to resolve those grievances peacefully and expeditiously. 

Such an institution could be established as part of the revisions to the Mining Code.  I appreciate the open discussion with the Government over issues in the current Mining Code, and its commitment to proceed with an inclusive process of proposing and considering revisions that will help to ensure that mining in Madagascar protects the environment at the same time that it benefits all of the people of Madagascar, including those communities that are most directly affected by the mining operations. 

My statement cannot be complete without mentioning the relationship of human rights to the biological diversity of Madagascar, one of the great wonders of the world.  I would like to express my gratitude to the mayor and people of Andasibe for welcoming me to their community and guiding me through their community park, where they protect lemurs and many other endangered species.  I will never forget seeing the indri there and hearing their songs, whose beauty was matched by the songs of the young people who welcomed us to their community.  I was very impressed by the commitment of the community to protecting the forest and all of its inhabitants. 

Communities like Andasibe, which are protecting Madagascar’s living riches, are providing a real service to everyone in the world. It is only appropriate, then, that the international community supports their efforts.  The local community association (VOI MMA) that I visited had received a small grant from the Global Environment Facility, through the UN Development Programme, which assisted it to set up a program that includes reseeding the forest, clearing invasive species, providing environmental education, conducting ecotourism, and monitoring the habitat.  I can testify that the money has been well spent!  Still, more can and should be done to support such communities, including by providing them more diverse and certain sources of revenue.  In this respect, I applaud the announcement by IUCN two days ago, ahead of World Lemur Day on 30 October, that it would implement a new Lemur Conservation Strategy, which will provide grants to civil society organisations for the implementation of lemur conservation actions over the next six years, starting from January 2017. 

Despite serious challenges, Madagascar has long been a pioneer in exploring and implementing ways for local communities to participate in the management of, and to receive benefits from, protected areas. Its experience so far provides valuable lessons for other countries in similar situations.  

I intend to address these and other issues in a report to the Human Rights Council, which I will prepare in the coming months and present to the Council in March 2017. 

I wish to close by offering my thanks again to everyone who shared their views with me during this visit and by sending my best wishes to the Malagasy people as they continue to work to protect human rights and the environment.