Skip to main content

Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

DHC Statement to COP23 side event : Enough is enough: Stopping the Attacks Against Environmental Defenders

Environmental defenders

15 November 2017

​15 November 2017 from 15.00 – 16.30 in Bonn

Excellencies, friends,

  • Berta Isabel Caceres assassinated in the context of her work to expose the impacts of environmental destruction on and for indigenous people both in Honduras and far beyond.
  • Inspector Manzoor and Constable Mushtaq shot after intercepting bird poachers in Punjab, Pakistan.
  • Ruben Arzaga – environmental officer - shot while arresting suspected illegal loggers the in Philippines.
  • Elías Gamonal Mozombite, one of six farmers, shot dead in a land rights battle reportedly linked to palm oil trade in Peru.
  • Wayne Lotter, a leading elephant conservationist and head of an anti-poaching NGO shot dead in Tanzania.
  • Gukiya Ngbekusa, one of five people killed while investigating illegal gold mining in the vast Okapi wildlife reserve of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

While 2016 was the most perilous ever for people defending their communities’ land, our natural resources and wildlife, this year too - across the world - environmental defenders are being killed at the rate of almost four a week - a fact we cannot deny thanks to important work such as that undertaken by Global Witness in partnership with the Guardian.

Two hundred environmental activists, wildlife rangers and indigenous leaders were killed in 2016 in the course of protecting the environment – more than double the number killed five years ago. And in 2017? 160 more have been killed to date. 

Indeed, since the start of 2015, 132 land and environmental defenders have died in Brazil: the highest number on Earth.

The Philippines comes second on the list, with 75 deaths in all while Honduras remains the most dangerous country in which to be a human rights defender, with more killings per capita than anywhere else.  But the pattern is that environmental protest and defence is being suppressed around the world – in countries rich and poor and the trend is worsening.

Let’s be clear about whom we are talking - regular people - who as workers, community members and professionals are simply doing their job; who as citizens are rightly just asking/ expecting the State to uphold the law and who, as activists, are courageously seeking to protect the environment from harm, including when such harm threatens human rights or results in human rights abuses.

Most environmental human rights defenders, arbitrarily deprived of their right to life, are killed in remote forests and villages - places affected by mining, dams, illegal logging, and agribusiness. Their killers reportedly are often contracted by corporations or state authorities. Very few ever are investigated, identified, charged, let alone prosecuted.

Their victims?  Ordinary people – in communities near and remote.  In many instances, their advocacy is a direct response to existential threats to their livelihoods. People doing that which the Sustainable Development Goals urge us all to do – to work for a more sustainable, prosperous and equitable future people on this planet.


They are NOT criminals.  They are people going about their daily lives who, within the terms provided for by international standards, were using their rights to defend the rights of their communities. 

So, really, honestly, how can it be then that instead of being celebrated for their determined often courageous exercise of their civic duties, instead environmental and indigenous defenders worldwide rank so very high among those defenders of human rights who are most at risk of attack.  

And when they are not killed – and before they are killed – they confront a far higher likelihood that, at the hands of both State and non-State actors, they will be threatened, subjected to intimidation, attacked, assaulted1.  And thousands of such attacks have been perpetrated.

Women environmental human rights defenders confront additionally those pernicious attacks reserved it seems for those who dare to challenge deeply rooted systemic discrimination. They face, in other words, the same threats as do other environmental human rights defenders but also the added threats of gender-specific violence with sexual violence particularly used to silence women human rights defenders.

Global Witness explains that this violence – which is rising - is driven by an intensifying fight for land and natural resources, with poachers, mining, logging, hydro-electric and agricultural companies in an environmentally destructive pursuit of profit riding rough shod over the rights of people whose lives they affect.

The UN Special Rapporteur on extra judicial executions explains that it is privatization of natural resources that is "killing so many people" and this must be challenged.  She urges us "to counter the liberal economic discourse because in the way it's being implemented at national level, it's killing …”. 

The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders has emphasized to the UN General Assembly the importance of protecting defenders fighting for our environmental rights in the face of powerful private interests.

The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, has found “There is now overwhelming incentive to wreck the environment for economic reasons. The people most at risk are people who are already marginalised and excluded from politics and judicial redress, and are dependent on the environment. … There is an epidemic now, a culture of impunity, a sense that anyone can kill environmental defenders without repercussions, eliminate anyone who stands in the way. It [comes from] mining, agribusiness, illegal logging and dam building.”

So, what is clear is that the economics – the “financialization” -  of our relationship to the environment – is driving grave human rights violations including against environmental defenders and it is clear that these crimes remain largely unpunished.  Without concerted action and strong support from governments, this situation is set to worsen. 

Further, the impacts of climate change will only intensify threats to land, water, species and livelihoods. Those impacts will disproportionately impact on those with the least - affecting individuals, families, local communities including indigenous peoples, who live in and rely upon otherwise fragile ecosystems.  Damage to ecosystems – direct or indirect – is damage to their homes, livelihoods and cultural survival.

Adding further to this, is the reality that efforts by States to mitigate or adapt to the impacts of climate change can also negatively impact these very same communities and their spokespeople - threatening their rights not only to development, food, water, land and culture but to freedoms of expression, assembly and association.   And yet it is clearly the responsibility of States - and the international community - to empower, protect and support these communities and their environmental human rights defenders.

States have the obligation to respect the right of everyone to promote and protect a safe and healthy environment.  This means they must protect environmental human rights defenders from violations committed by both State and non-State actors.
States have a duty to ensure that environmental human rights defenders have access to information, meaningful participation in decision-making processes and access to justice, hallmarks of both human rights and environmental law. Indigenous peoples specifically have the right to the conservation and protection of the environment and the productive capacity of their lands or territories and resources. Further, they are entitled to benefit from their knowledge, innovations and practices.”2
In pursuit of their interests, companies and their subcontractors, international development banks, local service providers and private security companies too have human rights obligations as the UN Guiding Principles for business and human rights underscore.

The implementation guidelines for the Paris Agreement must fully implement its explicit recognition that “a country-driven, gender-responsive, participatory and fully transparent approach must be adopted, taking into consideration vulnerable groups, communities and ecosystems, and this should be based on and guided by the best available science and, as appropriate, traditional knowledge, knowledge of indigenous peoples and local knowledge systems, with a view to integrating adaptation into relevant socioeconomic and environmental policies and actions, where appropriate.”

Any decision on the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples’ Knowledge Platform should strengthen the connection of local communities and indigenous peoples with international climate action at the UNFCCC while protecting indigenous peoples’ rights and those of local communities.  The Platform should respect indigenous peoples’ rights to meaningfully participate in climate action that affects them and to maintain, control, protect and develop their traditional knowledge. Actions likely to impact these rights should not be taken without their free, prior and informed consent.  Let me stress - the knowledge wisdom and contribution of environmental defenders, including local communities and indigenous peoples, are critical if we are to achieve sustainable development and effective climate action.

Indeed, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has found that “recognition of diverse interests, circumstances, social-cultural contexts and expectations can benefit decision-making processes”.  It goes on to state that “indigenous, local and traditional knowledge systems and practices, including indigenous peoples’ holistic view of community and environment, are a major resource for adapting to climate change.”

Throughout history, it has been consistently brave truth tellers who have revealed to us that power does not want to see the light of day.  Darkness cannot drive out darkness as Martin Luther King explained - only light can do that.  The cleansing light of public scrutiny based in human rights that environmental human rights defenders are shining in corners of grave darkness is as precious to our freedom as it has ever been.  Suppression of the freedoms of expression, public participation association, information and assembly is an impediment to that light and the enemy of effective climate action. It is not too late but surely overdue for us to change the climate for climate change, to protect and defend the defenders, to uphold our rights to be actors in our destinies and to ensure that power too is accountable for what it does and what it doesn’t.


1. Non-state actors include relevant industry and banks that are benefitting from consignments and contracts towards large development projects such as dams, mining and extractives as well as logging companies and crime and drug trafficking organizations.

2. United Nations General Assembly, “Right to Development – Report of the Secretary-General and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights”, A/HRC/33/31, (26 July 2016), available at:, p. 13.