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Human rights defenders

Defending the environment: an increasingly deadly preoccupation

04 June 2014


The UN Independent Expert on Human Rights and the Environment, John Knox, the United Nations Environment Programme and the UN Human Rights Office have joined forces to develop a more systematic approach to safeguarding the rights of environmental defenders.

Through a series of regional discussions, local environmental activists and non-governmental organizations are being asked to identify the dangers faced by activists and to articulate the best ways of protecting themselves and others from the risks inherent in their campaigning.

Their collaboration comes as human rights defenders challenging governments, corporations, and developers on environmental grounds are more at risk than ever. 

Addressing a consultation in Bangkok, Thailand, Knox said, as the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders has noted, that campaigners working on land rights and development of natural resources are the second-largest group of defenders at risk of being killed and that their situation appears to have worsened in the last few years.

The harassment, intimidation and assaults on environmental defenders are often committed in the context of disputes over extractive, construction, and other development projects. Those responsible for the abuses may be from the Government, but are just as likely to be transnational companies, paramilitary groups, and private security guards, he said. 

The non-governmental organization Global Witness estimates that over the past decade, more than 900 people have died defending environmental and land rights.  In 2012 alone, Global Witness says 147 defenders were murdered which is more than those murdered in the previous ten years.

Describing those numbers as “unacceptably high”, Knox says, nonetheless, they “almost certainly understate the scale of the problem especially given that these contentious projects are frequently located in remote areas and the deaths and disappearances are not widely reported.

Delegates heard that despite the upward trend in murder of environmental defenders in recent years, very few of the cases are investigated and even where investigated less than one percent have led to convictions.

Participants at the Bangkok meeting agreed that the remote locations of many of the contested projects have hampered efforts to track and support environmental defenders.  The situation is exacerbated, they said, because many of the deals with private companies are negotiated in secret but with the knowledge and support of the authorities.

Several speakers observed that environmental activists are in danger as soon as they acquire a public profile.  They agreed that these activists are in need of special training, to alert them of potential dangers and educate them on how best to protect themselves, for example, by using a mobile phone to regularly check in with supporters. It was suggested they should be placed under the protection of international organizations with the resources to monitor their whereabouts and well-being.

There was universal agreement that donors, governments, regional and international bodies, including the United Nations, all need to take a more proactive role in the promotion of a human rights approach to the environment which includes protection of defenders. 

The Independent Expert drew attention to the historic resolution on human rights and the environment passed by the Human Rights Council at its March 2014 session.  The resolution explicitly states that international human rights law not only obliges states to protect the environment, but also to be open and participatory in their decision-making and to offer remedies to those whose rights and freedoms are violated in the context of environmental protection.

Protection of the environment and those who campaign on its behalf has become an area of focus for the Human Rights Council relatively recently. Knox, the first holder  of the mandate of the Independent Expert on Human Rights and the Environment, has been in the position since July 2012.

4 June 2014