HRC51 Side Event | Protecting the Frontline: Good Practices for Supporting Environmental Human Rights Defenders
05 Oct 2022
Venue: Palais des Nations | Room XXV & Online
Organization: Universal Rights Group, United Nations Environment Programme, United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Geneva Environment Network
This Side Event to the Human Rights Council launched the executive summary of the publication “Protecting the frontline: Good practices for supporting environmental human rights defenders” and presented the initiatives promoted by state and non-state actors, intergovernmental organizations, environmental human rights defenders and their networks. The event was organized by the Universal Rights Group, with the support of the United Nations Environment Programme, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Geneva Environment Network.
About this Session
Across the world, environmental human rights defenders (EHRDs) have been catalysing actions to safeguard a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, as recognized in Human Rights Council Resolution 40/11. From the local to the international level, the efforts of EHRDs have contributed to responses to the three interlinked environmental crises afflicting our planet – the loss of biodiversity, pollution, and climate change. Their work has been crucial to the protection and respect of their human rights, including the rights of their communities, and, ultimately, of all people and the planet.
Based on the findings of the consultations convened to collate and compile good practices for supporting environmental human rights defenders, the event was an opportunity to launch the Executive Summary of the publication “Protecting the frontline: Good practices for supporting environmental human rights defenders.”
The event also contributed to efforts by the Geneva Road Map to ensure the effective implementation of the right to act for the protection of the environment and to promote free and safe spaces for information and discussion on environmental matters. Finally, the event also contributed to the implementation of Human Rights Council Resolution 48/13 and General Assembly Resolution 76/300 recognising the human right to a healthy environment.
To be continued.
Welcome and Introduction
H.E. Amb. Tine MØRCH SMITH, Permanent Representative of Norway to the UN in Geneva
The full speech of H.E. Amb. Mørch Smith can be found here.
- Put forward by Norway in 2019, resolution 40/11 was in recognition that EHRDs, including defenders working on land rights and indigenous rights, were among those most exposed to threats, violence, and killings.
- In 2021, according to Front Line Defenders, environmental defenders represented more than half of all the human rights defenders that were killed, and are among the most affected by other types of threats and harassment, including detention and persecution.
- According to Global Witness’ annual report for 2022, over the last decade, more than 1,700 defenders have been killed trying to protect their land and resources: an average of one defender killed approximately every two days over ten years.
- The resolution contributed to increasing the awareness and recognition of this group and made visible the value of the protection mechanisms that exist. Yet, a lot of work remains.
Faced with the triple environmental crisis – climate change, pollution and a collapse of biodiversity – environmental defenders are essential agents of change.
— H.E. Amb. Mørch Smith, Permanent Representative of Norway to the UN in Geneva
- We reiterate again Norway’s full support for EHRDs around the world. We welcome the new report.
- We also welcome the establishment of a special rapporteur under the Aarhus Convention, the UNs first special rapporteur for environmental defenders, and the appointment of Michel Forst.
- We will continue working to strengthen the protection, and to contribute to continued attention to the challenges and threats that EHRDs meet.
H.E. Amb. Shara DUNCAN-VILLALOBOS, Deputy Permanent Representative and Chargée d’affaires of Costa Rica to the UN in Geneva
We welcome and thank UNEP for their upcoming report. Costa Rica stands as champions for the environment, but it was not always the case. Somehow along the way, we understood that a sustainable partnership with nature was the best way to ensure our development. We are proud that we have been able to overturn the deforestation rates we had in the past 25 to 30 years and all the other milestones we have achieved.
Challenges still lie ahead of us and one of them without a doubt is to facilitate the best conditions to guarantee the respect, protection, and full enjoyment of the human rights of environmental human rights defenders everywhere. This issue is pledge number one in our candidacy to become a member of the Human Rights Council starting next year.
Since October 2021, the world has a new tool to strengthen protection of environmental human rights defenders: the recognition of the human right to a clean healthy and sustainable environment by the Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly. We firmly believe that this is not a new right: it has always been there, but we, as an international community, failed to recognize it until last year. This is important because it gives more legitimacy to the work and contributions of environmental human rights defenders.
As the Special Rapporteur on the environment and human rights has mentioned, such writing encompasses at least three procedural or access rights that are of paramount importance to EHRDs: access to environmental information, public participation in environmental decision making and access to justice on environmental matters.
As examples of good practices on access to Justice, Costa Rica has created three relevant institutions:
- Independent Office of the Ombudsperson that may either on its own initiative or upon request investigate complaints of alleged human rights violations and initiate judicial or administrative proceedings to address these including violations to the Constitution;
- Environment Administrative Tribunal, to hear complaints for violations of all laws protecting the environment and natural resources;
- Constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court, which has applied this right to a wide range of cases involving mineral concessions, pesticide, spraying toxic substances and others.
On the implementation of the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, expert and political support of this right is key to protect environmental human rights defenders and let them do their jobs and exercise their rights, including holding us accountable and the freedom to peacefully protest.
To my fellow colleagues from States, we encourage you to incorporate and develop these access rights to a right to a healthy environment into political statements at the Council and all environmental fora including the climate change, ocean and biodiversity conferences and discussions. Make sure you include environmental human rights defenders into conversations.
We reiterate Costa Rica’s willingness to work with all of our partners, to strengthen commitments for the protection and promotion of the rights to it of environmental human rights defenders and to implement safeguards for them to carry out their work and advocacy in peace, free from threats, harassment and unlawful surveillance. In this regard, the secondary prevention good practices from UNEP’s report will be of significant help to our efforts.
Kelly BILLINGSLEY, Deputy Permanent Representative of the United States to the Human Rights Council
The United States is concerned with the narrowing of civic space for the public to participate in state and private sector decisions about the use of natural resources and for dissenting voices to be heard, especially on matters that disproportionately affect the lives and livelihoods of rural and indigenous communities, and other members of groups in marginalized and vulnerable situations.
As climate change and environmental degradation become more evident, we are seeing an increase in threats and violent attacks against environmental defenders. Individuals who peacefully exercise their human rights to protect their communities from negative environmental impacts are the most vulnerable to harassment, arbitrary surveillance, detention, intimidation and even death. Governments should take seriously any threats of violence against them.
Last year, the US released its revitalized guidelines for US Diplomatic Mission support to civil society and human rights defenders. These guidelines underscore the commitment to enable civil society and to protect and promote fundamental freedoms and the role of human rights defenders around the world.
In July, the US joined 160 UN member states on a resolution on the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, both in recognition of the importance of development of such a right under international human rights law in the future and to support environmental defenders.
The US believes the most effective way for governments to foster a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is to adopt and enforce concrete domestic laws and regulations that protect the environment. These laws and regulations should also provide access to information, allow for public participation in decision making, avoid practices that disproportionately affect already vulnerable and marginalized populations and provide access to Justice and environmental matters.
The United States looks forward to working with governments and civil Society to preserve and expand the space for environmental defenders and human rights defenders to act without fear of attack or reprisals: Their voices benefit all of us.
A call for solidarity: why and how to support environmental defenders
Therese ARNESEN, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
Every day, environmental human rights defenders are working tirelessly to protect our planet for future and current generations. They do so at great personal costs. They’re frequently subjected to attacks, threats, and retaliation in their work. States have a legal obligation to protect them from these threats, while businesses also have a responsibility to ensure that their conduct does not have adverse human rights impact (and that includes on environmental defenders).
The Council’s resolution 40/11, and the recognition of the right to a healthy environment adds to the toolbox that the UN system has to assist States to better uphold the rights of environmental human rights defenders. Under the Secretary General’s Call to Action for Human Rights, the UN system has been tasked with supporting States to better protect EHRDs and to develop specific guidance for UN coordinators and UN country teams to do so. The UN human rights office developed this guidance jointly with UNEP, other UN entities and with support of the URG.
With the triple planetary crisis hitting and worsening by the day, environmental human rights defenders stand between us and future catastrophe. The Guidance Note on the Protection and Promotion of Civic Space (2020) outlines some principles that are also at the basis of our guidance for the UN system. There are three important principles:
- Empowering defenders to meaningfully participate in decision making;
- Contributing to their protection; and
- Promoting a safe and enabling civic space.
Based on these, some of the specific actions that we highlight in our guidance include promoting access to information (on environmental matter specifically), increasing knowledge about how to engage with the UN system and its mechanisms, working with governments, parliaments, NHRIs, and national authorities to promote laws, policies and projects that relate to human rights and environment, alongside international laws and policies.
It is important as well to contribute
- to positive narrative about defenders to really counter this anti-development labelling they’re often met with,
- to support defenders and communities, to prevent and respond to attacks (with a specific eye to include actions tailored for the needs and risks of women defenders),
- to work with States to strengthen justice remedy and accountability mechanisms (including helping defenders overcome barriers to access justice).
- To support of the creation of remedy mechanisms and to engage with businesses to enhance protection of defenders, in terms of supporting private sector engagements
- To ensure the free prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples in relation to projects that may impact their rights.
At the UN Human Rights office, we’re already working to support environmental human rights defenders around the world. For example, in Canaan, Mexico, we have been implementing a project to both protect and promote the right to health environment and to support the vendors specifically. We look forward to continuing this work with you all.
Voices from the ground: support that works
Mitzi JONELLE TAN, Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines (YACAP) and organizer with Fridays for Future International and Fridays for Future Most Affected Peoples and Areas
I am a climate justice activist from the Philippines, which is one of the most dangerous countries in the world in the world for environmental defenders in 2021, according to the Global Witness Report. In the past 10 years, 270 documented cases of killings have happened in the Philippines, making us the third most dangerous in the past 10 years, and the most dangerous in Asia.
We’re seeing that more and more environmental defenders and young climate activists are being targeted and called terrorists, not just in countries in the Global South but it’s also starting to happen in countries in the Global North as well, where more and more laws are restricting people’s movement. Therefore, we need to come together even more to make sure that we support our environmental & human rights defenders.
A healthy environment is a human right, but we’re not yet seeing the connections between the climate crisis and the human security: there is no official text in the UN Climate Summit that calls the climate crisis a human security issue. It’s always just about the environmental impact.
It is important to talk about loss and damages, but it doesn’t talk about how loss and damages include the security of people. What happens when a drought causes famine, which causes war, which causes migration… are these still considered climate impacts?
We have to ensure that when we’re supporting environment and human rights defenders, it is holistic: supporting them with financially, amplifying their voices in communications and campaigns, and creating laws and policies that ensure people are protected when they’re protecting the environment.
In the Philippines, for example, we don’t have anything that protects our environmental defenders. We don’t have any policies that ensure the safety of our people. Instead, we have policies like the Anti-Terror Law that makes the definition of terrorism so vague, colleagues of climate change could be considered as terrorists.
What we have to remember is that we are in a triple planetary emergency. Common sense would have made us listen more to environmental defenders and activists, yet across the world people are dying. Last February, a friend of mine, Chad Booc, was killed by the government, by the military because he was called a terrorist. But he was only a volunteer teacher for the indigenous schools and an environmental defender. He was one of the reasons why I became a full-time activist in the first place because he encouraged me. These are the people that we should be protecting but these are the people that were letting down.
Alfred BROWNELL, Green Advocates
On the nature of the threats and the nature of the perpetrators, it is very clear who the perpetrators are. Most of the times, the defenders or those who are at the front line don’t have voices. In West Africa, we try to give them the floor. With support from the Open Society Foundation, from the law school and other organizations, we launched a baseline assessment to look at the situation of frontline defenders.
Many times, when discussing the situation of defenders, we often talk to experts. However, we believe that we should rather listen to those who are at the front line, responding to the climate crisis, upholding democracy. They should be the expert and we should be able to document their experiences.
We decided to launch that baseline assessment report which allow us to develop several tools. One of the tools is called community protection protocol, which documents some of the good practices discussed here. It takes into account risks faced by the defenders and provides an overview of the current available remedies based on their experiences, their knowledge, skills, expertise, rituals, spiritual, cultural and strategies. It’s also used by them to protect their communities, the natural resources, their history, religion… Some are originally designated by them, other came up from engagement with NGOs and other service providers we found at different levels.
There are defenders at the front line, in remote communities, who are so-called the nameless. Those who you never see are in the towns and villages where there’s no internet or even cell phone. We talk to them to build a documented experience and figure out how to contribute towards the three key components based on the community protection protocol. The defenders are involved on their own in self-training and capacity building so there’s a component of the protection protocol that has these. Sometimes people underestimate the capacity for strategic visioning. People often believe that defenders are powerless, but these folks can engage with a strategic visionary aspect.
The defenders and communities work together for collaborative advocacy efforts and solutions. They use peaceful methods. They start by knowing and following the laws and documenting. They use strategies such as public awareness campaigns, exercise meetings to engage government, and get opportunities to advocate for the community to mitigate. We also were involved in documenting that the ensure unity in community, through peer-to-peer training process, build consensus among community members, among others.
We found out in assessments that we can also use policy analysis, since those who are in front of these defenders are for the majority illiterate and uneducated. They were shocked to find out that policy and laws were used as a weapon to engage and hold the government. The objective now is for these defenders at the front line to bring cases to court at the national and regional level.
Key aspects to consider when offering support to environmental defenders
Andrew ANDERSON, Executive Director, Front Line Defenders
Together with our partners in the Human Rights Defender Memorial Project, we documented 358 human rights defenders who were killed in 2021, of whom 59 were environment and indigenous people’s rights defenders. The level of violence facing EHRDs is incredibly high, and criminalization is the most common violation facing them.
The timely report has many practical recommendations with a focus on intersecting patterns of exclusion, discrimination, and marginalization, exacerbating risks and limits access to protection for many of them, and on how gender and ethnicity are key factors in that.
Corruption is a key driver of this repressive action. It often leads police or other security to be tools of repression often corrupted at the local level. It sometimes also happens at the national level. Corruption often ensures hostile media and defamation, and bolsters impunity for perpetrators and undermines access to justice for environmental defenders. Effective action against corruption is a necessary element of effective protection.
The most important element of protection comes from local communities. The importance of collective protection. Environmental defenders are nearly always engaged in collective struggles to protect the environment, and it’s important to build on those community efforts to strengthen collective protection.
Presence on the ground is part of the strategy environmental defenders are implementing. As part of their struggle, it’s important to understand that when looking at how to be most effective in supporting protection, there is a need to focus on building and sustaining community support, something which is often targeted by the perpetrators and the powerful.
There were really good references to good practices (such as capacity building, funding accompaniment, collaboration, information sharing, online tools, standard setting, lobbying, visibility, awareness raising, advocacy, technical and legal assistance, campaigning, among others) and important components of how we can more effectively support human rights defenders.
The report also focuses on the challenge of enforcement as being equally, if not more important, than setting new standards and laws whether that’s at the international or the local level.
The report also talked about the implementation of strong human rights and environmental protection standards is just as important as developing such standards in the first place. Stakeholders have created mechanisms that range from specialized governmental bodies such as human rights and environmental prosecutors or courts, and the international monitoring mechanisms. The creation of such prosecutors and ombudspersons is an example of good practice. This is something that’s important to stress in terms of how we can actually make a difference to those who are working on the ground.
Another important part of that is building public and community support and supporting environmental defenders to do that. It’s about building a practice of exercising rights. Freedom of association, expression, the ability to protest are not just something that we need to ensure are well respected in law, but are something we need to do: to challenge, to mobilize people, to involve people in that we need to document and expose the policing of protests. We need to campaign and hold accountable those who abuse those engaged in protests.
Accountability for businesses is just as important. The extractive industries and large mega-projects are often key drivers of negative impacts on the environment and negative impacts on environmental defenders. We strongly believe that compulsory environmental and human rights due diligence whether that comes through an EU directive or other national or international efforts as an important part of strengthening the protection for the environment and strengthening the protection of environmental human rights defenders.
The report also highlighted the need to focus on reprisals. This is particularly important that defenders who raise issues with the UN receive enhanced protection.
I also welcome the role of the SR on EHRDs (Michel Forst) and hope that his new mandate will add to the tools that environmental defenders can call upon to strengthen their protection. I thought it was important what Therese said at the beginning about country teams and we’re very keen to see OHCHR strengthen its capacity to support rights defenders on the ground.
We are now hearing in many countries talk of green transition, which is not mitigating the risk for defenders. Mining activities to provide supplies for that transition still prevents very negative impacts for communities across many countries. Threats come from very powerful political and economic interests. It’s important that we build better laws and strengthen protection mechanisms, but we need to understand the nature of the threat that we face. It’s not about a law that’s not quite perfect, it’s about powerful interests that have no respect for the environment or for human rights and we need to build the support of those struggling to challenge those powerful interests and hold them more to account.
Solidarity, listening to environmental human rights defenders, lifting their voices, making sure that we are supporting them in whatever way we can. It is crucial both to ensure their continued effective activism and to make a better impact, in terms of the situation, in terms of the climate catastrophe that we’re facing.
Launch of the report and microsite ‘Supporting the defenders of the planet: Good practices to support environmental human rights defenders across the world’
Marc LIMON, Executive Director, Universal Rights Group
We’re pleased today to present the report and the microsite, developed with UNEP working with Mariana of URG, based in Colombia.
We organized a meeting at the Environment House with UNEP seven or eight years ago, where we wanted to bring together people who were working at the interface of human rights and the environment. We wanted to talk to people who were asserting their human rights to protect the environment and the climate, and whose rights were being undermined by environmental degradation. We brought together a group of people from Africa and Eastern Europe. These include the Greenpeace activists who were on a boat outside Russian waters, where Russian paratroopers came in and arrested them. I was amazed at how important the work of these people was and how inspiring their stories were, but also how much at risk they were in.
At the end of that meeting, we posed a simple question to them: “What help do you need?” They weren’t really recognized as a group and weren’t understood in terms of their vulnerabilities. As they often live away from major population centres, we didn’t understand the situation and the help they needed. It was from that meeting when they said, “We need to be put in touch with support networks. We need to hear stories from other environmental defenders so we know we’re not alone. We need access (and learn how to gain access) to the UN Human Rights protection mechanisms.” We took all of those requests and we created environmentrights.org with UNEP and others, which provides all these resources.
Today, it’s really impressive how much support there is for environmental defenders around the world. It has mushroomed over the past years, which explains the basis of this project: map all of the good practices when it comes to providing support to environmental defenders, both so that good practice can be replicated, and to continue these inspirational stories, to show people what works, and to highlight to the world the incredible work that’s being done by environmental defenders to protect their environment and the climate.
The report is based on three regional consultations: in Africa, Asia Pacific, and Latin America with both environmental defenders themselves and support organizations. There was a global consultation, a global survey, and focus group meetings, in addition to desk research. We identified a huge number of good practices and tried to analyse and break down these good practices so that it presents a to-do list for those groups that wish to support environmental defenders, whether it’s donor, States, NGOs, national human rights commissions, or legal groups.
The report acknowledges that there’s no one-size-fits-all and finds other common traits. It’s imperative to involve environmental defenders themselves in the design of support strategies, and we identified three main clusters of support strategies.
- Primary or upstream prevention: working on ensuring that the legislative, regulatory environment, and the rule of law environment of the national protection systems are all in place so that the work of environmental defenders is protected. As such, they are empowered in a legislative sense if a country has recognized the right to clean, healthy and sustainable environment, one that is conducive to the work of environmental defenders.
- Secondary or downstream prevention: addressing the immediate situation of environmental defenders empowering them. Examples are capacity building, building their resilience, facilitating access to tangible and intangible resources, such as professional and technical skills, political capacity, financial resources, and collective strength. This is so that they’re aware and can respond to the threats that they face. We found lots of good examples of support systems designed for early warning, and to address the immediate threats faced by environmental defenders.
- Tertiary or securing access to justice and reparation: legal support to environmental defenders to make sure they can access remedy and redress, taking steps to strengthen accountability where the rights of environmental defenders have been violated, including in the context of corruption.
The report and the microsite present all 250 good practices. I encourage everybody to look at this as the first of its kind. The stories are incredibly inspiring and the work of the groups that support them are too. The site is divided into two parts: a search engine divided by four categories of good practice, implementing actor, group in focus, and location, and the global map.
*Moderated by Soo-Young HWANG, UNEP
Highlights & Quotes
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Join us to discuss how to better protect #environmental #HRDs, people whose work is crucial to the protection of our planet. The event will launch the report "Protecting the frontline" and share good practices.
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— GENeva Environment Network (@GENetwork) October 5, 2022
- Executive Summary (Draft)
- Presentations made during the event
- Securing the Firewall and Connecting the Unconnected: Frontline Defenders Across West Africa | Green Advocates International | Liberia, West Africa | June 2021
- United Nations Guidance Note on Protection and Promotion of Civic Space | 2020
- UNEP’s Defender Policy
- Statement delivered by Ambassador Tine Mørch Smith, Permanent Representative of Norway
- Environment @ 51st Session of the UN Human Rights Council
- Geneva Roadmap 40/11 for Environmental Human Rights Defenders
- Environment-rights.org | Universal Rights Group & Alliance for Land, Indigenous and Environmental Defenders