Environmental Human Rights Defenders
Last updated: 14 Feb 2023
Environmental human rights defenders are those who strive to protect and promote human rights relating to the environment. However, evidence suggests that they remain highly vulnerable and under attack across the globe. This update will take a look at the steps taken by the international community in Geneva to protect, promote, and uphold the rights of environmental defenders.
Human rights and the environment are intrinsically intertwined: a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is essential in the enjoyment of our human rights. Governments must protect and promote and businesses must respect environmental rights if we wish to tackle environmental challenges, such as the triple planetary crisis.
Environmental rights are not abstract, remote, irrelevant concepts; they are measurable, prominent and functional aspects of society and its ecology. More than 100 countries incorporate constitutional rights to a healthy environment, yet communities and environmental defenders continue to face the worst consequences. When environmental rights are violated, people and the planet suffer from reduced health and well-being.
Who are environmental human rights defenders?
According to the United Nations, environmental human rights defenders (EHRDs) are “individuals and groups who, in their personal or professional capacity and in a peaceful manner, strive to protect and promote human rights relating to the environment, including water, air, land, flora and fauna.”
Environmental defenders, many of whom are part of or represent indigenous peoples, remain highly vulnerable and under attack across the globe. Evidence suggests that as the climate crisis intensifies, violence against EHRDs also increases, whether through assaults, murders, intimidation, harassment, stigmatization, and criminalization.
In 2021, 200 attacks against environmental defenders were recorded worldwide by the Global Witness, making an average of nearly four killings of environmental human rights defenders every week. Amongst these fatal attacks, 40% target Indigenous people, despite them only making up 5% of the world’s population. During the 46th session of the Human Rights Council in 2021, Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, presented a report showing that among 1,323 human rights defenders killed since 2015, EHRDs are the most targeted (A/HRC/46/35).
As the field of human rights obligations related to a clean, safe, healthy and sustainable environment expands, the need to protect those who protect our environmental rights also becomes more urgent.
The UN has recognized the threats to environmental defenders and called for their protection. UNEP builds on this work to support environmental defenders through its Defenders Policy to promote greater protection for individuals and groups who are defending their environmental rights and identifies solutions to mitigate the abuse of environmental rights which affects a growing number of people in many parts of the world.
- Denounce the attacks, torture, intimidation and murders of environmental defenders;
- Advocate with states and non-state actors, including business, for better protection of environmental rights and the people standing up for these rights;
- Support the responsible management of natural resources;
- Request government and companies’ accountability for the different events where environmental defenders have been affected / murdered.
We have no choice: We have to mobilize the international community to strengthen the defense of environmental defenders.
– Yves Flückiger, Rector, University of Geneva
A wide range of civil society and multilateral efforts are emerging in Geneva. On 21 March 2019, the Human Rights Council adopted Resolution 40/11 recognizing the contribution of environmental human rights defenders and the obligations of States to respect their fundamental rights.
As follow-up, a Geneva Road Map was launched by networks and organizations in 2020 to strengthen the implementation of the resolution. Its preparation included an expert meeting to help articulate and put forward possible steps of action for the research, environmental and human rights communities to feed into human rights processes as well as environmental ones.
Mobilizing International Geneva
On 27 February 2020, an HRC43 side event in Geneva on The Environmental Human Rights Defenders Crisis – Towards a Geneva Road Map explored how to mobilize the international community from both the human rights and the conservation fields to respond to the ongoing crisis and to join forces towards the implementation of Resolution 40/11. It discussed how to strengthen 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.
With the support of Switzerland and Fiji and with the participation of environmental defenders, NGOs and academic institutions, the event aimed to strengthen the dialogue process to help shape key building blocks for the Geneva Road Map aiming at the implementation of Resolution 40/11, to review the progress made, to discuss the needs, different perspectives and how the international community can improve its responses.
This was preceded by a public roundtable on 26 February 2020, on Supporting Environmental Defenders – How Can We Mobilize the International Community?, which combined testimonies from environmental defenders with recent academic analysis and responses from high-level representatives from International Geneva and the Mayor of Geneva. The event was organized in the context of the international conference “Towards a Geneva Road Map: Responding to the Needs of the Environmental Civil Society and Defenders”.
Conservation NGOs at Risk
Halting biodiversity loss is an illusion without securing enabling spaces for conservation NGOs… We need a post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework with space for organizations and individuals who stand up for biodiversity.
– Peter Bille Larsen, University of Geneva
One week before the critical global gathering to hammer out a new global biodiversity agenda in Geneva, a new report, Conservation NGOs at risk: The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and shrinking environmental civic spaces, by the University of Geneva stresses the shrinking civic spaces, deteriorating conditions and attacks faced by conservation NGOs across the world. Based on a global survey and wider consultations with the NGO members of IUCN, the report sheds light on a silent crisis of NGOs struggling with harassment and shrinking spaces and needs urgent attention. The report builds on ongoing work to Geneva Roadmap 40/11 and underlines the importance of enabling environments to secure effective and equitable conservation.
The launch event on 9 March 2022, organized in the run-up towards the CBD meetings in Geneva, presented the key findings by the author followed by hands-on perspectives from multiple NGO expert perspectives from around the world.
Protecting EHRDs in Multilateral Agreements
In response to the growing threats towards environmental defenders, instruments at the global and regional level already exist, and a growing number of States have put national responses mechanisms in place to protect those engaged in protecting our environmental rights.
IUCN Resolution on EHRDs
Members of the IUCN voted to adopt resolution (WCC 2020 Res 115), “Protecting environmental human and peoples’ rights defenders and whistleblowers”, that urges governments to adopt and uphold laws aimed at protecting them. The resolution also encourages the IUCN Director General, in collaboration with State, non-State members, and with EHRDs, to develop an IUCN policy and action plan to protect environmental defenders and whistleblowers.
The Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean, or Escazú Agreement, was adopted in Escazú, Costa Rica, on 4 March 2018, and entered into force on 22 April 2021.
A landmark agreement for the region, the treaty is also the first legally binding instrument to include specific provisions for the protection and promotion of human rights defenders in environmental matters. Under Article 9 “Human rights defenders in environmental matters”, member States must guarantee a safe and enabling environment for environmental defenders, protect and promote their rights including the freedom to participate in activities regarding environmental matters, and take measures to prevent, investigate and punish attacks, threats or intimidations against them.
UNECE Special Rapporteur on Environmental Defenders
At its third extraordinary session in Geneva on 23-24 June 2022, the Meeting of the Parties to the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention) elected by consensus Mr. Michel Forst as the independent Special Rapporteur on environmental defenders. The Special Rapporteur’s role – operational with immediate effect – is to take measures to protect any person experiencing or at imminent threat of penalization, persecution, or harassment for seeking to exercise their rights under the Aarhus Convention.
The Special Rapporteur was elected pursuant to the decision establishing a rapid response mechanism for the protection of environmental defenders adopted its seventh session in Geneva, on 21 October 2021. Advancing practical measures to uphold the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, this is the first such mechanism specifically safeguarding environmental defenders to be established within a legally binding framework either under the United Nations system or other intergovernmental structure.
Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council
Independent human rights experts with mandates to report and advise on human rights from a thematic or country-specific perspective, the following UN Special Rapporteurs have worked on the protection of environmental human rights defenders
Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders
The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, first established by the Human Rights Commission in 2000 and renewed by the Human Rights Council in 2020, aims to promote the effective implementation of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.
Mary Lawlor is the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders since 1 May 2020. As part of her mandate to seek, receive and respond to information on the situation of human rights defenders, including environmental defenders. In her report to HRC46, she stated that among 1,323 human rights defenders killed since 2015, EHRDs are the most targeted (A/HRC/46/35).
Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples
As a significant proportion of environmental human rights defenders are from indigenous communities, the work of the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples allows the independent expert to examine and respond to information on the situation of human rights defenders, to engage with Governments and others on the implementation of the Declaration and to recommend strategies to protect human rights defenders. Created in 2001 by the Human Rights Commission, the Special Rapporteur also regularly draws attention to the threats against indigenous human rights defenders in country visits, reports and statements.
Francisco Cali Tzay was appointed Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples in March 2020 and took up the role on 1 May 2020. In a report by previous mandate holder Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the mandate also emphasized how protected areas and conservation measures to protect biodiversity have also been associated with human rights violations against indigenous peoples in many parts of the world (A/71/229).
Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment
The mandate on human rights and the environment exists to examine the human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. The Special Rapporteur is tasked to identify the challenges and obstacles to the global recognition and implementation of such a right, and to report human rights violations.
David Boyd is the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, whose mandate was extended in March 2021. In his report to the 43rd session of the Human Rights Council, “Right to a healthy environment: good practices” (A/HRC/43/53), the Special Rapporteur emphasized that “a crucial aspect of public participation involves the protection of environmental human rights defenders, who are often harassed, intimidated, criminalized or even murdered.”
Right to a Healthy Environment & EHRDs
The landmark recognition of the right to clean, health, and sustainable environment at the 48th session of the Human Rights Council has also recognized the human rights of environmental human rights defenders, especially within the context of business and corporate activities.
Recalling the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which underscore the responsibility of all business enterprises to respect human rights, including the rights to life, liberty and security of human rights defenders working in environmental matters, referred to as environmental human rights defenders.
— The human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment (A/HRC/RES/48/13)
Role of International Geneva
Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL)
CIEL is committed to strengthening and using international law and institutions to protect the environment, promote human health, and ensure a just and sustainable society.
University of Geneva
Founded in 1559 by Jean Calvin, the University of Geneva (UNIGE) is dedicated to teaching, research and dialogue with society. With more than 17’000 students of some 150 different nationalities, it is Switzerland’s second largest university.
Universal Rights Group
The Universal Rights Group (URG) is a small, independent think tank dedicated to analyzing and strengthening global human rights policy. It is the only such institution in Geneva and the only think tank in the world focused exclusively on human rights.
Geneva Science-Policy Interface
Geneva Science-Policy Interface (GSPI) is a platform that strives to enhance scientific engagement with global governance actors within the Geneva ecosystem.
UNEP Europe Office
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is the leading global environmental authority that sets the global environmental agenda and serves as an authoritative advocate for the global environment.
Amnesty International is a global movement of more than 7 million people who take injustice personally. Amnesty is campaigning for a world where human rights are enjoyed by all.
The Geneva Academy provides postgraduate education, conducts academic legal research and policy studies, and organizes training courses and expert meetings.
Geneva Institute for Human Rights
The Geneva Institute for Human Rights (GIHR) is a nongovernmental, nonprofit organization based in Geneva. Its key objective is to raise awareness and understanding about the importance of human rights.
Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch investigates and reports on abuses happening in all corners of the world and works to protect the most at risk, from vulnerable minorities and civilians in wartime, to refugees and children in need.
UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters | Aarhus Convention
The Aarhus Convention is created to empower the role of citizens and civil society organisations in environmental matters and is founded on the principles of participative democracy.
United Nations Information Portal on Multilateral Environmental Agreements
The InforMEA Initiative brings together Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEA) to develop harmonized and interoperable information systems for the benefit of Parties and the environment community at large.
United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is the leading UN entity on human rights.
International Union for Conservation of Nature
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is an international organization working in the field of nature conservation and sustainable use of natural resources. It is involved in data gathering and analysis, research, field projects, advocacy, and education.
The ICCA Consortium is an international association dedicated to promoting the appropriate recognition of and support to ICCAs (territories and areas conserved by indigenous peoples and local communities) in the regional, national and global arena. This purpose is set in the context of the broader vision of conserving biodiversity and ecological functions; nurturing the sustainable livelihoods and well-being of indigenous peoples and local communities; and achieving the full respect of their cultural diversity and individual and collective rights.
- Advancing Environmental Rights | UNEP
- Environmental Rights Initiative | UNEP
- Promoting Greater Protection for Environmental Defenders Policy | UNEP
- The Geneva Roadmap: supporting environmental human rights defenders | University of Geneva
- The Environmental Defenders Crisis: Towards a Geneva Road Map | Geneva Science-Policy Interface
- At Risk: Understanding Contemporary Environmental Civil Society Challenges | Geneva Science-Policy Interface
- Indigenous Human Rights Defenders | UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues
- Guidance of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights on ensuring respect for human rights defenders | UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights
Articles, Speeches and Reports
- Here’s How We Protect Earth’s Defenders | Mie Hoejris Dahl | Atmos | 4 January 2023
- Threatened environmentalists have a new protector | Michelle Langrand | Geneva Solutions | 15 July 2022
- Conservation is becoming more dangerous: increasing violations and threats | IUCN | 16 March 2022
- Environmental human rights defenders must be heard and protected | OHCHR | 9 March 2022
- The Escazú Agreement, Human Rights and Healthy Ecosystems Dialogue Series | UNDP | 2022
- Report of Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders to HRC46 (A/HRC/46/35)| UN | 24 December 2020
- Militante de la biodiversité et menacée de mort | University of Geneva | 25 November 2020
- Environmental Rule of Law: First Global Report | UNEP| 2019
- Environmental Human Rights Defenders in the Spotlight at the Human Rights Council | CIEL | 29 March 2019
- Report of Michel Forst, former Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders to the UNGA (A/71/281) | UN | 2016
- HRC52 Side Event | Protecting Environmental Defenders | 20 March 2023
- HRC51 Side Event | Protecting the Frontline: Good Practices for Supporting Environmental Human Rights Defenders | 5 October 2022
- A Step Forward for Environmental Rights in Latin America and the Caribbean | 1st Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Escazu Agreement in Santiago de Chile (20-22 April 2022) | 19 April 2022
- Conservation NGOs at Risk | 9 March 2022
- HRC46 | Geneva Roadmap 40/11 | Environmental Human Rights Defenders | Milestones and Opportunities in 2021 | 9 March 2021
- HRC43 | The Environmental Human Rights Defenders Crisis – Towards a Geneva Road Map | 27 February 2020
- Public Roundtable: Supporting Environmental Defenders – How Can We Mobilize the International Community? | Geneva Environment Network | 26 February 2020
Mini Course on Environmental Defenders
Online Course | UN Information Portal on Multilateral Environmental Agreements (InforMEA)
Photo by Victor Barro / Friends of the Earth International