The brave men and women who work to protect the environment are routinely harassed, threatened, unlawfully detained, and even murdered, merely for opposing powerful economic and governmental interests bent on exploiting and destroying the natural environment on which we all depend.
The enjoyment of a vast range of human rights, including rights to life, health, food, water, and housing, depend on a healthy and sustainable environment. Those who work to protect the environment are not only environmental defenders – they are also human rights defenders.
In March 2016, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution which requires States to ensure the rights and safety of human rights defenders, including those working towards the realization of economic, social and cultural rights.
That was a good step, but Governments must do far more. They have obligations under human rights law to protect environmentalists’ rights of expression and association by responding rapidly and effectively to threats, promptly investigating acts of harassment and violence, protecting the lives of those at risk, and bringing those responsible to justice.
States must also adopt and implement mechanisms that allow defenders to communicate their grievances, claim responsibilities, and obtain effective redress for violations, without fear of intimidation.
They must take additional steps to safeguard the rights of members of marginalized and vulnerable communities, especially indigenous peoples, who are particularly susceptible to environmental harm.
Currently, they are failing to meet these obligations. Of the nearly 1000 reported murders over the last decade, fewer than 10 have resulted in convictions.
In the last year, the international community has reached consensus on the new sustainable development goals as a roadmap to a more sustainable, prosperous and equitable future. But those goals cannot be met if those on the front line of protecting sustainable development are not protected.
It is ironic that environmental rights defenders are often branded as ‘anti-development’, when by working to make development truly sustainable, they are actually more pro-development than the corporations and governments that oppose them.
Protecting environmental human rights defenders is crucial to protect the environment and the human rights that depend on it, and Governments should never forget that.”