UN Human Rights Council Parallel Event  

6 March 2017

Risking their today for our tomorrow:

Environmental Human Rights Defenders

At the 34th Session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva (27 Feb to 24 March 2017), Johana Rocha from Tierra Digna Centre for Social Justice Studies, Tierra Digna (Colombia), a partner organisation of ABColombia, alongside Michel Forst the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, Professor John Knox the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, Amanda Kron UN Environmental Programme and Isela González Díaz, Alianza Sierra Madre (Mexico). The discussion was chaired by the Permanent Mission of Spain to the UN and hosted by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The panel on Environmental Defenders: responding to a global crisis was supported by over 70 organisations represented by ABColombia, Universal Rights Group, International Service for Human Rights, CIDSE, Franciscans International, KOLKO, Oidhaco and PBI.

Attacks and Killings of land and environmental human rights defenders (EHRDs) have been increasing globally at an unprecedented rate with the worst situations being encountered in Latin America. Colombia saw in the first two months of 2017, 23 HRDs killed, on average one defender every day and a half.

John Knox revealed that, in the past four years, globally, an average of two activists a week were being killed. Factors behind this worsening situation for included: intensified competition for access to natural resources, global inequality, and citizens being thrust onto the frontline to defend their environment from corporate or state abuse and/or unsustainable exploitation. Compounding this situation are the high levels of impunity, weak or corrupt legal institutions leading to an absence of effective investigations all of which create a culture of impunity.

Michel Forst pointed out that the assassination of environmental HRDs is only part of the overall violence they face. They confront violent attacks and threats to their families, enforced disappearances, illegal surveillance, travel bans, blackmail, sexual harassment, judicial harassment and use of force to dispel peaceful protests.

Johana Rocha emphasised that acts of aggression against EHRD is increasing along with persistence attacks against their territories and rights that they defend. Most disturbing is that violence against those who defend Environmental and Human Rights has been normalised by the state authorities that are responsible for adopting effective measures to remedy and prevent the aggressions.

The panellists highlighted that when analysing the violence against HRDs, it is essential to include any acts which repeatedly impede the work of EHRDs as these additional factor contribute to the normalisation of the attacks.

The Rapporteurs and other panelists appealed to all those involved in the debate including States and Economic Sectors, to recognise that defenders of environmental and territorial rights carry out an indispensable job in democratic societies, to remove the obstacles that prevent them from freely exercising their work, to respect and strengthen the legal mechanisms for participation and protection of defenders, and to ensure that aggressions against them are fully investigated and punished.

Berta Cáceres was remembered by all those present, EHRD who was shot and killed on 3 March 2016, leader of the indigenous Lenca People in Honduras. Despite receiving many death threats, she led the opposition to the efforts of Desarrollos Energéticos s.a. to build four dams along the Gualcarque river in territory inhabited by the Lenca People.

At this Forum two reports were presented:

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