Rising Attacks on Environmental Defenders Threaten Human Rights Goals Globally

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Written by Inés Pousadela

“I have been told that my name is on a hit list…but I haven’t been killed yet.”

These were the chilling words of Mzama Dlamini, a South African community activist, to a gathering of environmental defenders from all over the world. Many in the audience could personally relate.

Dlamini has been targeted for his efforts to stop an Australian company from mining titanium on a pristine stretch of coastal land in his area in eastern South Africa. His community, who favor agriculture and eco-tourism, believe the almost $200 million project would be disastrous for them. Dlamini coexists with death threats intended to silence opposition to the mine. Since the leader of his organization, the Amadiba Crisis Committee, was assassinated earlier this year after reportedly being on the same “hit list”, Dlamini takes these threats seriously but has vowed to keep fighting.

Indeed, globally, it has never been more dangerous to take a stand against companies that grab natural resources and damage the environment. A recent study by an international environmental justice organization, Global Witness, showed that environmental human rights defenders are being murdered in record numbers. At least 200 were killed in 2016, up from 185 in 2015—a rate of nearly four a week. And the assassinations are spreading geographically—from occurring in 16 countries in 2015 to 24 the following year.

Murder is just one of a range of tactics used to silence defenders—many more who take a stand in defense of their land, livelihoods, environment and rights are violently attacked, sexually assaulted, intimidated, harassed, subjected to aggressive legal tactics and criminalized for it.

Extractives, including mining and oil projects, remain the most dangerous sector but murders associated with logging and hydroelectric dams are also on the rise. About 40% of those killed are indigenous, according to the Global Witness study. The country in which most killings occurred last year was Brazil, followed by the Philippines and Colombia. India, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Democratic Republic of Congo also featured among the nations with the highest rates of environmental activist murders.

The rise in attacks on people and groups working to protect environmental and indigenous human rights has been attributed to the heightened demand for natural resources around the world. As the global need has grown for energy, food and consumer goods, businesses have sought new territories to expand their production. The ensuing advance of extractive industries, agribusiness and large-scale infrastructure projects has directly affected the livelihoods and environments of local populations.

More often than not, corporations have been able to reach extremely favorable agreements with governments competing to attract investment. Huge transnational corporations have found it particularly easy to strike deals on terms that suit them—with host countries that sometimes have GDPs smaller than their own. Predatory and corrupt business practices that lead to human rights abuses and environmental damage are not, however, exclusive to transnationals; they are replicated by national and local private companies, and even by state-owned enterprises. Public officials often profit personally by facilitating business demands.

Local populations are rarely consulted in any meaningful way, even though the expression of free, prior and informed consent is mandated in some newly adopted constitutions as well as by international law. Despite legislation like ILO 169, indigenous rights over land, air and water have typically been ignored or, at most, dealt with as annoying side issues.

Nicaraguan indigenous campesino (peasant farmer) Francisca Ramirez and her family have been violently attacked by men in military uniform because of her leading protests against an Inter-Oceanic canal that the government has given a Chinese firm permission to build. The canal, which campesinos were never consulted about and which will split Nicaragua in two, will dispossess Ramirez’s community of their land and livelihood, and contaminate their water supply. In Nicaragua, free speech laws have been tightened and activists have been killed, arrested and expelled from the country in recent years.

All over the world, communities reacting in defense of their life sources have faced widespread violations of their human rights. Instead of receiving the government protection they’re entitled to, they have frequently seen state and non-state actors join forces to repress them.

In a report presented to the UN General Assembly in August last year, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, said the scale of the killings “indicate a truly global crisis.”

Protecting these defenders is now a most urgent human rights priority. Last month, global civil society alliance CIVICUS and Publish What You Pay (PWYP), a global coalition promoting transparency in the extractives sector, brought together more than 30 threatened environmental, land and indigenous rights activists, including Dlamini, to a workshop in Johannesburg on how to better protect themselves, their organizations and their work.

The main daily challenges activists say they face include the absence of domestic legislation protecting them; draconian colonial laws against protests; negative narratives stigmatizing activists by labelling them as ‘communists’, ‘terrorists’, ‘anti-national’ or ‘anti-development’; states’ unwillingness to uphold the rule of law and the lack of a security protocol for field work. They are also faced with the use of bureaucratic tricks, private security forces and powerful lawyers by private corporations, and of course, corruption and collusion between state and private interests.

Among the factors that defenders say give them a fighting chance against attacks are regional protection mechanisms, solidarity among environmental and other human rights, media presence (“cameras can function as shields”, said one of them) and international connections and advocacy, including the mobilization of public opinion in the countries where the involved multinational corporations are registered, in the hope that they will be pressured into divesting from their projects. 

In a joint statement, the activists called on the UN Special Rapporteurs on the situation of human rights defenders and on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association to put pressure on member states to do more to protect them.

The UN Human Rights Council should call on all UN member states to bring legislation on natural resource governance issues in line with international law, which already contains guiding principles on business and human rights, and adopt national laws guaranteeing the protection of human rights defenders. It should also urge states to make sure communities are fully consulted and give their consent before any infrastructure or extractives projects are approved. It is also important to end the culture of impunity that drives the killings and attacks by pressuring governments to fully investigate and prosecute crimes against environmental activists.

The growth in demand for natural resources has made the environment a new frontline for human rights and our common future. As John Knox, the UN Special Rapporteur for human rights and the environment said: “Unless the international community strengthens its support for, and improves its protection of, environmental human rights defenders, the full enjoyment of human rights and the realization of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals will be impossible.” A number of those goals are either directly or indirectly related to the environment, land use and natural resources.

In fact, human rights defenders in general and specific categories of human rights defenders advancing the rights of particularly vulnerable communities—such as environmental and indigenous rights activists—play a key role in making the invisible visible and the silenced heard. Without them, it is unthinkable not only for specific sustainable development goals—such as goal 1 on poverty or goal 13 on climate action—to be achieved, but also for the underlying principle of freedom from fear, violence and need to be realized. Human rights defenders are themselves the embodiment of our most basic human right to claim rights. If they are not supported in their efforts, the goals of the 2030 Agenda will remain forever beyond reach.

This is a critical point the UN Human Rights Council needs to address as they meet during this UN General Assembly session, to plot the way forward for a more prosperous, sustainable and equitable future.

About the author: Inés Pousadela is a Senior Research Specialist with CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation.

Photo by Roya Ann Miller via Unsplash.