Roundtable on environmental defenders – Aarhus convention ExMOP

Notes from the roundtable on environmental defenders. I have not tried to capture the exact words of the presenters. This is part of the Aarhus ExMOP from 24 June 2022. The chair of the session, Teresa Weber, noted that the appointment of the special rapporteur on environmental defenders, elected yesterday is a way in which Aarhus parties are recognising the need to support environmental defenders. We will hear from environmental defenders, and then from parties with instruments and activities, and views from around the world. The forum is an opportunity to reflect on the way that the rapid response and the special rapporteur can support environmental defenders

Csaba Kiss, Justice and Environment, European ECO Forum – looking at SLAPP cases, they may pose a legal ground on which claims are based and adjudicated. It’s not what it looks like – it’s a travesty of the legal mechanism. The purpose is to drain the resources of the defendant mentally and financially who exercise their right to exercise their right. There is a trend – according to CASE (Coalition against SLAPP), there is a growth in cases. The European Commission is noticing it and starting to put a directive to address the growth in SLAPPs – at least to address cross-border SLAPPs. Domestically, the EU can’t legislate at the country level but issues recommendations. Also, support the effort of the Council of Europe that will support guidelines by 2023. It will be an opportunity to see what they are a lawfare. There are several judicial cases, such as the French case of the journalist Morou that demonstrated pesticide residues in wine, and was charged and fined. In Italy, a case was dismissed that calls attention to the use of pesticides in the Tirol region against a Munich-based environmental case. Finally, in the UK the case of Carol Cadwallader was considered a SLAPP case -but the judge didn’t accept it as such. Too much depend on sporadic legislation and the actions of judges. Civil society and justice and environment need much more – collecting data, capacity building, support to environmental defenders, and working with the legal system.

Magdolna Toth Nagy, Guta environmental law association, European ECO Forum – regarding the situation of environmental and human rights defenders, in particular in the western Balkan countries, there is a draft report from 2021 was commissioned by UNEP and justice and environment. The UNEP report is covering the last 5 years. A similar study is highly recommended to other regions to understand the situation across the UNECE region to understand challenges and solutions. Major factors – policy and regulatory context, relevant human rights obligations such as the ECHR and Aarhus. National policies followed mostly the ECHR but they don’t address environmental defenders. There are some ad hoc cases. There is also due diligence in certain sectors, such as mining, but they are not applied. A Human Rights ombudsman can have a role but it is not used to address environmental issues. The relationships between government and civil society are important to allow raising issues and discussing environmental defence – this was not used so far. The issues of environmental defenders can be more complex than other cases of human rights due to conflicting interests. In the Western Balkan there are verbal and written harassment and physical harassment, though limited. The media is only covering environmental issues when they are sensational, there are few negative examples when political interests are challenged. The report recommends setting regulations specifically for environmental defenders. The reports other recommendations, including capacity building for police, state bodies, and media.

In the European Union, in most member states, there is a generally supportive environment for civil society, but for environmental defenders, there is an increase of lawsuits and administrative measures to intimidate or deter defenders from participation and even liquidation of organisations ( such as Belarus). There are deliberate threats, SLAPPs, and other forms of harassment. The case of Ukraine means the threat to life of environmental defenders, but also avert attention from the protection of the environment – Arhus conventions and other agreements are silent at the time of war and allow the state to ignore them during hostilities. Also, economic reconstruction needs to be considered on how to protect the environmental defenders. The general suggestion – there is a need for the special rapporteur to the wider aspects of access to justice of the convention.

Siarhei Mahonau, European ECO Forum – the situation in Belarus the situation is not a comfortable situation for environmental defenders. There is a persecution of environmental activities and NGOs are persecuted, with the situation getting worse, it is useful that the Arhus MOP have commented on it. Belarus is destroying its civil society in general. In 2021 there was liquidation and even detention of the people who work in environmental organisations. In 2022, over 1000 people are recognised as political detainees. There were even reasons to liquidate a birdwatching organisation, with the head of the organisation sent to prison for 2.5 years. This limits the ability of the public to challenge the government and ability to identify environmental problems. The Belarus community welcomes the rapid response mechanism and hope for cooperation with the special rapporteur. There is enthusiasm toward the new role.

Youth and environment – pay tribute to the killing of the journalist and indigenous activist in Brazil. We can’t do anything about that now, but the parties should address the need to avoid such crimes in the future.

Next came comments from interactional organisations in regard to their actions in this area.

Zsuzsanna Belenyessy, Legal Officer, Directorate-General for the Environment, European Commission – the use of SLAPP is on the increase. They are a particular form of harassment against journalists and human rights defenders. There is even Dafne Caruana Galizia in Malta and she was facing over 40 law cases at the time when she was murdered. The EC is trying to improve the situation as part of the democracy action plan for journalists and other activists which was adopted in 2022. Addressing cross-border SLAPP and recommendation to member states, and evidence on SLAPP. Environmental and climate activities will be protected through participation in issues of public interest. The proposed directive suggests early dismissal, award of costs, and the claimant will need to provide security and address third-party SLAPP judgement. The guidelines for member states include capacity building for journalists.

Natalia Dauletyarova, Deputy Director of the Department of Environmental Policy and Sustainable, Development, Ministry of Ecology, Geology, and Natural Resources, Kazakhstan – Kazakhstan is a party to the convention and in the last report, they describe the obstacles. The country is reforming legislation to support the right of environmental defenders. New legislation makes it possible to all citizens to be able to complain about environmental damage to responsible government bodies and get a response. Also gives the right to file a lawsuit on the ground of environmental protection. Kazakhstan has an association of environmental organisations, and also carried out research on environmental activism and supports it. There are also seminars on a regular basis between environmental activism and the state to maintain contact and a new focus on sustainability and the environment.

Adam Lavis, Aarhus Convention National Focal Point, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, United Kingdom – the UK set guidelines on businesses and human rights and in July 2019 set a policy paper for supporting environmental defenders, through the multilateral system, the UK is supporting UN and other efforts to support the responsibilities of third parties. Also, address intimidation against human rights defenders. Human rights and environmental rights defenders and civil society groups especially in cases of corruption. The role of environmental defenders is dangerous and there are threats, violent attacks, loss of job, forced exiles, statelessness and other forms of harassment. There is a need to continue and support the right of people who are active in these areas.

Tinatin Tinikashvili, Main Specialist, Department of Civil, Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Public Defender’s Office, Georgia – there are many attacks on human rights and harassment, including physical attacks, in the country. In the last years, law enforcement failed to support the freedom to express their opinion freely in blocking the route for protest in a major power plant. The protest eventually succeeded and demonstrated problems in the development of power plants in Georgia. The problem of human right defenders is now included in a parliamentary report. and there is a guide for working with human rights defenders. The guidelines are used by the ministry of internal affairs to define human rights defenders and collect data about the way it is used. There are also training sessions and support them in new ways.
Andrzej Mancewicz, Adviser, Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights, Council of Europe – recognising that funding is important to support the new mandate of the rapporteur. There is a need for discrete and public dialogues with governments. There are climate change cases that are being discussed within the human rights area, and there are heavy risks – “let us make Europe a safe place for environmental defenders”. The five recommendations: state and government should create a safe environment for journalists and environmental defenders; end for stigmatization of environmental defenders verbally and online; hold the right for protesting and public display of issues; defend the cause of the defenders – we need transparent participation in environmental issues; we need special attention to young defenders, which must be part of decision making and protected from harm – need to notice that some are very young and get hate speech from politicians, which they need protection.

Chris Galvin, Head of Communications and Outreach, International Code of Conduct Association – growth of 260 billion dollars of private security companies, fuels by rising conflicts from the need for resources, and tensions on access to resources. There are over 200 cases of private security and killing of environmental defenders, and in Latin America, there are more private security industry people and that is bigger than state bodies. In resource extraction, there are human rights abuses against environmental defenders and indigenous people. Even with green projects, there are risks with such companies. The non-profit sector demonstrated the problems of WWF that commit severe human rights abuse of eco-guards. Questions need to ask about private security providers – access to information is key: contract, what they commit to doing, who they answer. etc. There are many unregulated activities. The code of conduct of private security providers is setting principles for such companies and it is a ICOCA, with human rights due diligence and certification scheme. It’s a way to implement the UN guidance. More support is needed for civil society organisations, especially indigenous groups and environmental defenders. Can help in monitoring their activities.

Marianna Bolshakova, Regional Coordinator, Environmental Law and Governance, United Nations Environment Programme – there is a concern about environmental defenders. 2012-2020 over 1540 activists were murdered, with South and Latin America as the worst places, but we shouldn’t think “it is happening elsewhere”. In Europe, there are hindrances to journalists and activists – undermining reputation, using social media against activists, making lawyers who need to answer libel instead of protecting the environment, calling people unpatriotic, and start questioning and stigmatisation that is used in Europe. Environmental activists are being systematically taken to court by mining companies and intimidation by following people around. The methods are changing and the dangers are there. 16 defenders in the UNECE lost their life, and they are also within countries that are party to Arhus. There is a need for an innovative approach and the rapid response mechanism is hopefully will address. They are looking for issuing statements about attacks, implement capacity building for environmental defenders, and work with the government. On the basis of requests from defenders, aiming to increase capacity – legal toolkits, and other mechanisms including support. Network building is helpful especially – highlighting good practices and successful cases which can be learned from. Also working on guidance to protect defenders through the UNEP system, lessons from the rapid response system will be shared with other regions. The draft resolution for the right to a safe and clean environment might be adopted by the UN assembly

The next set of presentations looked at cases from different regions

Ahmed Adam, UN Advocacy Programme Manager, FORUM-ASIA – network of 54 organisations across Asia and advocacy for better regulations. They recorded many cases of violations against environmental defenders – the fifth group that is attacked. There is physical violence that is done with impunity. There is an escalating trend. Cambodia and Indonesia have the highest recorded cases, with state actors involved in violations. Cases include judicial harassment with the Mother Nature group in Cambodia due to opposing natural resource exploitations. In India, a case against mining operations is opposed locally and leads to the arrest of local activists. On the plus side, Mongolia is the first country to recognise the right of the human rights defenders, and there is also increased recognition of nature-protected areas. There is a call for a special need to protect environmental defenders – post covid development includes government reducing environmental protection.
Hassan Shire, Chairperson, Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network – there are issues with sustainable environmental management due to the many resources in the continent. Many cases of abuse go unreported. It’s a new frontier on land rights and human rights, with powerful business and state interests. Companies can engage militia to protect their interest. The extractive area that involved multinational organisations are very well resources – and many defenders lots life, harmed, or had to become refugees, and also threats, surveillance and other harassment. In a case in Uganda, a lake was a natural habitat for humans and nature. The police attacked an activist that led the process was short and lost a leg. The activist finally managed to secure the right over the lake for their community. Need to create appropriate mechanisms to make sure that the abusers are brought into account for their actions and options for redress for the environmental defenders. There is a need to improve the support for environmental defenders in Africa
Soledad García Muñoz, Special Rapporteur on Economic, Social, Cultural and Environmental Rights, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Organization of American States – there is awareness of problems in defending territories, especially for indigenous groups. There are physical attacks, stigmatisation and specific attacks. There is a need to provide special protection in the context of environmental degradation and climate change. There are special problems between business and human rights. The rights for a good environment need to be protected by the state, The commission recognised the link between protecting human rights and the environment. Environmental defenders have a crucial role both in protecting biodiversity and in protecting human rights, culture and their communities. They produce documents on human rights and climate emergencies that point to the linkage between these two issues. Need to pay attention to the role of women and children in activism. The regional Escazu agreement is valuable in this case.

Discussion points: Armenia is supporting the convention and the Aarhus centre and is active since 1998. Armenia wants to stress of environmental defenders – it requires the collaboration of the government, such as a decision to change the route of a road as a response from environmental activists. Appropriate complaint and mobilisation can provide scope for collaboration. It’s not always possible to reach a consensus even inside the government, for example around EIA law, with four public meetings and discussions around them. They aim to reopen the Aarhus centres.

OHCHR – ensuring environmental human rights are important to protect human and plant now. There are now forums for environmental defenders in OHCHR regional offices. There is system-wide guidance and a call for action to support civil society organisations.

Natasha Dokovska, representing Journalists for Human Rights and environmental journalists for more than 30 years. Working as a journalist and environmental activist – environmental human rights defenders face danger and sometimes even death for their tireless work protecting the environment. In 2020, the non-profit organization Global Witness documented an average of four killings of environmental human rights defenders every week making it the deadliest year recorded by them so far for these brave protectors of the planet. There are most likely many more fatalities that haven’t been documented. Environmental defenders face legal harassment, digital violence, intimidation, stigmatization, and delegitimization. Both physical and digital attacks against women defenders have increased significantly. Inevitably, as environmental journalists covering these conflicts, are pushed for a very brief moment into the type of physical and psychological threats that many of these defenders experience daily — and then left to deal afterwards with the guilt of being able to leave. Having in the mind that Whistleblowers are often placed under extreme social and financial pressure, protection should include legal, financial and psychological measures. States could consider creating a fund for the support of whistleblowers.

As it happens, on the foyer of the building, a portraits exhibition of human rights defenders were on display:  


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