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Green Day: The UN Seeks the Means to Defend Environmental Rights Defenders, Dr. Robert Zuber

30 Oct



Environmental human rights defenders are at the heart of our future and the future of our planet.  2016 Report of the UN Secretary General on the “Situation of human rights defenders”

At the UN, as in much of the world as a whole, the policy news on a daily basis seems to run the gamut from hopeful to dreadful:

  • Some extraordinary progress on ocean preserves is offset by rapid polar melting and massive ocean storms
  • A breakthrough on negotiations to eventually “ban” nuclear weapons is compromised by reckless arms transfers and illicit arms movements that endanger civilians, destroy schools and medical infrastructure, and threaten an already fragile negotiating trust
  • Global progress on ending capital punishment is undermined by states citing drug trafficking and terrorism as “justifications” for continuing state-sanctioned executions
  • Policy gains on women’s equality are stymied by institutional sexism and political systems more comfortable with making promises on gender than keeping them

Perhaps nowhere at the UN is this schizophrenic path to progress more apparent than in the 3rd Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) of the UN General Assembly,  one of six GA committees meeting throughout October (and sometimes beyond). Chaired this year by Colombia’s Ambassador María Emma Mejía, the 3rd Committee embraces a stunning, ambitious schedule of rights-related issues that span a full spectrum of UN concerns – from persons with disabilities facing discrimination or journalists under siege to persons forcibly “disappeared” by governments or executed without due process.

Over the month, an extraordinary lineup of independent experts, Special Rapporteurs and Special Procedure Mandate Holders appear before the 3rd Committee to describe the progress they’ve made, the obstacles still to be overcome, and the reasons why attentiveness to the issues of their respective mandates still matters so much to the world.  This was also (and sadly) a time to honor extraordinary experts whose mandates (though not the issues themselves) are set to expire, including Juan Mendez (torture), Rita Izsak (minority rights), Maina Kai (peaceful assembly) and Fabian Salvioli (Human Rights Committee Chair).

My fall interns are forced (by me) to experience all facets of UN policy, but they seem to have a special interest in the skillfulness and diverse interests represented by these mandate holders.  As painful and even horrifying as some of their testimony surely is, interns are amazed (as well they ought) at the range of substantive UN human rights concerns – trafficking and child pornography, health care and adequate housing, the land rights of indigenous people and the plight of displaced children.  Despite limited implementation successes in a number of instances, these rights stand as almost “sacred” obligations of states parties, obligations that are not compromised — let alone disappear — because some states refuse their full acknowledgment.

But these rights obligations need champions outside the UN as well as within, as has been noted often by Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders.  And as we have all come to know, the dangers faced by these “outside” champions show few signs of abating. Last Monday, in a side event –“Empower environmental defenders, safeguard our future” – Forst joined with Norway’s Ambassador May-Elin Stener and an activist from Honduras (CEHPRODEC) to chronicle some of the grave threats experienced by environmental rights activists seeking to organize communities to safeguard health and livelihoods in the face of aggressive corporate predation, state corruption and broad international indifference.

Many in the room were still mourning the death of Honduran activist Berta Cáceres, not the only activist to lose her life defending land and community in states such as Honduras and, given the current state of our limited protective mechanisms, unlikely to be the last.  Within the Global Action orbit, we have also mourned friends and colleagues who have paid the ultimate price for our collective indifference.  We have watched families torn apart as land-owning corporations pay family members to shoot their “trespassing” kinfolk. We have seen first-hand the effects of logging and mining that bring few local benefits but inflict staggering local hardships.  We have seen activists’ reputations rent asunder by forces eager to label them as “criminals” or “terrorists” while exempting their own actions from virtually all means of accountability.

As states prepare to assemble in Morocco to assess the early stages of implementation of the Paris Climate Agreement, they would do well to confess this schizophrenic policy moment – on the one hand, urgency to control emissions and create a more healthful planet characterized by peaceful and inclusive societies; on the other hand, business as usual under cover of states underwhelming in their commitment to protect their own citizens – and those who seek to defend them — from external threats of diverse human origins.

As the UN Secretary-General has intimated, human rights defenders are the essential link between sound global policy and community resiliency.  We cannot do without their tireless and courageous commitments.  We cannot fulfill our “leave no one behind” promises while abandoning communities – especially their women and indigenous — to defend legitimate local interests while their leadership languishes in prisons or even in morgues.  We cannot hope to inspire stable, healthy communities when the voices of so many of its citizens are mute – or facing a dangerous backlash.

As Rapporteur Forst himself noted during this side event, the world is characterized by growing “power imbalances” that imperil rights defenders and the community interests they seek to defend.  There is, he warned, a “crisis of retribution” which the Honduran activist asserted almost never results in punitive legal judgments.  As we seek a fairer, greener and more just planet, it is important to honor and sustain the community-based courage that must be part of any viable pathway to change.  As Ambassador Stener noted, state, corporate and community interests will not always align, but respectful dialogue –not threats– is the only sustainable way forward.  The international community can and should do more to guarantee that such dialogue takes place, and that it takes place on a more level playing field.