UN resolution recognizes environmental defenders

Publish Date: 
Wednesday, April 10, 2019

On 21 March 2019, the United Nations Human Rights Council unanimously adopted a landmark resolution to protect environmental human rights defenders. Several ESCR-Net members, have engaged in a call to encourage States to support the Resolution, including:

Amnesty International, Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, (Forum Asia), Front Line Defenders, Just Associates (JASS), Franciscans International (FI), International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), Conectas Direitos Humanos, EarthRights International (ERI), World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID), Equitable Cambodia, Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC), Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (GI-ESCR), Fundación para el Desarrollo de Políticas Sustentables (FUNDEPS),Al-Haq, Bretton Woods Project, Otros Mundos AC Chiapas and Accountability Counsel.

Globally, environmental human rights defenders are among the most vulnerable human rights defenders (HRDs).  According to the Global Analysis 2018 by Front Line Defenders, environmental HRDs are 3 times as likely to suffer attacks than other HRDS and 77% of HRDs killed in 2018 worked on land, indigenous peoples or environmental rights.

The newly adopted resolution recognizes the important and legitimate role of environmental human rights defenders in protecting the environment and recognizes the high levels of risk they face for their work. It calls on States to create a safe and enabling environment for HRDs, ensure effective remedies for human rights violations and combating impunity. Additionally, the resolution recognizes the need to develop protection mechanisms that take into account the intersecting violations suffered by women HRDs, indigenous peoples and rural and marginalized communities.

Additionally, the resolution recognizes the responsibilities of corporations and calls on them to respect human rights in accordance with the voluntary Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). ESCR-Net members have historically engaged with the UNGPs and now recognize the need for a strong, binding treaty on business and human rights to regulate the activities of corporations and ensure accountability, taking collective positions on the need to integrate robust protections for human rights defenders. ESCR-Net members have taken a strong stance, in the treaty process and beyond, to address corporate capture of the state and its links to growing repression. An example of this is recent actions surrounding human rights violations in West Africa in the context of corporate capture.

The particular need to protect environmental HRDs is becoming increasingly recognized. In 2016, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders released a report on environmental HRDs. In his report, the Special Rapporteur draws attention to an increased competition for natural resources that in turn generates social conflicts between local communities and corporations. 

The newly approved resolution is a positive step towards addressing the attacks suffered by environmental HRDs and it is not the only international instrument being developed. Last year countries in Latin America and the Caribbean showed support for the legally binding Escazu Agreement, which was developed within the framework of the Organization of American States (OAS).

These are important steps, however, it seems prudent to also consider taking steps to understand and address systemic causes behind the attacks suffered by environmental human rights defenders.