New General Comment outlines steps for the protection of HRDs in the context of conflicts over land

On 22 December 2022, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights published a new General Comment on the relationship between human rights and land.

Affirming that secure and equitable access to land is often vital for the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights, in particular for certain populations, the Committee used the General Comment to highlight the threats and attacks suffered by human rights defenders in situations where these rights are undermined by the inequitable denial of access to land, stating:

The Committee has regularly received reports of threats and attacks aimed at those seeking to protect their Covenant rights or those of others, often in the form of harassment, criminalization, defamation and killings, particularly in the context of extractive and development projects.”

Citing the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, which sees its 25th anniversary this year, the Committee reiterated the State duty to respect human rights defenders and their work, including where it connects with struggles over land, and laid out five measures that States should adopt to protect them:

  1. Public recognition, by the highest level of Government, of the importance and legitimacy of the work of human rights defenders and a commitment that no violence or threats against them will be tolerated;
  2. [The] Repeal of any State legislation or any measures that are intended to penalize or obstruct the work of human rights defenders;
  3. Strengthening of State institutions responsible for safeguarding the work of human rights defenders;
  4. Investigation and punishment of any form of violence or threat against human rights defenders;
  5. Adoption and implementation of programmes, in consultation with potential beneficiaries, that are well resourced and have inbuilt coordination mechanisms that ensure that adequate protection measures are provided to human rights defenders at risk whenever necessary.

The Committee also noted the intersection between the work of human rights defenders as it connects to land and the protection of the environment, and acknowledged how human rights defenders work for the sustainable use of land as a precondition for the enjoyment of rights by future generations. Crucially, it also made clear that the State duty to protect requires States to take proactive actions to ensure economic, social and cultural rights are not infringed upon by the activities of businesses and investors either at home or abroad, stating:

States parties shall adopt a legal framework requiring business entities to exercise human rights due diligence in order to identify, prevent and mitigate the negative impacts caused by their decisions and operations on Covenant rights.”

The Committee is tasked with monitoring the implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Its General Comments provided authoritative interpretations of the norms codified in the Covenant, and the obligations upon States flowing from it.

The full text of the General Comment can be accessed here.


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