Today, 12 August 2021, I participated in a webinar organised by Natural Justice for International Youth Day. At the webinar, Youth Human Rights Defenders spoke of the innovative work they’ve been carrying out in the defence of the environment in Africa. I heard one young woman defender describe how she had seen almost before her own eyes as the forest she played in as a child was cut down, and the river polluted. Another spoke of the great adversity faced by youth in environmental matters, but the necessity of hope and resilience to continue the necessary fight. I spoke for 5 minutes at the beginning of the webinar:
I’m delighted to be participating in this event, especially as it highlights two of the priority groups that I have outlined for my mandate, namely youth human rights defenders and environmental rights defenders.
As we have seen with the release of the 6th IPCC assessment report this week, the work that climate and environmental defenders are doing could not be more crucial for the survival of our planet. The importance of the work they do is not abstract – it is concrete and vital in responding to what the UN Secretary General described on Monday as a “code red for humanity”. This has been made clear by the IPCC report which warns of a rise of more than 1.5 degrees in global temperatures within twenty years, bringing an increase in extreme weather events and large-scale flooding. Environmental catastrophe can no longer be treated as a risk that may never materialise, unfortunately it is looking more and more like an inevitability.
Yet the work environmental defenders do remains under-resourced, under-appreciated and under-protected. As I highlighted in my report to the Human Rights Council earlier this year, it is fraught with danger; they are the defenders most at risk of being killed as a result of their work. We saw another sad example of this recently in the murder of Joanna Stutchburry in Kenya. The numbers of such defenders being killed have climbed over the past five years, but despite the gravity of the situation, it has not been met by an adequate response at the international level. In the vast majority of these cases, the perpetrators are not brought to justice, and this impunity incentivizes further killings. Time and again, short term profit involving environmental degradation is placed above the right to a healthy environment, which has been recognised in numerous international treaties, including in the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa.
In light of the above, what can be done?
Firstly, I can only hope that young environmental defenders will continue their work; decisions made by politicians will dictate the extent of the crisis. The more of you doing this work, the greater the chance that these decisions will be good ones. The strength of this movement derives from its global nature and its youth, you who have not been responsible for any of the disastrous decisions made but who will have to bear the disastrous consequences.
Secondly, you deserve to be safe when doing this work. The levels of violence and targeting environmental defenders face worldwide is shocking. I am delighted to see the re-launch and expansion of the African Environmental Defenders Fund which will provide vital resources to help mitigate some of these risks. Yet we must never forget that governments have the primary responsibility to protect human rights defenders. They must put in place protection mechanisms for defenders and must involve defenders in their national strategies to combat climate change. The Escazu Agreement is a good model to look at when considering what you can be pushing your governments towards, although as with anything on paper, its effectiveness depends on its implementation, as proven with the mixed results of the HRD protection laws in a number of West African states.
Finally, there must be increased pressure on business to ensure that in addition to environmental impact assessments, they are also carrying out human rights impact assessments. Human rights defenders are often uniquely placed to warn of potential risks, including of violence, corruption and criminalisation, yet they are rarely included in business risk assessments. I hope that the legislative initiative currently under way in the EU to introduce mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence on companies domiciled or operating in the EU will lead to a safer climate for defenders in Africa, and, before too long, similar legislation in other jurisdictions.
I want to finish by expressing my deep appreciation for the work that youth climate defenders in Africa do and invite you to be in touch with my office when you find yourselves at risk because of your vital work; we will do our best to highlight these risks and assist in any way we can.