One year since the death of Fikile Ntshangase

Today, 22 October 2021 marks one year since 65 year old woman environmental defender, Fikile Ntshangase, was shot dead in her home. All Rise organised an online memorial to mark the day. Below are the remarks I delivered at the event.

[These remarks were edited on 28 Oct 2021 to correct a previous version which implied that Tendele Coal Mining Ltd. may not have responded.]

In March I presented a report to the UN Human Rights Council on the killings of Human Rights Defenders and the threats that so often precede them. In its opening paragraph, I highlight the death of Fikile Ntshangase. Fikile’s murder is demonstrative of a global trend where Human Rights Defenders, and in particular, environmental defenders, are threatened and killed for their work. It is a sad irony that those who do so much to protect life on our planet, are the ones whose lives are most at risk.

Threats that often precede killings can be direct or indirect. They are intended to silence, intimidate and stop human rights defenders from carrying out their work. There is no more direct attack on civil society space than the killing of human rights defenders. It is a red line which should never be crossed.

Some States and businesses think that by killing a human rights defender, their problems will go away. Events like this one make sure that does not happen. Fikile’s work lives on. I’ve learned that states hate being called out for the abuses they commit and well-orchestrated advocacy campaigns put pressure on states to conduct full investigations into attacks and murders.

Lack of investigation leads to impunity and impunity is a key driver for more murders. States should not only end impunity but also publicly applaud the vital contribution that human rights defenders make to help build just societies based on the rule of law.

I wrote to the South African Government and Tendele Coal Mining Limited last December on Fikile’s case, and the South African Government have still not responded to me… How can I trust that South Africa supports the work of Human Rights Defenders, or takes the climate crisis seriously, if it is not willing to address such serious issues?

During South Africa’s last Universal Periodic Review, in 2017, it refused to accept recommendations from other UN member states to stop violations caused by business activities. South Africa received three recommendations on the subject. It turned down advice to introduce regulation to ensure that companies comply with international human rights standards; And it refused to commit to hold companies to account for human rights and environmental violations that they commit.

In such circumstances, I can’t help but feel that Fikile’s death may have been preventable. Enforcing environmental standards, adequate consultation and the free, prior and informed consent of local communities reduces the likelihood of division and conflict among affected communities. Refusing to hold companies to account for violations they commit makes South Africa complicit in those violations.

One simple, first step that states can make is to publicly applaud the work of human rights defenders, recognising them for what they do. Another is setting up robust protections mechanisms for Human Rights Defenders who do come under attack. Businesses must abide by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to ensure that their activities don’t directly or indirectly cause human rights violations.

Only last June, the Working Group on Business and Human Rights presented guidance to the UN Human Rights Council on how to protect Human Rights Defenders. They say, “If a business enterprise is causing or contributing to human rights abuse affecting defenders, their responsibility is clear-cut: they need to end the abuse and address any harm that has occurred.”

Human rights defenders are often uniquely placed to warn of the potential risks of business activities, including of violence, corruption and criminalisation, yet they are rarely consulted

Individuals often become defenders because they feel compelled to do so. The climate crisis is one factor forcing many into the role of human rights defender. This should present itself as an opportunity, not a threat, for States and businesses to tackle the most urgent issues of our time. Human Rights Defenders have valuable expertise, gained from years of experience working with communities, or on the frontline of environmental catastrophes. Only with a greater understanding of the work and potential contribution of Human Rights Defenders, and measures in place for their protection, can we reduce the attacks against them.

We are all, individually, the agents of social change and I hope you all here today will continue your work in this peaceful fight.

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