The new UN Climate Report and Environmental Defenders

The report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which came out earlier this week warns of imminent climate catastrophe. Major atmospheric and climatic changes are already under way. 

People have caused climate change, and must now bring it to a halt through radical changes in our behaviour and attitudes. And yet it’s the defenders of our environment who are often forced to risk their lives to advocate for increased environmental protection.

Environmental human rights defenders are ordinary people who defend the environment and the human rights associated with it. They defend their communities from deforestation, they advocate against pollution of water supplies by big business, they reveal corruption networks for the granting of illegal mining licenses, and they advocate for clean breathable air. 

In March, I presented a report to the Human Rights Council on threats and killings off Human Rights Defenders. The report found that environmental defenders were among those most at risk. The NGO Global Witness reported that 2019 was the most dangerous year on record for environmental human rights defenders, documenting 212 killings of land and environmental defenders. The same year, Front Line Defenders recorded a total of 319 killings of human rights defenders involved in the defence of all rights. 

On 11 September 2020, environmental defender Roberto Carlos Pacheco was shot dead after years of receiving threats and attacks linked to his opposition to illegal mining in the Tambopata Reserve in Peru. Many killings of environmental defenders occur in the context of business activities. The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) documented an increase during 2020 in attacks against human rights defenders working on business-related human rights issues, with 604 attacks in 2020, up from 572 attacks in 2019.

Mining and agribusiness are the sectors most related to attacks. In total, BHRRC has tracked 3105 killings, threats, abusive lawsuits, and other types of attacks intended to silence or intimidate human rights defenders working on business-related activities.

Businesses and States who say they support efforts to stop climate change and support the environment are also are often complicit in the targeting of defenders working on these rights.

Lack of adequate consultations and free, prior and informed consent of communities can fuel an atmosphere of hostility against defenders, and sometimes lead to attacks on defenders by owners, employees, private security officials or supporters of companies.

Many Human Rights Defenders come to do that work out of necessity. As the world becomes increasingly polluted, contaminated, destroyed or otherwise uninhabitable,  many more people are likely to  become environmental defenders. 

Unless radical action is taken by States and businesses, environmental defenders will likely face increasing stigmatisation, threats, attacks and killings for their work. The alarming  IPCC report makes it clear that the crisis is already upon us. Those defending the environment must be protected, not attacked.