A rear view of people with placards and posters on global strike for climate change.

We must defend the environmental defenders

Environmental defenders and activists face ever greater risks to their livelihoods and lives all over the world, including in Europe.

Marie-Amélie Brun reports on a UN working group that is developing a mechanism to protect them.

Environmental defenders are on the front line of environmental protection. They play a major role in raising awareness, campaigning against destructive practices and highlighting the true state of the environment and the crimes committed against nature.

Statistics show that cases of harassment, intimidation, arrest, imprisonment and, worst of all, murders are on the rise. In 2019 alone, over 300 environmental and rights defenders around the world were killed for their work. 

Many examples can be found in the Environmental Justice (EJAtlas), the world’s largest database of environmental conflicts, in which the EEB is a partner organisation.

Environmental defenders are not only in danger in distant lands. They are becoming increasingly at risk here in Europe too. In late 2019, META reported on the brutal murder of two Romanian forest rangers that sparked outrage and led thousands of protesters to take to the streets of the Romanian capital Bucharest.

“I am concerned that, across Europe, peaceful environmental activists have been blocked from attending environmental summits, subjected to house arrest and surveillance measures, violent physical attacks and legislation that effectively impedes their ability to carry out their work,” Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, wrote her concerns about the European situation. “All too often, they are simply ignored by policymakers. This must stop.”

Former UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, John Knox explains that environmental defenders are killed in startling numbers and adds that for every 1 killed, there are 20 to 100 others harassed, unlawfully and lawfully arrested, and sued for defamation, amongst other intimidations.

Pledge to protect

The Aarhus Convention is an international agreement that grants environmental rights to people. This year, the Working Group of the Parties to the Aarhus Convention will discuss the development of a rapid response mechanism to prevent and prohibit harassment.

The protection of environmental defenders is already called for in the Convention – specifically, in article 3(8). The convention obliges states to protect those who exercise their environmental rights from any harassment, penalisation or persecution.

This also includes an obligation to protect environmental activists against non-state actors.  Given the rise of violence and harassment against environmental defenders, the Aarhus Parties are now thinking of instating a rapid response mechanism that would protect environmental defenders.

The next meeting of the Working Group of the Parties to the Aarhus Convention will look into the options for a response mechanism and it is hoped that an agreement to set one in place will be reached during the Meeting of the Parties (MOP) on 17-22 October 2021.

Francesca Carlsson, Legal Officer at the EEB, said:

“We are all potential environmental defenders and we are certainly given rights under the the Aarhus Convention to protect our common good and our planet. The violence faced by environmental defenders is unbelievable and it is crucial that we develop a mechanism that can be triggered quickly to protect environmental defenders from any potential harm when they risk harassment or persecution. The EEB calls on the Aarhus Parties to protect our protectors.”


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