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Governments and Businesses Called by UN Environment to Promote, Protect and Respect Environmental Rights

UN Environment is taking a stand against the ongoing threats, intimidation, harassment, and murder of environmental defenders around the world, with the launch of the UN Environmental Rights Initiative in Geneva.

  • In 2017, almost four people a week were killed defending their right to a clean and healthy environment.
  • Between 2002 and 2013, 908 people were killed in 35 countries defending the environment and land.
  • Environmental rights are enshrined in over 100 constitutions.

By helping people to better understand their rights and how to defend them, and by assisting governments to better safeguard environmental rights, the Initiative will bring environmental protection nearer to the people. UN Environment is also calling upon the private sector to move beyond a culture of basic compliance to one where the business community champions the rights of everyone to a clean and healthy environment.

Since the 1970s, environmental rights have grown more rapidly than any other human right. And increasingly, these rights are being invoked and upheld. Courts in at least 44 nations have issued decisions enforcing the constitutional right to a healthy environment.

“Those who struggle to protect planet and people should be celebrated as heroes, but the sad fact is that many are paying a heavy price with their safety and sometimes their lives. It’s our duty to stand on the side of those who are on the right side of history. It means standing for the most fundamental and universal of human rights,” Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment said.

Environmental rights are enshrined in over 100 constitutions, and yet in January 2018 Global Witness documented that almost four environmental defenders are being killed per week, with the true total likely far higher. Many more are harassed, intimidated and forced from their lands. Around 40 -50 percent of the 197 environmental defenders killed in 2017 came from indigenous and local communities.

“Violations of environmental rights have a profound impact on a wide variety of human rights, including the rights to life, self-determination, food, water, health, sanitation, housing, cultural, civil and political rights,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said.

“During my recent visits to Papua New Guinea and Fiji, I was made keenly aware of the impact of extractive industries and climate change on individual rights. It is crucial that those most affected are able to meaningfully participate in decisions relating to land and the environment. States have a responsibility to prevent and punish rights abuses committed by private corporations within their territory, and businesses have an obligation to avoid infringing on the human rights of others. I hope this new Initiative will be able to encourage States and businesses to comply with these obligations.”

Two disturbing counter-trends are undermining both the environmental rule of law and human rights to participate and assemble. The first is the escalating harassment, intimidation, and murder of environmental defenders. Between 2002 and 2013, 908 people were killed in 35 countries defending the environment and land, and the pace of killing is increasing; 2017 was even worse.

The second is the attempts by some countries to limit the activities of nongovernmental organizations. Between 1993 and 2016, 48 countries enacted laws that restricted the activities of local NGOs receiving foreign funding, and 63 countries adopted laws restricting activities of foreign NGOs.

UN Environment has been undertaking work on human rights and the environment for almost two decades, including the identification of good practices on human rights and the environment; the sensitization of the judiciary on constitutional environmental rights, and by providing support to regional negotiations on a Principle 10 instrument for the Latin American and Caribbean region.

The Latin American and Caribbean Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Access to Justice in Environmental was adopted in San Jose, Costa Rica on March 4th. The historic agreement which will have a transformative impact on access to information and justice, public participation and human rights defenders on environmental matters in the region.

“This is not just renewed commitment to environmental protection,” Leo Heileman, director of UN Environments office in Latin America and the Caribbean said. “It can be an opportunity to give environmental rights the same legal standing as human rights at the global level.”

The Environmental Rights Initiative will engage governments to strengthen institutional capacities to develop and implement policy and legal frameworks that protect environmental rights ; assist businesses to better understand what their environmental rights obligations are and provide guidance on how to advance beyond a compliance culture; work with media to promote environmental rights, including through the development and implementation of a media training curriculum: support the wider dissemination of information on environmental rights through a new web-portal; and support the establishment of networks through which environmental defenders will connect, develop and implement strategies to promote environmental protection.

”In many ways, the United Nations needs to try and catch up with where national countries are. I am proposing to the UN Human Rights Council that the UN should join countries in recognizing a global right to a healthy environment. The time has come to recognize this formal interdependence of human rights and the environment, not only at national level but at the UN level too,” Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, Professor John Knox said.

UN Environment urges all governments to prioritize the protection of environmental defenders from harassment and attack and to bring those who harm or threaten defenders to justice swiftly and definitively. Tolerance of intimidation of environmental defenders undermines basic human rights and environmental rule of law.

“Killings, violence, and threats often go unreported and unpunished. More journalistic coverage and stronger legal support at the local and national level are essential to defend the defenders,” said Jonathan Watts, Global Environment Editor, The Guardian.

The Environmental Rights Initiative was officially launched today at the Palais des Nations in Geneva during an event including; John Knox, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment; Patrick Alley, Global Witness Co-Founder; Bianca Jagger, President and Chief Executive of the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation; Jon Watts, Global Environment Editor at the Guardian; Kate Gilmore, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights; and Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the UN’s leading expert on environmental law.

“UN Environment’s Environmental Rights Initiative is critical to address the escalating epidemic of murders of environmental defenders across the world. For many years I have supported indigenous people and communities all over the world who are murdered for protecting their forests and lands from illegal exploitation. The Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation (BJHRF) calls on governments to stop assassinations and the culture of impunity, to put in place enforceable legal protections and bring perpetrators to justice, ” Bianca Jagger said.

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