Skip to content

New accord to protect defenders of nature

Two U.N. agencies adopted a new agreement to increase protections for environmental advocates and their families at risk of retaliation and violence.

NAIROBI, Kenya (AN) — Two United Nations agencies teamed up on Friday by adopting a new agreement to increase protections around the world for environmental advocates and their families whose actions have put them at risk of retaliation and violence.

Inger Andersen, who heads U.N. Environment, and Michelle Bachelet, who oversees the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, or OHCHR, announced they signed the agreement to better monitor and protect against global threats to environmental and human rights defenders.

Their aim is to establish better networks of support worldwide for advocates and raise the pressure for perpetrators of violence and intimidation to be held accountable. They also want to encourage governments to respect people's rights to demand healthy environments, according to a statement from the agencies.

“A healthy environment is vital to fulfilling our aspiration to ensure people everywhere live a life of dignity,” Andersen said. “We must curb the emerging trend of intimidation and criminalization of land and environmental defenders, and the use of anti-protest and anti-terrorism laws to criminalize the exercise of rights that should be constitutionally protected.”

The two leaders said threats to individuals and communities defending environmental and land rights are intensifying in many parts of the world, despite more than 150 countries recognizing the human right to a healthy environment in constitutions, national laws or other agreements.

Three environmental activists a week on average were killed somewhere in the world in 2018, according to a July 30 report by Global Witness, an international organization that exposes corruption and environmental abuses. The U.N. leaders said that death toll shows the dangers facing those who defend environmental and human rights against unlawful exploitation by mining, logging, farming and other "extractive" industries.

'Stronger global partnerships' needed

There are plenty of worsening environmental trends for activists to be deeply concerned about. In a major report earlier this year, U.N. Environment put the planet’s health thorough its most thorough checkup of the past five years, saying it found Earth’s condition so degraded and “dire” that many people’s lives will worsen unless “unprecedented action” is taken to improve things.

The Nairobi-based agency cautioned in March that millions of premature deaths could occur by the mid-21st century unless cities and regions of Africa, Asia and the Middle East drastically improve their environmental protections. The report was released on the sidelines of the U.N. Environment Assembly.

Bachelet said all nations must be encouraged to put in place and enforce laws that protect people who insist on healthy landscapes, water and food that benefit everyone. A former president of Chile, Bachelet was appointed head of OHCHR last year. She is responsible for promoting a main pillar of the U.N. system in a role that draws on her past as a victim of torture and detention in her home country.

The three main pillars of the United Nations system are peace and security, development and human rights. Between 2010 and 2013, Bachelet also served as the first head of U.N. Women, the international organization that champions gender equality and empowerment of women.

“Our planet is being recklessly destroyed, and we urgently need stronger global partnerships to take action to save it," she said. "We call on leaders and governments to recognize that climate change and environmental degradation severely undermine the human rights of their people, particularly those in vulnerable situations — including the generations of tomorrow.”