Africa: Responding to the Needs of Environmental Defenders and Civil Society

press release

United Nations programmes, environmental defenders, NGOs and academic institutions came together, from 25 to 28 February 2020, to discuss how to mobilise the international community towards supporting environmental defenders.

All around the world, environmental defenders are fighting for healthy environments - not just for their communities but for everyone. Despite, their valiant and valuable work, environmental human rights defenders (EHRDs) remain highly vulnerable and under increasing attack across the globe. Yves Lador of Earthjustice notes that, although the protection of the environment is becoming increasingly essential and predominant, there is a shrinking space for the defense of environmental rights.

Recognizing these issues, diverse organizations have implemented different projects to protect environmental defenders and strengthen the usage of environmental rights. However, whilst necessary, some of these initiatives are fragmented.

To counter this, UN programmes and partners came together to deliberate on converging and coordinating existing defender protection programmes. Across various events, relevant intergovernmental, academic and civil society organisations took stock of the situation, reviewed existing initiatives and began developing a Geneva Road Map.

The Geneva Road Map seeks to ensure the effective implementation of the right to act for the protection of the environment. It aims to provide a collective platform in which initiatives and commitments of governments, civil society, research and academia and private actors can support one another.

We have no choice: we have to mobilize the international community to strengthen the defence of environmental defenders. Yves Flückiger, Rector, University of Geneva.

The first event was a technical workshop from the 25th to 26th February 2020. The intensive workshop focused on reviewing existing knowledge about the changing conditions and threats against shrinking civil society spaces and environmental human rights defenders. Participants - including youth and women environmental defenders from Kenya, Mozambique, Turkey, Philippines, Brazil and Russia - mapped out various initiatives and approaches focused on protecting EHRDs. Together, they drew out lessons learnt from these existing protection approaches and identified gaps across the spectrum of approaches adopted by different bodies and organisations. Participants ultimately drafted policy recommendations, elements of the Geneva Roadmap and actions for the wider human rights and environmental community.

On 26 February, a public roundtable discussed how the international community in Geneva - a global hub of international diplomacy - can be organized towards protecting environmental defender and civic spaces. Several environmental defenders were able to share their testimonies from their countries and communities. The intergovernmental, academic and civil society organisations involved expressed deep solidarity with environmental defenders and appreciation for their often very difficult work.

These organisations additionally shared how they have worked with defenders, committed to supporting EHRDs and shared their hopes for what the Geneva Road map can achieve. Opportunities for continuous engagement were disclosed so as to build on progress made.

Environmental defenders are essential in achieving the SDGs, because their rights are our rights, their planet is our planet. Grethel Aguilar, Director General, IUCN.

Building support and illuminating methods to protect environmental defenders continued during two side events at the 43rd session of the UN Human Rights Council. Importantly, participants discussed several initiatives underway to implement the Human Rights Council Resolution 40/11, adopted on 21 March 2019, which recognizes the contribution of environmental human rights defenders and the obligations of States to respect their fundamental rights.

Among those efforts was a discussion on how to mobilize the international community, from both the human rights and the conservation fields, to respond to the on-going crisis and join forces towards the implementation of this resolution. In addition, participants joined together to discuss good practices of governments in recognizing and implementing the right to live in a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. During these interventions, participants shared information and ideas on supporting EHRDs, and helped to raise awareness among the international community and diplomats on the findings and emerging priorities for the Geneva Road Map.

UNEP worked with a wide group of organisations across the different events; including University of Geneva, the Geneva Academy, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, and Earthjustice.

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