Blog / 6 Mar 2018

Protection for environmental defenders strengthened, as UN launches landmark policy

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) today launched a new policy for the protection of environmental defenders, committing to work with governments and business to improve protection for those on the front lines of the battle for our planet’s future.

At least 197 individuals were murdered in 2017 for protecting their land, forests and rivers against the onslaught of destructive industry. Standing up to big vested interests has put these brave community leaders and environmental activists under threat as public and company officials have failed to protect them. In some cases, they are even complicit in the attacks.

That is why UNEP’s commitment to both take action itself, and push states and business to change their practices, is so important.

Amongst other things, the UNEP policy:

  • Commits to denounce attacks against activists and push for accountability for those responsible, whilst advocating with governments and business for better protection;
  • Establishes a Rapid Response Mechanism through which environmental activists can communicate cases of threats or attacks, so that UNEP can speak out or take other supportive or protective action;
  • Promises to provide legal and technical support, as well as resources, to civil society, governments, judges and businessmen in regards to defender support and protection;
  • Launches a global campaign to raise awareness and spur action on environmental protection, with environmental defenders at its centre;
  • Announces a 'scaling up' of partnerships with a wide range of actors from civil society, the UN, governments and the private sector.

One of the strongest elements of the policy is its recognition that, whilst governments are ultimately responsible for the protection of environmental defenders, business must also change its behaviour if activists are to be safe. UNEP’s commitment to harness its relationships with a range of actors, encouraging more positive business engagement and action, gives the policy real added-value.

The Policy is just the latest step to strengthen the international framework on land and environmental defenders, in response to the grave and urgent threats on the ground.  In 2016 and 2017 respectively, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders published reports on the protection of environmental activists and the threats facing human rights defenders denouncing business abuses, containing concrete recommendations for governments, companies and investors. 

The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment also launched a resource portal on environmental defenders, whist the UN Working Group on business and human rights is currently developing guidance for business on engaging, respecting and supporting human rights defenders.

Nobody should fear for their life just for defending their rights and our environment. It is high time that governments and business showed they have the will to tackle this crisis. If properly implemented, this policy from UNEP should give them even less of an excuse for inaction.

UNEP’s Policy, ‘Promoting Greater Protection for Environmental Defenders, is available online in English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic and Russian.

Ben Leather is a Senior Campaigner at Global Witness. Follow him on Twitter at @BenLeather1 

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