Supporting Environmental Defenders

Across the world, voices to protect the planet are growing louder as climate change impacts the reality of millions. From promoting more sustainable management and use of natural resources to fighting biodiversity loss, the role of environmental civil society and defenders is gaining increasing public attention. Unfortunately, the work of these activists is also becoming more perilous – even fatal – as defenders suffer grave violations of their rights by both state and non-state actors in their struggle for better protection of the environment, their land and their livelihoods.

Notwithstanding, violence against environmental activists is an issue that is gaining international acknowledgement and traction. As a global hub of international diplomacy, Geneva is in a special position to make a difference by acting as a centre for discussions and multilateral processes at the intersection of human rights and the environment. On 21 March 2019, the Human Rights Council adopted Resolution 40/11, the first resolution to recognise the contribution of environmental human rights defenders to the enjoyment of human rights, environmental protection and sustainable development and the obligations of States to respect these fundamental rights.

Towards a Geneva Road Map

As part of its collaboration brokering activities, the GSPI has provided support to a project aimed at further engaging policy activity on human rights and the environment. Led by Peter Larsen, a researcher from the Institute of Environmental Governance and Territorial Development (GEDT), the project aims to strengthen coordination and collaboration among science, policy and implementation actors, with a series of activities organised with partners from the international Geneva ecosystem.

Following a set of public and expert events held between 25-27 February 2020 (a two-day technical workshop and dialogue, followed by a public roundtable and a side event at the Human Rights Council), the project culminated in the launch of an ambitious “Geneva Road Map”. The result of a truly collaborative effort between scientists, policy actors, defenders, civil society organisations and networks, the Road Map is a major step towards bolstering collective action against threats to environmental defenders and to turn HRC Resolution 40/11 into action.

Shaping a common agenda

On 25 and 26 February, a group of civil society defenders, researchers, civil society actors, as well as UN Special Rapporteurs on the situation of Human Rights Defenders Michel Forst and on human rights and the environment David Boyd, convened for a two-day expert workshop. The session aimed at reviewing existing knowledge on the issue; drawing lessons from existing environmental protection approaches; assessing knowledge gaps; and identifying concrete policy recommendations for action for the human rights and environmental community.

This expert meeting, which underscored how integral it is to connect the scientific community with those who have experience on the ground, was co-organised by the University of Geneva, the Geneva Environment Network and EarthJustice, in collaboration with various other academic institutions, international organisations and actors from Geneva and around the world, including the GSPI.

Mobilising the international community

On the evening of 26 February, a public roundtable was held at Palais Eynard to present the result of the expert meeting and officially launch the Geneva Road Map. The event opened with the Mayor of Geneva, Sandrine Salerno; University of Geneva rector, Yves Flückiger; Grethel Aguilar, the IUCN’s Director General; and the UN Special Rapporteur, Michael Forst. What followed was a global panel of six environmental defenders and environmental defender representatives who passionately shared testimonies from Brazil, Russia, Kenya, South Africa, Turkey and the Philippines. The evening ended with the presentation of the Geneva Road Map.

The violent struggles and dire situations described by the panel were critical in underlining the seriousness and urgency of the issue and made a strong case to reinforce efforts to safeguard the rights of those fighting for better protection of the environment. It was clear that including environmental defenders in the decision-making process challenges policy-makers to think differently so that we can ensure better protection of environmental human rights.

Finally, co-sponsored by Switzerland and Fiji and with the participation of environmental defenders, NGOs and academic partners, a side event at the Human Rights Council explored how to mobilize the international community from both the human rights and the conservation fields to work towards the implementation of Resolution 40/11. The aim of the event was to strengthen the dialogue process to help shape key building blocks for the Road Map, review progress made and discuss needs and perspectives. The results of the discussion were conveyed to the UN Mission and Diplomats such that the Road Map can be integrated into international discussion at the Council and beyond.

Moving forward

This week’s events and the important work that went into gathering a wide range of partners demonstrate the existing momentum and value of nurturing an active dialogue between researchers, defenders, civil society actors and policy-makers. The coalition around the Geneva Road Map should meet regularly and coordinate around joint actions. The next step will be the IUCN World Conservation Congress in June 2020 in Marseille, which should give ample spotlight to this issue and to the efforts by the project supported by the GSPI. Hopefully, this will be the year of recognition for the right to a healthy and sustainable environment.