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Euroviews. If the EU wants to protect the climate, it has to protect the human rights defenders

An Indigenous person shows images of slain British journalist Dom Phillips, left, slain and Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira in Brasilia, June 2022
An Indigenous person shows images of slain British journalist Dom Phillips, left, slain and Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira in Brasilia, June 2022 Copyright AP Photo/Euronews
Copyright AP Photo/Euronews
By Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

It has been almost eight years since the Paris Agreement was finalised. In that time, at least 1,390 defenders advocating for a healthy environment and rights linked to land have been killed, Mary Lawlor writes.

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Human rights defenders in every region of the world are peacefully organising and advocating to ensure equitable access to land and prevent environmental destruction. 

Their activism and leadership is key to the realisation of societies in which respect for human rights is a reality, including the right to a healthy environment. Yet fatal attacks against these defenders continue.

According to the latest research by the NGO Global Witness, 177 land and environmental rights defenders were killed in 2022. 

The stories documented in the organisation's new report are heavy and painful. Five children were among those killed in the attacks, including nine-year old Jonatas de Oliviera dos Santos, who was targeted in retaliation for his father's work in Brazil.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, agreed by consensus by all member states at the UN General Assembly in 1998. 

It is in the declaration that we find the right to defend rights codified. There needs to be a new resolve to make good on that right in order to stop the killings, both where state and non-state actors are implicated, and the EU — with its new law on environmental and human rights due diligence — can play a key role.

Latin American, Indigenous and campesino defenders targeted

Almost 90% of the deaths recorded by Global Witness took place in Latin America, and more than a third of those killed were Indigenous defenders, with close to a quarter campesino advocates — small-scale farmers, peasants and agricultural workers. 

Those most at risk of these fatal attacks are advocating in their local communities, often in rural areas where access to land is an imperative for the fulfilment of human rights.

AP Photo/Fernando Llano
A Yaqui Indigenous family walks past the cemetery where slain water-defense leader Tomás Rojo is buried, in Potam, Mexico, February 2022AP Photo/Fernando Llano

One of the killings detailed in the report is that of Rarámuri Indigenous leader José Trinidad Baldenegro, from the Coloradas de la Virgen community in the south of Chihuahua in Mexico. 

Indigenous defenders from the community have been opposing deforestation from illegal logging for decades, despite a series of assassinations of those involved. 

In 1986, when he was 11 years old, José's father was killed. His brother, the environmental activist Isidro Baldenegro, was murdered in 2017. Julián Carrillo, another Indigenous defender engaged in the community's struggle, was killed in 2018.

What does effective protection look like?

Killings not only take the life of the victims, but have a massive impact on the families of those targeted and the communities they come from.

After Julián Carrillo was killed in 2018, his family left the community for fear of further retaliation. In a rare instance of accountability through the courts, investigations in Mexico led to prosecutions for Julián's murder, yet such examples remain the exception, with impunity for killings remaining extremely common.

Killings in Colombia, Brazil, Mexico and Honduras account for 139 of the assassinations documented by Global Witness last year. 

The states most affected by killings should work together to share good practices and learn from defenders about what effective protection might look like, in particular in rural contexts.
AP Photo/Elmer Martinez
Supporters of slain Honduran environmental and Indigenous rights activist Berta Caceres protest during the trial against Roberto David Castillo Mejia in Tegucigalpa, July 2021AP Photo/Elmer Martinez

All of these states have mechanisms specifically designed for the protection of human rights defenders, and are making efforts to improve the practical support they can offer through them and address issues in how they operate. Yet these efforts need to intensify. 

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The states most affected by killings should work together to share good practices and learn from defenders about what effective protection might look like, in particular in rural contexts. 

They should support defenders to make links with one another to share self-protection and quick-response strategies that need to be viewed as going hand-in-hand with state-based protection. There has been some progress and solutions are possible.

No more business as usual: regulation needs to address root causes

Despite the heavy concentration of killings in a small number of states — with the Philippines also a country of high concern, given the 11 killings recorded there — the root causes of the attacks cannot be reduced to the conditions in a few national contexts.

More than 12% of the killings recorded in 2022 were linked to business activities and supply chains, where the responsibility to act extends beyond borders. 

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The negative human rights impacts and related risks for defenders opposing them have been well-documented when it comes to high-impact sectors, including mining, logging and agribusiness. 

The home states of companies active in these industries need to draw a line under toxic business practices and effectively legislate to prevent them.
AP Photo/Beto Barata
Willian Kranipi, of the Xakriaba ethnic group, shows his hand covered with the Portuguese phrase "Stop killing us" in Brasilia, February 2020AP Photo/Beto Barata

The home states of companies active in these industries need to draw a line under toxic business practices and effectively legislate to prevent them.

That includes EU member states, and the EU can make a difference by obliging companies across all sectors to assess risks for human rights defenders under the proposed Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive. 

They should also ensure investors do not fund projects where defenders could be under threat.

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Positive positions, if imperfect, have been adopted by the European Council and the European Parliament in relation to provisions for defenders in the directive, and they must be improved still — not watered down — as negotiations progress.

Protect defenders to protect the climate

The need to protect defenders, including through binding obligations for companies, and to offer them greater support is magnified by the urgent global imperative to combat climate change and mitigate its impacts.

It has been almost eight years since the Paris Agreement was finalised. In that time, at least 1,390 defenders advocating for a healthy environment and rights linked to land have been killed. 

In 2022, as the Global Witness report lays out, at least 39 land and environmental defenders were killed in the Amazon, an area both crucial for mitigating climate change and set to be highly impacted by it.

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As part of the prioritisation of social justice and inclusion which, as the IPPC has stated, is essential to enable a just transition away from our current high-carbon economy, states should embrace human rights defenders as allies in fulfilling their human rights and climate obligations.

They should make good on promises to improve their protection, support their networks and advocacy, including at COP28, and listen them to ensure risks to human rights are addressed and violations remedied.

Mary Lawlor is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.

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