A Moral Imperative:
Protecting Environmental Human Rights Defenders in Southeast Asia
Dr. David R. Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment
In the midst of a global environmental crisis of unprecedented severity, the world urgently needs more people to stand up and fight for the protection and restoration of the air, water, soil, biodiversity and climate that we all depend on. In short, we need more defenders of the right to a healthy environment, Indigenous rights, the rights of the child and other human rights.
And yet in far too many states, it is a dangerous activity to advocate for protecting the environment and human rights. The statistics are ugly—more than 200 documented murders of environmental human rights defenders every year, with South-East Asia a blood-stained global hotspot.
In Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand we see common patterns. In each of these nations, environmentalists, farmers, women leaders, indigenous peoples, lawyers, scientists, community leaders, journalists and social media activists are striving to make the world a more just and sustainable place. They may not apply this label to themselves, but they are serving as environmental human rights defenders. They understand that the nations where they live are among the most biologically diverse nations on Earth, with an extraordinary abundance of wild species.
Yet instead of being celebrated and honoured, these visionary and courageous individuals are subjected to harassment, intimidation, violence and criminalization. Governments are weaponizing the law, shrinking civic space, and at least tacitly endorsing extrajudicial killings. Large corporations collude with government, putting private interests ahead of public interests and profits ahead of people.
Environmental human rights defenders themselves are pushing back with all their might, employing creative, nonviolent efforts, including education, research, lobbying and direct actions. Their ongoing commitment, despite the daunting dangers they face, is incredible and inspiring.
What can we do to protect these environmental and human rights heroes?
We have the 1998 UN Declaration on Human Rights defenders. We have Human Rights Council resolution 40/11 on environmental human rights defenders. There is a new regional treaty, the Escazu Agreement, with pioneering obligations on States to protect environmental human rights defenders in Latin America and the Caribbean. A similar treaty could be negotiated in Southeast Asia. A new rapid response mechanism for environmental human rights defenders is being developed by Parties to the Aarhus Convention. Southeast Asian nations could join the Aarhus Convention.
What is needed right now, urgently, is to go beyond words and declarations. We need States and businesses to take action to protect environmental human rights defenders who are at risk. We need the immediate implementation of existing national protection mechanisms and the enforcement of existing laws. Where national protection mechanisms do not exist they must be enacted and implemented. We need to reverse the rollbacks that have occurred during this terrible COVID-19 pandemic, which some States have used as an excuse to weaken environmental rules, processes and enforcement. We need to use rights-based approaches to conserve nature, tackle climate change, reduce pollution and prevent future pandemics. Evidence demonstrates conclusively that protecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities produces positive conservation outcomes. States need to build capacity, reduce corruption, and strengthen the rule of law.
The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, recently presented a strong report recommending actions that could reduce the threats against environmental human rights defenders. According to the Special Rapporteur, States should acknowledge and honor the work of all human rights defenders, condemning threats against them. All States should enact, strengthen and enforce laws that specifically protect human rights defenders, highlighting the importance of gender equality. States should engage national human rights institutions or special commissions of inquiry to investigate patterns of threats and violence against human rights defenders. States should also collect and publish disaggregated data on the number of verified cases of killing, kidnapping, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention, torture and other harmful acts against human rights defenders, in accordance with Sustainable Development Goal indicator 16.10.1.
Businesses and international financial institutions also have an important role to play in ensuring safe conditions for environmental human rights defenders. These organizations should develop and publish specific policies to safeguard human rights defenders, and commit to mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence.
This timely and vital report highlights the amazing work of women and men in Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand. Their stories are inspiring, but their abuse is heart-breaking. Our goal must be zero tolerance for violence, intimidation and criminalization of environmental human rights defenders. We all need to take action, immediately, to protect and celebrate the brave individuals and communities working to protect this beautiful blue-green planet that we are all so fortunate to call home.
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