Since Michel Forst was commissioned last June to become the first United Nations Special Rapporteur for Environmental Defenders, he has not stopped working to secure support from politicians and civil society to protect these threatened activists. The French lawyer, who met political leaders and environmentalists in Madrid last week, is well aware of the risks they face. He was the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders between 2014 and 2020, and recalls how five environmental defenders were murdered after meeting with him in Colombia in 2018. “It happened at the end of my visit, not because they had met with me, but simply because of their dedication.”
That’s why he believed a special rapporteur focused on the protection of these activists was needed. The position was created a year ago under the umbrella of the Aarhus Convention, an international treaty ratified by 46 countries — mainly European — on citizen participation in environmental matters. This convention provides Forst with legally binding tools to force states to act to stop aggression against environmental defenders, who Forst says face “the most violent attacks,” particularly in Latin America, but also in the Philippines and Africa. “There are increasing attacks against environmental defenders and climate activists in Europe,” he warns.
Question. How can you protect environmental defenders from your position?
Answer. Through a rapid response mechanism with a view to respond immediately when the U.N. is informed that someone is being attacked in a place for defending the environment. And although it only operates in the signatory countries of the Aarhus Convention, it is important to know that it has extra teeth on scope. This means that when a company operating abroad has its headquarters in one of the countries which is part of the convention, defenders from that country are also able to come to me to seek protection. Let me give you an example: if there is a Spanish company based in Madrid that operated in Colombia, Peru or elsewhere in Latin America, deforesting or threatening environmental defenders, then defenders from those countries come to me and seek protection.
Q. How can they come to you?
A. Through a form on the United Nations website. My team would investigate the situation. We will double-check to make sure that we are not misinformed or manipulated. Then I would start by sending what we call an indication letter to the government to request information. We call it that because we don’t want to accuse anyone. The letter is kept confidential until 60 days, and the state has 60 days to reply. We can also send letters to companies, depending on the case. After 60 days my letter and the letter from the state or the company would be public on the website of the U.N., which has a huge impact, especially for companies.
Q. Because it’s bad for their public image?
A. Exactly. It has huge implications because companies do not like to see their names published. For example, an investment bank may decide to withdraw funding from a certain project if it is related to a case of environmental attacks.
Q. What happens if someone cannot wait 60 days because they are at imminent risk?
A. If we are informed that someone is in a very dangerous situation, I would contact the governments so that immediate protection measures are adopted, as a precaution, without double-checking. It is important to note that the Aarhus Convention is a legally binding instrument, unlike the mandates of other rapporteurs, which are based on non-binding U.N. resolutions. States have an obligation to fulfill and respect all provisions of this convention, which empowers me to do many things.
Q. How many cases have you reviewed since starting in the position?
A. We are receiving complaints mainly from Europe, although we are also starting to receive complaints from Latin America, because there are many European companies operating there. So far, we have sent a couple of letters to a number of EU countries, and we are still waiting for the replies to publish the response on the website
Q. Which countries?
A. I’m not able to give any names of countries because we have received complaints from almost all.
Q. What complaints do you receive in Europe?
A. Two points for me are a matter of concern for all EU countries, including Spain. The first is young people using civil disobedience to take action, namely those who are blocking access to airports or throwing paint on monuments or paintings. And my concern is that many of them are brought to court and are sentenced to penalties and prison like in the UK, or very large fines of thousands of euros. My feeling is that the judge doesn’t really understand why they have decided to break the law, and I think that they need to be treated differently than other criminals. The second point is that I see more and more politicians, like in France or in Austria, treating those people as ecoterrorists. For me, it’s a shame to think of victims of real terrorism while we face people who are using non-violent methods to raise awareness about the need to defend the environment.
Q. Do you consider this type of civil disobedience useful?
A. Judges in Europe do not really understand the international obligations that states have to fulfill international law. For example, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights recognizes civil disobedience as a legitimate form of action. At the U.N., we have formed criteria that we define civil disobedience: it must be public, the people who are using civil disobedience must understand that they can be taken to court, it must not be violent and it must try to change a legal situation which is considered unjust. There are many examples of civil disobedience in the past that have led to changes in legislation, such as when Rosa Parks, an African-American activist in the United States, sat on a bus in a seat in a place which was forbidden to Black people, an action for which she was arrested.
Q. Do you think there is an attempt to push discourse that discredits environmental activists?
A. Yes, I see that increasingly in many countries in Europe. In France, Germany, Austria, Ireland and the United Kingdom, there is increasing pressure and states are also looking at passing new laws against civil disobedience by environmentalists.
Q. The NGO Global Witness estimates that nearly 2,000 environmental defenders have been killed in the last decade. Is that an underestimate?
A. This is just the tip of the iceberg because they are not able to investigate in all countries. In Latin America, in some parts of Africa and in the Philippines, those people are simply killed. Every two days, the murder of an environmental defender is reported. Some of them are abducted and disappear forever. I met a large number of families of disappeared in Colombia in 2018, and they explained to me that their son was fighting to defend a river or to defend a lake or a fishery and one day simply disappeared.
Q. Who is responsible?
A. They are killed by the most dangerous actors, not states. Sometimes there is collusion between a public interest and private interests that have links with corruption, the mafia and narco trafficking.
Q. How can environmental defenders be protected?
A. Both Latin American countries and the European Union have spent a lot of money to protect them. In Mexico, Brazil, Honduras, and Colombia, the governments have established protection mechanisms and use armored vehicles, bulletproof vests, panic buttons and bodyguards. The problem is that these measures can delay the killings, but there’s always a place in which you are not protected. You go from the house to your car with protection, then you take a bullet to the head. It is very dangerous to be an environmental activist in Latin America: if someone wants to kill you, they just pay a hitman $50.
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