UN Adopts Legal Mechanism to Protect Environmental Defenders

Forty-six countries and the European Union have adopted a legally binding mechanism under the so-called Aarhus Convention to protect environmental defenders who risk abuse and harm because of their activism.

The Aarhus Convention was adopted in 1998 in the Danish city of Aarhus under the auspices of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. It is the only global legally binding treaty linking environmental and human rights concerns.  

However, U.N. officials say many of the rights guaranteed under the treaty are being violated.  In recent years, UNECE Executive Secretary Olga Algayerova says there have been many reports of these rights not being honored.

“We have seen an increasing trend of environmental defenders living under the threat of retaliation and in the fear for their lives, especially in cases where they speak out against spatial planning and large-scale infrastructural projects.… No one should live in fear for standing up for their environment and where they live,” Algayerova said.   

The UNECE says environmental defenders have been threatened, harassed, intimidated, and even killed because of protest actions against the construction of a dangerous dam, harmful agricultural practices and other environmentally destructive projects.

The new agreement establishes a post for a special rapporteur on environmental defenders. The official will be able to provide a rapid response to alleged violations as stipulated under the Aarhus Convention.

Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor says the creation of this rapid response mechanism could be of enormous benefit to environmental defenders.

“As I outlined in my report to the Human Rights Council earlier this year, 50% of the human rights defenders killed, as recorded by OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) in 2019, had been working with communities around issues of land, environment, in business activity, poverty and lives of indigenous people, Afro-descendants and other minorities,” Lawlor said.

A report by Global Witness last year found of the more than 300 human rights defenders who were killed, 70% were environmental defenders.

The new agreement outlines the various tools available to the special rapporteur for resolving complaints and protecting environmental defenders quickly and effectively.  They include issuing immediate protection measures, using diplomatic channels, releasing public statements, and bringing urgent cases to relevant human rights bodies for action.  

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