Human rights defenders play a crucial role in the struggle for climate justice

Published by Brent Patterson on

“You can sit there calmly and believe that nothing is happening, while the planet – our home – is destroyed; or we can come together to take the necessary actions to stop global warming. It is time to act; it is our responsibility to cool the planet down.” – Colombian human rights defender Francia Márquez who survived an assassination attempt this past May.

Climate breakdown is a human rights issue in at least four significant ways.

First of all, human rights defenders are often on the frontlines of community mobilizations to stop the megaprojects that accelerate climate breakdown.

Those projects relate to oil and gas extraction, including fracking and the construction of pipelines; the deforestation that hinders the key role forests play in absorbing carbon; fuel-intensive large-scale mining; and the major hydroelectric dams that emit methane gas by trapping organic materials and vegetation under the water.

Secondly, human rights defenders also support migrants who have been forcibly displaced from their communities because of climate breakdown-related factors including food insecurity, crop failures, water shortages and rising sea levels.

Thirdly, so-called green solutions, notably massive industrial wind power megaprojects in Mexico, have been linked to a significant increase in human rights violations including threats, intimidation, surveillance, acts of aggression, shootings, and killings.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples Victoria Tauli-Corpuz (from the Philippines) stated at the UN COP24 climate summit in Poland in December of last year, “I’ve seen how renewable projects like wind farms and hydropower electric dams have been done without consultation with indigenous peoples. And in the process, indigenous peoples are expelled or worse yet, killed.”

And fourthly, as the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Philip Alston (from Australia) recently pointed out, “the enjoyment of all human rights [including the rights to life, water, food, and housing] by vast numbers of people is gravely threatened” by “climate apartheid” in which “the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger, and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer.”

Alston wrote in his report to the UN Human Rights Council that a reliance on the private sector in this scenario “would almost guarantee massive human rights violations, with the wealthy catered to and the poorest left behind.”

He has also stated, “The risk of community discontent, of growing inequality, and of even greater levels of deprivation among some groups, will likely stimulate nationalist, xenophobic, racist and other responses.”

Alston has somberly concluded, “Human rights might not survive the coming upheaval.”

Peace Brigades International-Canada shares the belief that human rights defenders are essential actors in promoting environmental and social justice, highlighting the importance of respecting human rights norms in the context of large-scale projects, as well as forced displacement and migration.

In 2018, PBI provided accompaniment to over 1,000 human rights defenders so that they could continue and expand their vital work.

A PBI chart notes that 55% of those human rights defenders work on issues related to civil and political rights, 21% on land and environmental rights, 17% on economic, social and cultural rights, and 7% on gender and sexual rights.

The preamble of the Paris Climate Agreement reached at COP21 in December 2015 states, “Parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights.”

In March of this year, the UN Human Rights Council adopted this resolution that, “Stresses that human rights defenders, including environmental human rights defenders, must be ensured a safe and enabling environment to undertake their work free from hindrance and insecurity, in recognition of their important role in supporting States to fulfil their obligations under the Paris Agreement and to realize the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development…”

David R. Boyd (Canada), the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, and Michel Forst (France), the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, additionally acknowledged the youth who are leading the Fridays For Future school strike for the climate protests.

The crucial role of human rights defenders in both the mitigation of and adaptation to climate breakdown should be further recognized at the upcoming COP25 that will take place in Santiago de Chile, Chile this coming December 2-13.

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