UN Special Rapporteur links “current development model” with risks faced by human rights defenders

Published by Brent Patterson on

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In his recent address to the United Nations session titled Prevention is better than cure: exploring best strategies by States to prevent attacks on human rights defenders (co-organized by Peace Brigades International), the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Michel Forst made some notable observations.

Forst stated, “As you know for the last few years news of killings of defenders and a lot of those who condemn the bad practices of businesses have increased and are now happening daily. It’s an epidemic which is spreading as business tries to conquer new markets, as natural resources are found in areas that had been until then untouched.”

Forst highlighted, “Many positive measures have been taken [but] this is not enough to turn around the trend. States must go to the root of environmental conflicts, such as imbalance of power, making nature into a commodity, impunity and the current development model in order to ensure long-term solutions.”

What is the “current development model” that puts human rights defenders at risk?

Mega-projects are likely commonly understood as one form of the current development model. The UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation Léo Heller recently released his thematic report The Impact of Mega-Projects on The Human Rights to Water and Sanitation.

That report notes, “Human rights defenders advocating the rights of those affected by mega-projects have faced harassment, physical assault, bodily injuries, and even death.”

In relation to mega-projects, EDUCA, which is accompanied by PBI-Mexico, has stated, “The ‘accumulation by dispossession’ has reached a climax, with territories granted to mining, wind power and real estate companies, or for the development of hydraulic projects, the construction of highways and the large-scale production of genetically modified corn.”

Danilo Rueda of the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission, which is accompanied by PBI-Colombia, has noted in relation to palm oil mega-projects, “Big business, hand in hand with Colombian and international policy, is destroying water sources and flora and fauna by depleting the forests. This is capitalist logic, which favours the accumulation of capital, and in the long term, the effects are highly negative.”

Lorena Cabnal, who is accompanied by PBI-Guatemala, has stated, “The root of the climate crisis is patriarchal, capitalist and neoliberal, so it threatens the plurality of life in the cosmos. Given that, the Ancestral Healers of Territorial Community Feminism will continue to denounce, defend, recover and heal our body-to-earth territory.”

And PBI-Mexico has commented, “Mexico, as in many countries in the region, has an impressive richness of natural resources, and the neoliberal policies that privilege the exploitation of these resources over the rights of indigenous people to their lands, has provoked conflicts and violence in many parts of the continent.”

What is neo-liberalism?

In a recent article in The Nation, Ben Ehrenreich explains, “The word gets thrown around a lot these days, but this is what neoliberalism means: a globally applicable method for preserving the current overwhelming imbalance of power.”

Ehrenreich argues that opposition to neoliberalism is a common theme in the current protests happening in Colombia, Honduras and other countries.

He notes, “All of the countries recently experiencing popular revolts—and most of the rest of the planet—have for decades been ruled by a single economic model, in which the ‘growth’ celebrated by the pedigreed few means immiseration for the many, and capital streams into American and European accounts as reliably as sewage flows downhill.”

How to move forward in a human rights context?

In June 2018, PBI-United Kingdom launched a Human Rights Defenders Toolbox that it highlighted includes “a range of legal fact sheets designed to inform and assist human rights defenders in their struggles to uphold the rule of law in the face of corporate aggression.”

PBI-UK explains, “The project seeks to address the fact that, despite the existence of [the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights], gaps in their implementation mean that human rights defenders confronting corporate interests still face escalating violence.”

Corporate aggression, the systemic causes of conflict, imbalances in power, resource extraction, the commodification of nature, land and territory, and impunity are all key issues to explore in the prevention of attacks on human rights defenders, promoting non-violence, and making space for peace.

As PBI has stated, “In a system that favours profit over rights, economic models that encourage the forced displacement of those defending their resource-rich territories will continue and those at the forefront will remain at risk of violence.”

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