UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders Michel Forst on trade agreements

Published by Brent Patterson on

Michel Forst, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, wrote in The Guardian several years ago that, “Trade agreements with countries where environmental defenders are under threat should contemplate measures to prevent, investigate and remedy violations against activists.”

Additionally, Katharina Rall from Human Rights Watch has noted, “The frequent attacks and threats against environmental rights defenders throughout the world are an example of why governments need to include protecting rights in their climate policies.”

These comments might suggest that language on protection measures for human rights defenders should be written into the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which is also referred to as NAFTA 2.0.

Unfortunately, there is no such language in the text of the agreement.

The Global Witness Enemies of the State? report (July 2019) provides examples of why we should be concerned about this.

It highlights the criminalization of Indigenous land defender Red Fawn Fallis (opposed to the Dakota Access Pipeline in the United States), Unist’ot’en land defenders (opposed to the construction of the Coastal GasLink fracked gas pipeline on their territory in Canada), and the murder of 14 land and environmental rights defenders in Mexico.

Martha Pskowski, an independent journalist and M.A. candidate in Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University, has written, “Foreign investments have repeatedly been linked to deadly attacks on environmentalists [in Latin America].”

She adds that the killings of environmental defenders has a “chilling effect” on activism and comments that the murders of Rarámuri land advocates in the Sierra Tarahumara region in Chihuahua, Mexico “discouraged some Rarámuri people from speaking out when the energy company TransCanada began building a natural gas pipeline through the area.”

Pskowski highlights, “Investors and companies in the U.S. and Canada have done little to ensure that their money isn’t driving criminalization and attacks on local advocates.”

In his critique of NAFTA 2.0, Manuel Pérez-Rocha of the Institute for Policy Studies has stated, “Human rights in the broadest sense — including economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights — must have primacy over corporate and investor rights, and there needs to be legally binding obligations on transnational corporations.”

He argues that investor-state dispute settlement provisions that undermine environmental rights should be eliminated from trade deals, that indigenous title to land and resources and the right to free, prior and informed consent should be recognized, and that enforceable obligations to reduce and mitigate the effects of climate change should be enshrined.

The Mexican Senate ratified the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement in June 2019. In the United States, it faces a ratification vote in the Senate at some point this year. The Canadian Parliament has yet to ratify the deal.

For additional background on the significance of this issue, you can also read the United Nations Human Rights Council resolution Recognizing the contribution of environmental human rights defenders to the enjoyment of human rights, environmental protection and sustainable development.

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