Global Witness ‘Defending Tomorrow’ report notes the criminalization of Wet’suwet’en land defenders in Canada

Published by Brent Patterson on

In January 2019, heavily-armed Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers arrested Wet’suwet’en land defenders opposed to the construction of a fracked gas pipeline on their unceded territories. Photo by Michael Toledano.

The Global Witness Defending Tomorrow report documents the killings of 212 land and environmental defenders around the world in 2019.

The report states: “Indigenous peoples are at a disproportionate risk of reprisals. Last year, 40% of murdered defenders belonged to indigenous communities. Between 2015 and 2019 over a third of all fatal attacks have targeted indigenous people – even though indigenous communities make up only 5% of the world’s population.”

It also references the criminalization of Wet’suwet’en land defenders:

“In January, members of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation indigenous group who objected to the construction of [TC Energy Coastal GasLink fracked] gas pipeline through their territory were forcibly removed from their protest site in British Columbia. Heavily armed police arrested 14 demonstrators, injuring one of them.

The police were enforcing an order by the British Columbia Supreme Court requiring the removal of the protestors’ barricade, which blocked the access road to the pipeline’s proposed construction site. First Nations people claim the project infringes on their land rights. The court order effectively criminalised them for protesting on their own land.

In February 2020, talks between Wet’suwet’en leaders and the government broke down and protesters fear another wave of police repression.”

Lawlor: The model of self-regulation isn’t working

Yesterday, Mary Lawlor, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, commented on the findings in the Global Witness report.

Lawlor noted: “Up to now, companies have largely been left to self-regulate themselves when it comes to the negative human rights impact of their activities. It is clear this model is not working. When it comes to large-scale projects, it is also now clear that a responsibility also lies with those financing such projects, including States and investment banks.”

Gaps in implementation of human rights frameworks

While a human rights framework may offer some hope, there are also evident gaps in its implementation with respect to the Wet’suwet’en peoples.

The provincial government that approved the pipeline on Wet’suwet’en lands also passed legislation implementing the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) months prior to the second RCMP raid in February of this year.

The Canadian government, which is a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, also ignored this resolution from the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) that had called on the State in December 2019 to guarantee that no force would be used against Wet’suwet’en peoples and that the RCMP would be withdrawn from their traditional lands.

And in April, the Government of Canada-owned Export Development Canada credit agency employed the language of due diligence and human rights in justifying its loan of up to $500 million for the Coastal GasLink pipeline.

Binding Treaty?

Peace Brigades International has observed the spike in attacks against land and environmental defenders and believes that a Binding Treaty that restrains transnational corporations, as opposed to voluntary codes of conduct, could potentially lead to greater a protection of defenders who challenge their interests.

Earlier this month, Yessika Hoyos from the Jose Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective (CCAJAR) in Colombia commented on a PBI-United Kingdom webinar: “Our collective together with other organizations have been supporting the real creation of a Binding Treaty from the UN. …Many companies together with the states have been blocking this issue. They haven’t allowed for a Treaty to be created.”

While transnationals and states have resisted the creation of a Binding Treaty, it will be discussed at a session of intergovernmental negotiations on October 26-30 in Geneva.

It is unclear the role the Government of Canada is playing in these talks. Oxfam Canada has suggested: “Canadian government officials have been largely absent from the process so far.” The UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights has also previously noted that “there is greater room” for the Canadian government “to consider their activities” with respect to even the voluntary UN Guiding Principles as a baseline.

Given the criminalization and killings of land and environmental defenders noted in the Global Witness report, it is imperative that meaningful strategies, mechanisms, binding treaties or some other means are found to stop this violence.

For more about the Wet’suwet’en land defenders, please see the Unist’ot’en Camp website as well as their Facebook page.

Image below from Global Witness Defending Tomorrow report.

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