Aarhus Convention parties to elect Special Rapporteur with power to issue protection measures for environmental defenders at risk

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A recent protest in Vancouver, Unceded Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Territory, in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en struggle against the Coastal GasLink (CGL) fracked gas pipeline being constructed on their territory without consent. Photo by Mike Graeme.

On October 21, forty-six countries adopted a legally binding mechanism to protect environmental defenders under the Aarhus Convention.

The signatories to the Convention include Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the European Union.

Canada is not a signatory to this Convention.

While the Aarhus Convention was adopted in 1998, the new agreement establishes a post for a Special Rapporteur on environmental defenders.

The Parties will reconvene in 2022 to elect the Special Rapporteur.

This Special Rapporteur will be able to provide a rapid response to allegations of violations under the Convention.

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

Any member of the public, secretariat or Party to the Aarhus Convention, will be able to submit a confidential complaint to the Special Rapporteur, even before other legal remedies have been exhausted.

In contrast to current existing initiatives, which mainly rely on applying political pressure through the media, the Aarhus Convention’s rapid response mechanism will be built on a binding legal framework, giving it much greater powers to act.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the Meeting of the Parties: “I remain deeply concerned by the targeting of environmental activists. I welcome your efforts to establish a rapid response mechanism to protect environmental defenders.”

Guterres adds: “As the devastating effects of climate change continue to ravage the world, the Convention’s core purpose – of allowing people to protect their wellbeing and that of future generations – has never been more critical.”

Canada and the Aarhus Convention

While Canada is party to agreements with the European Union, perhaps most notably the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) that entered into force in 2017, it is not party to the Aarhus Convention.

In April 2020, the Government of Canada stated: “Canada is not a party to the Convention because Canada maintains a well-established system of engaging the public.”

It added: “Canada complies with most of the provisions and objectives of the Convention, thus acceding to the Convention would have limited benefit to existing processes in Canada.”

Currently Indigenous environmental defenders on Wet’suwet’en and Secwepemc territories in Canada face criminalization and harassment due to their opposition to the construction of pipelines on their lands without free, prior and informed consent.

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) has called on Canada to immediately stop the construction of these projects and withdraw the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) from those territories.

Further reading on the Convention

Governments and stakeholders strengthen commitment to environmental democracy for sustainable, inclusive and resilient development – United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) media release, October 22, 2021.

Rapid response mechanism to protect environmental defenders established under the Aarhus Convention – UNECE media release, October 22, 2021.

Photo by Mike Graeme.

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