UN plan to protect 'environmental defenders'

07 March 2018 - 06:00 By Tony Carnie
UN Environment Programme Executive Director Erik Solheim.
UN Environment Programme Executive Director Erik Solheim.

Alarmed by the killings of hundreds of “environmental defenders” across the world‚ the United Nations is urging governments and companies around the world to take a stand against the continuing intimidation and murder of environmental activists.

Launching a new global initiative in Geneva to protect environmental defenders from attack and harassment‚ the United Nations environment agency‚ UN Environment‚ on Tuesday estimated that at least 908 “environmental defenders” had been killed in 35 countries between 2002 and 2013.

“UN Environment urges all governments to prioritise the protection of environmental defenders from harassment and attack and to bring those who harm or threaten defenders to justice swiftly and definitively. Tolerance of intimidation of environmental defenders undermines basic human rights and environmental rule of law‚” the agency said in a statement.

By helping people to better understand their rights and how to defend them‚ and by assisting governments to better safeguard environmental rights‚ the new Environmental Rights Initiative would strive to bring environmental protection nearer to the people.

“UN Environment is also calling upon the private sector to move beyond a culture of basic compliance to one where the business community champions the rights of everyone to a clean and healthy environment.

“Those who struggle to protect planet and people should be celebrated as heroes‚ but the sad fact is that many are paying a heavy price with their safety and sometimes their lives. It’s our duty to stand on the side of those who are on the right side of history. It means standing for the most fundamental and universal of human rights‚” said UN Environment head Erik Solheim.

Last year‚ South African born conservationist Wayne Lotter‚ 51‚ was gunned down in Dar Es Salaam. Lotter was a founder of the PAMS Foundation which worked to stop the poaching of elephants and trafficking of ivory in Tanzania. The former Kruger National Park ranger had received several death threats since moving to Tanzania in 2009 to help track down prominent ivory traffickers.

Last month‚ wildlife investigator Esmond Bradley Martin‚ 75‚ was found murdered in his home in Nairobi. While the circumstances of his death is still under investigation‚ the former UN special envoy for rhino conservation was known for his undercover work investigating the black market wildlife trade.

Closer to home‚ Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Radebe was murdered outside his home in the Xolobeni area in March 2016. Radebe was an outspoken community leader opposed to dune mining on the Wild Coast‚ but no arrests have been announced since he was gunned down in front of his son near Port Edward.

UN Environment estimated that roughly four environmental defenders had been killed every week this year‚ though the total was likely to be far higher.

“Many more are harassed‚ intimidated and forced from their lands. Around 40 -50 % of the 197 environmental defenders killed in 2017 came from indigenous and local communities. Another “disturbing” trend was the attempt by some countries to restrict the activities of non-governmental organisations.

The agency said that between 1993 and 2016‚ at least 48 countries enacted laws that restricted the activities of local NGOs receiving foreign funding‚ while 63 countries adopted laws restricting activities of foreign NGOs. “This is not just renewed commitment to environmental protection‚” Leo Heileman‚ director of UN Environment’s office in Latin America and the Caribbean said. “It can be an opportunity to give environmental rights the same legal standing as human rights at the global level.”

For more information‚ visit the United Nations Environment Programme.