Nations must do more to protect environmental defenders, UN expert says

The photo shows conservationist Emmanuel de Merode who was shot earlier this year after trying to protect gorillas in Congo.

John Knox, UN Independent Expert on human rights and the environment, called today on nations to do more to protect human rights activists and environmental defenders. Knox plea comes on World Environment Day and highlights a world that is increasingly becoming more hostile and deadly against activists. Knox also linked the effects of climate change, pollution and environmental degradation to human rights.

“Environmental degradation, including harm from climate change, desertification, air and water pollution, and exposure to toxic substances, impairs the enjoyment of a vast range of human rights, including the right to life, to health and to an adequate standard of living,” Knox said.

“As States implement their human rights obligations relating to the environment,” Knox continued, “they should pay particular attention to the threats against environmental human rights defenders – those who strive to protect the environment for the benefit of us all.”

A recent study by Global Witness shows that, on average, two environmental activists have been killed each week over the past four years. The report found that these eco-murders have tripled over the past decade. 147 activists were killed in 2012, compared to 51 activists only ten years earlier. Shockingly, almost none of the killers have faced charges from authorities.

“Environmental defenders are at the front line of efforts to protect us all from the severe impact of environmental degradation on the enjoyment of human rights,” Knox said. “States must do more to protect environmental human rights defenders from threats, and to promptly investigate threats and killings when they occur.”

The study shows that at least 908 people have been killed in what largely are disputes over industrial logging, mining and land rights between2002 and 2013. Violence against activists are particularly common in Latin America and Asia-Pacific. Global Witness notes that there is a “severe shortage” of monitoring surrounding the death of environmental activists – and that the number of killings is “likely” to be much higher than what their study shows. “This lack of attention is feeding endemic levels of impunity, with just over one per cent of the perpetrators known to have been convicted,” the organization writes.

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