The U.N. environment program is taking aim at corporations and governments that threaten and intimidate environmental defenders and foul the planet for financial gain. A panel of environmental activists meeting in Geneva explored the actions needed to ensure a safe, healthy environment.
A film that began a panel discussion is narrated by Kenyan environmental activist Phyllis Omido. She succeeded in closing down a lead smelting plant in a slum near Mombasa, which she said spewed poisonous fumes into the air, killing and harming local residents, including her child.
While that battle was won, the fight is far from over. U.N. Environment’s head of communication for environmental governance, Niamh Brannigan, says threats against environmental defenders continue.
“We have been receiving messages over the last two days to say that another environmental defender has been shot dead in the Philippines. Ricardo Mayumi of the Ifugao Peasant Movement. He has been leading the opposition to the Mini Hydro Dam in Santa Clara of the Santa Clara Power Corporation and we believe that he has been shot dead,” said Brannigan.
Between 2002 and 2013, the United Nations reports 908 people in 35 countries have been killed defending the environment and land.
U.N. Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kate Gilmore says all human rights depend on the environment. Yet, she says people continue to pollute the Earth’s resources for short-term economic gain, endangering the lives and livelihoods of future generations.
“The polluter must pay, so we say. But in practice it is those who have contributed the least who are paying the most... We know what to do — defend the environment and defend those who defend it... and hold those who violate the law accountable,” she said.
Bianca Jagger is president and chief executive of the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation. She calls for those who assassinate environmental defenders of indigenous peoples and their communities to be brought to justice. But she acknowledges that is difficult because governments often join forces with companies that exploit indigenous rights.
“So, we need to make a call to all those multi-nationals or national companies that are involved in dams, mining and other exploitation of the land, who want to take the land away from indigenous people and their ancestral land from indigenous people that we need to put an end to that,” she said.
U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment John Knox was instrumental in pushing forward the Environmental Rights Initiative that seeks to promote, protect and respect human and environmental rights. He says it is absolutely crucial that more be done to protect environmental defenders.
“Four people on average a week are killed around the world for trying to protect the environment," said Knox. "If we cannot protect the people who are trying to protect the environment for the rest of us, everything else we are doing will be ineffective. So, it is absolutely vital that we do that.”
Knox says the right to a healthy environment has been adopted by more than 100 countries. In an ironic twist, he notes one place where it has not been adopted is at the United Nations. He says it is time for this world body to recognize that everyone should be able to enjoy his or her human right to a safe and healthy environment.