Countries to vote on increasing protection of environmental defenders

People take part in a Fridays for Future demonstration in Berlin demanding socially just and effective measures to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. (Photo: Keystone/ Jörg Carstensen/DPA)

A group of 46 countries is set to vote in Geneva this week on a new mechanism to speed up the process of coming to the aid of environmental rights defenders amid rising cases of violence.

Taking place every four years, parties will meet at the Palais des Nations under the Aarhus Convention, a key instrument adopted nearly 20 years ago that protects the public’s access to information and justice on environmental matters.

Delegations will discuss, among other issues, a proposal to create a rapid response mechanism for environmental defenders.

The initiative comes amid rising cases of violence and intimidation against environmental and land defenders worldwide. Findings released by Global Witness last month revealed that 227 activists were murdered in 2020 for defending their land and the planet. That constitutes the highest number ever recorded for the second year in a row.

“Everybody has been worried about the issue of environmental defenders which has gained attention at a worldwide level,” says Yves Lador, a representative for the US-based environmental organisation Earthjustice at the UN in Geneva.

He cites Belarus as one of the worst-case recent examples in Europe, where a crackdown on civil society continues to escalate. The government has closed down dozens of civil society organisations since massive protests against president Lukashenko’s authoritarian grip on power broke out in 2020, with many of them specialising in environmental rights.

There is already a committee under the Aarhus Convention whose mission is to receive complaints from victims of rights abuses, however, the body of experts is not suitable to act quickly, Lador explains.

Countries will debate whether to appoint a special rapporteur tasked with monitoring abuses against environmental defenders and swiftly engage with governments when these happen to avoid further violations – much like the experts of the UN Human Rights Council.

Lador doesn't expect any particular pushback on the issue from countries. Members will vote on a resolution to create the mandate but the appointment won't happen until next year.

Europe under scrutiny

Another issue that is likely to cause heated debate at the meeting will be the recent reprimanding of the European Union for breaching the treaty’s rules.

In 2017, the convention’s compliance committee said the bloc was failing to grant NGOs and members of the public enough access to environmental justice.

At the meeting of parties in Budvah in September 2017, fraught discussions almost caused a walk-out by NGOs before a decision was taken to readdress the issue at this year’s conference, says Lador, who was present.

The EU has since taken steps to comply after lawmakers in the European Parliament agreed earlier this month to amend its legislation, giving the public and NGOs more scope to challenge EU decisions in court that adversely affect the environment. For example, decisions approving harmful pesticides or enabling funding to coal plants.

However, there are still areas where the EU is still not complying with the rules, Lador continues. “We're starting to see a bit of the same scenario coming up again, so we'll see, because no one could accept that a party would have a privileged status and be allowed to breach some of its own obligations under the convention.”

Guinea Bissau to join the treaty

Guinea Bissau is this week expected to be accepted as the newest member of the Aarhus Convention, becoming the first country outside of the UN Economic Commission for Europe to join the treaty.

Lador says the milestone move signals the convention “opening itself to becoming a universal instrument, following the path of the UNECE Water Convention” and paving the way for other countries to follow suit.