The newly appointed special rapporteur on environmental defenders Michel Forst will be able to intervene when environmentalists in the pan-European region are at risk of being attacked or penalised.
Defending the planet’s health can be a dangerous line of work – at times deadly. Two thirds of defenders murdered worldwide are environmental advocates, with 227 killings reported in 2020. While attacks in Europe and Central Asia are not as frequent as in other parts of the world, industries and governments publicly exposed for polluting or turning a blind eye to environmental crimes have been known to retaliate with harassment, legal action and even violence.
Environmental defenders in Ukraine documenting the impacts of the war or campaigners in Switzerland practising civil disobedience to alert the public about the climate threat can now turn to a UN expert to rapidly intervene on their behalf.
Elected at the end of June by parties to the Aarhus convention on the right to information about environmental issues, Michel Forst is the world’s first UN special rapporteur on environmental defenders. The nomination follows a 2021 decision by European and central Asian countries to create a rapid response mechanism amid a rise in attacks against defenders.
The French 71-year-old has been an environmental advocate since the 1970s, leading organisations from Amnesty International to the French National Consultative Commission on Human Rights. Most recently, he was UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders from 2014 to 2020.
Responding to imminent risk
Forst’s plans for the next four years are still being concocted. “It’s a very new mandate,” he told Geneva Solutions. To develop the tools and mechanisms he’ll be using throughout his term, he won’t have to look very far.
“I'll be looking at how the working methods developed by the Office of High Commissioner of Human Rights could be implemented in this mandate, for instance, receiving complaints, sending communications to states when we know that rights have been violated and issuing public statements as well,” he said.
The complaints system will be one of Forst’s flagship measures and a chance to take it one step further. When UN experts under the Human Rights Council receive a complaint and write to a state asking for an explanation, the government has 60 days to reply, rendering it ineffective when a person’s life or security is at risk, he noted.
“We need to understand how it could be made effective because rapid response means that the special rapporteur has the possibility to intervene immediately by different means.”
The expert will also resort to what he calls “quiet diplomacy”, meeting with ambassadors both in Geneva and abroad, where there might be “systemic attacks against defenders”.
Navigating turbulent diplomatic relations
Forst was elected by consensus by the parties to the Aarhus convention – an encouraging start for the expert. But not all governments will be easy to approach when they’re the ones in the hot seat.
The most notable one is Belarus, sanctioned last year by fellow party members for closing down an anti-nuclear NGO that was collaborating with an expert body of the Convention.
The country has deployed one of the most severe crackdowns in recent years in the region against civil society, and is on Forst’s to-do list. The country did not support the idea of creating a mechanism in the beginning, according to observers, although it did not oppose the proposal during the formal adoption last year. Last week, it was a no-show for the French expert’s nomination.
“Belarus is one of the last countries that I visited as special rapporteur on human rights defenders and on that occasion I met with a number of environmental defenders. I also had lengthy discussions with both the minister for foreign affairs and the minister of justice about the cases and to look at how my mandate at that time could help support government efforts to convict the perpetrators of attacks against defenders,” he said.
Forst says he will seek to speak with Belarus, a task that will not be easy given its allegiance to Russia and resulting isolation from the west. But the seasoned expert is no stranger to hostile governments.
“It was not easy, in the past, when I dealt with governments like Colombia, Mexico, and others that were not very friendly to defenders. I'm used to doing so,” he said.
Pushing for corporate responsibility
These two Latin American countries ranked at the top with the most recorded killings of environmentalists in 2020, but they’re not part of the Convention. Forst is hoping to keep an eye on other such countries at least when a European or Central Asian company is involved.
“Security forces employed by companies are the main perpetrators against environmental defenders. Part of the mandate is not only to speak to states, but also to companies and to draw attention to them, and to the countries in which they have their seat, over cases of maladministration, corruption or acts against defenders,” Forst said.
His efforts could add pressure on European countries to toughen corporate responsibility laws that could help protect defenders in countries beyond the convention’s jurisdiction. Within the country borders of the agreement, campaigners would also like to see Forst tackle legal abuses against environmental defenders that fall in a grey zone.
Yves Lador, Geneva representative for EarthJustice, told Geneva Solutions: “We see a worrying trend in democratic countries of targeting environmental activists directly through laws through different levels.”
Lador cites a public order bill announced a month ago in the UK that would crack down on disruptive demonstrations such as the ones organised by the likes of Extinction Rebellion. He also mentions the case of Swiss activists who played tennis in a Credit Suisse building in protest of the bank’s polluting activities – different courts have been in disagreement of whether the climate threat justifies breaking the law to raise awareness.
On the specific issues Forst will be focusing on, he says it’s too premature to tell. For now, he has met with NGOs and states and heard their main concerns.