Story | 08 Sep, 2021

Environmental defenders, human rights and the growing role of IUCN policy: retired, red-tagged or red-listed?

Excerpt from the special issue of the CEESP publication Policy Matters, focusing on the stories and voices of environmental defenders. Article by Peter Bille Larsen and Jörg Balsiger

As environmental defender issues receive unprecedented international attention, questions arise about the role and response from promoters of conservation activity and cooperation in general (Bille Larsen et al., 2020) and the current and potential role of the IUCN in particular, as demonstrated by a recent virtual dialogue co-organised by CEESP and the University of Geneva entitled “Environmental human rights defenders in the pandemic: the Geneva Roadmap & strengthening IUCN action” (see Figure 1). Although IUCN has long addressed environmental defenders in policy frameworks and activities, we suggest that approaches have mainly been reactive rather than preventive.

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Protest against wetland devastation to build a hotel in Anse La Mouche on Mahe, Seychelles © SALIFA KARAPETYAN/  SEYCHELLES NEWS AGENCY

This article is from Policy Matters Volume 1. It argues that, as the human rights community is being mobilised, there are multiple obstacles to a full-blown environmental human rights and conservation alliance. Many conservation actors do not necessarily associate themselves with human rights, and some, indeed, may directly oppose being associated with human rights in public, let alone being classified as an environmental human rights defender.29This is, for example, the case in countries where raising environmental concerns is considered acceptable, but invoking human rights discourse and claims is not. IUCN is not only in a privileged position to reach such actors, but a critical space and network that conservation actors can access.

1.    Lessons learned

Twenty years ago, the World Conservation Congress (WCC) in Amman was the first of its kind to adopt a resolution on environmental defenders (Resolution 2.37, “Support for environmental defenders”). It emphasised harassment and persecution of “environmental advocates”, calling on the Director General (DG) of IUCN to “speak out publicly and forcefully” and encouraging members to inform the DG about individual cases of persecution against defenders (IUCN, 2001). It also requested the IUCN Council to publish the names of communities and individuals under threat. Two decades later, four key lessons from IUCN’s engagement with the protection of defenders stand out.

1.1    Environmental defenders as a key issue of relevance to IUCN

The first lesson is one of relevance. Resolution 2.37 reminds us that threats against environmental defenders are neither new nor uncommon in the IUCN network, even if media attention has only recently begun to increase. The murder of the rubber tapper Francisco (Chico) Mendes Filho in Acre, Brazil, in 1988, is an emblematic case that made global headlines and also contributed to IUCN’s recognition of extractive reserves. In fact, the history of defenders under attack is both long and intricately tied to multiple fields of conservation activity found across the IUCN network. As noted in a letter from the IUCN Director General to the President of Honduras, following the killing of Berta Cáceres in 2016:

Mrs. Cáceres was not unknown to us; much to the contrary, our vision of a just world that values and conserves nature was enriched by her efforts on behalf of natural resource conservation and the well-being of the most vulnerable communities […] IUCN joins those people and organizations urging that this assassination not go unpunished and that the necessary investigations be made. (emphasis added) (IUCN, 2016).

Special issue of Policy Matters: the stories and voices of environmental defenders across the globePhoto: © UN ENVIRONMENT

Berta Caceres, murdered Honduran activist.


Not only is IUCN aware of such phenomena; persecution of environmental defenders within the Union (members and partners) appears to continue to be experienced by IUCN members and partner organisations.

1.2    Policy action and leadership within IUCN

The second lesson concerns the importance of a policy basis for leadership action. IUCN Director Generals (DGs) have, on a number of occasions, expressed concern, both publicly and by means of informal outreach to relevant parties. In some cases, direct engagement has been sought in a given “situation”; in other cases, public letters were sent to political leaders after irrevocable damage was done. In 2013, for example, IUCN called for a “peaceful, just and fair resolution of the issues surrounding the arrest of Greenpeace activists onboard the Arctic Sunrise” (IUCN, 2013). In the case of the 2018 jailing of Iranian conservationists, the DG met national authorities to ask “for transparency and justice” (IUCN, 2018a).

IUCN DGs have also sent strongly worded letters to decision-makers in the Philippines, Honduras and Mexico, where crimes against environmental defenders continue to raise concerns in the global media. When IUCN expressed shock and sadness about the 2017 killing of Isidro Baldenegro, an Indigenous Mexican environmental activist, the organisation called on “world governments to do everything in their power to prosecute those targeting environmental activists across Latin America and beyond” (IUCN, 2017). IUCN’s 2000 Resolution on environmental defenders is generally listed in such calls to the Director General to “speak out publicly and forcefully” (IUCN, 2020b).

Such cases demonstrate how the 2000 Resolution has allowed IUCN leadership to shed some more international light on the dark side of conservation. The Resolution involves a theory of change that builds on the power and hope of increased public recognition and exposure of crimes against defenders. This sense of power is derived from publicly participating in a network, being part of the Union, as well as the power of protection through the public listing, naming and shaming of crimes, which provides some leverage. Yet, in the absence of systematic reporting on the Resolution’s implementation processes, we know little about the impact of such letters despite their help to mediate and internationalise concern (Keck & Sikkink, 1998).

For an organisation which at times is wary to ruffle the feathers of its government members, the Resolution has enabled – indeed required – IUCN leadership to approach governments directly. Such expressions of condemnation, solidarity and dismay are meaningful and important markers within a political field that far too often leaves the perpetrators off the hook, while defenders face high levels of impunity. Global Witness reported that only nine led to a verdict (Global Witness, 2018).

1.3    Escalation of violence despite growing public concern

The third lesson concerns how public exposure and protection are rarely sufficient to prevent violence from escalating. When Berta Cáceres was assassinated, she was not only a well-known colleague and partner of the IUCN community, she was also a strong public figure, both nationally and internationally. She had recently won the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize, yet would nonetheless encourage her daughter to flee the country the day before her own assassination in order to escape violence to her family (Berry, 2016). During the months prior to her death, Cáceres received several threats concerning her opposition to a hydroelectric project and was publicly stigmatised as a violent anarchist in her own country (Cuevas & Orsi, 2016). Her death took place despite the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) having already granted Berta Cáceres “precautionary measures” in June of 2009 to protect her against intimidation from military forces (IACHR, 2009).

Such contextual elements tell us that crimes against defenders are not exceptions but often reflect a general pattern of violence that has been building up over time. International recognition and public protection, in light of such violent structural conditions, did not prevent the assassination of Cáceres, which prompts questions about what other measures can be envisioned when lives are under threat.

1.4    Need for better community-building, cooperation and response within IUCN

The fourth lesson concerns the growing body of experiences within the IUCN family that suggest a broader need for, and potentially new forms of, stronger responses, cooperation and collective action. To make a difference, future collaborative efforts need to move beyond the “public recognition, naming and shaming” tactic which was encapsulated in the 2000 Resolution. Too many cases drag on, involving multiple layers of intertwined political-economic problems; defender needs expand well beyond what raising public attention alone can achieve.

Individual IUCN members, from the Coordinator of the Indigenous Organisations of the Amazon Basin (Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica, COICA) to whistleblower efforts in the United States, have set up tailored, strategic activities to protect membership and partners at risk. Efforts by IUCN Netherlands and others also demonstrate the relevance of international cooperation and reaching out to IUCN membership when cases of environmental defender needs arise.

There is huge untapped potential to systematically work with and build the capacities of IUCN national committees, just as the IUCN Secretariat and membership hold the power to offer concrete possibilities for better engaging with defender issues. This will require that some IUCN offices shift priorities slightly beyond a narrow, technical, and conservation-only focus. If the ultimate goal of several IUCN bodies is the effective protection of environmental defenders and the reversal of the current tide of violence against them, more must be done to achieve better outcomes, and more must be done differently. In summary, the time is ripe for strengthening IUCN action, policy implementation, and cooperation.

2.    IUCN response: reactionary or preventative?

2.1    Premature retirement: collapsing Resolution 2.37 and defender issues into a policy limbo

While Resolution 2.37, passed in 2000, has been frequently referenced in public statements, it is today – strangely enough – listed as “archived”, with a note that it “no longer require(s) implementation” (IUCN, 2021b). Based on a 2016 resolution to “identify and archive obsolete Resolutions and Recommendations”, the 2000 Defender Resolution was on track to be ‘retired’ as of the time this article was in preparation (December 2020). A 2019 progress report from the IUCN Council Task Force on Resolutions Retirement (IUCN, 2019) spoke of “a list of 534 Resolutions and Recommendations to be moved to the archive” with official retirement to be voted en masse in Marseille 2021, at the WCC. While the effort to clean up the huge body of resolutions is a worthy initiative, was it time to retire the existing 2000 Resolution on environmental defenders?

The very first motion to be voted for at the Congress in Marseille 2021 may do just that. If a new and more comprehensive resolution will hopefully be adopted in 2021, the worst- case scenario is that of retiring the 2000 Resolution without adopting a new one with up- to-date language and more adequate measures. There are good reasons for a more robust resolution on defender issues. However, early retirement of the existing 2000 Resolution, prior to the adoption of new instruments, seems premature and unjustified – hazardous to say the least. The push for early retirement also concerns other matters.

Glancing rapidly through the resolutions to be “retired” reveals, for example, the important 2012 IUCN Resolution adopting the IUCN Policy on Conservation and Human Rights for Sustainable Development. This landmark resolution put human rights at the heart of IUCN policy, yet now also risks being considered obsolete. If a progress report from 2015 noted some integration of rights concerns in the IUCN Secretariat procedures (framed around the introduction of social safeguards) upon becoming an “implementing partner” of the Global Environment Facility, such integration of rights concerns hardly justifies archiving a major decision to adopt a human rights policy for the Union, whose implementation, it is safe to say, remains “work in progress” (IUCN, 2012). Furthermore, respect for and implementation of wider human rights are at the heart of preventing further violence against defenders in the first place. The 2012 and 2000 Resolutions must work in tandem.

Official criteria for rendering resolutions obsolete include justifications such as that the problem no longer exists, that the problem has been resolved or is no longer relevant, that it has been refuted by science or that it is no longer in line with IUCN statutes (IUCN, 2020a). Although there appears to be no implementation report attached to the 2000 Environmental Defenders Resolution, neither defender protection nor human rights policy would seem to fit the bill of a problem solved, invalidated or having becoming obsolete. Quite on the contrary.

The number of killings, harassment and threats remains massive and is on the increase in some parts of the world (Le Billon & Lujala, 2020; Bille Larsen et al., 2020). In February 2020, IUCN’s DG once again issued a statement directly referring to the (now up for retirement) 2000 Environmental Defenders Resolution when responding to the killing of two defenders in the Monarch Biosphere Reserve in Mexico and four Indigenous people in Nicaragua (IUCN, 2020b).

While the strength of resolutions may at times appear lost once the heat and momentum of the World Conservation Congress evaporate, the environmental defender issue
shows us how resolutions can be remobilised in specific situations for specific people. There is therefore no reason to retire resolutions that still hold promise, unless stronger instruments are adopted. The other side of the coin, however, points to daunting challenges, which cannot be resolved through case-by-case public letters, naming and shaming tactics. Again, more must be done within the Union to confront the problem of environmental defender persecution.

Rather than relegation to early retirement, interviews with higher echelons of IUCN as well as field staff reveal that some resolutions are in need of a policy boost. Indeed, the Union harbours considerable potential to take organisational responses to another level of action, yet a stable policy basis is absolutely essential to do this.

2.2    Red-tagging or red-listing?

In the recent report, Enemies of the State? How governments and businesses silence land and environment defenders, Global Witness (2019) denounces the rapidly expanding practice of red-tagging, which refers to the framing, labelling, stigmatisation, and persecution of environmental rights activists as being supporters of armed, left-wing insurgents, terrorists or otherwise considered as ‘enemies of the state’. On at least one such occasion, IUCN expressed “condemnation and grave concern” at the tagging of the now former UN Special Rapporteur Vicky Tauli-Corpuz as a terrorist (IUCN, 2018b).

In contrast with ‘green’ calls for synergies, Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) integration, and the linking of conservation and development, environmental defenders report that such red-tagging and comparable practices are wide-spread. In fact, the red- tagging of conservationists now appears far more widespread than the ‘red-listing’ of violence against them.

The analogy is meant to be more than a punt. If the Red List of Threatened Species is considered a “comprehensive information source on the global conservation status of animal, fungi and plant species”, a more systematic information list should exist for environmental defenders and the dangers for both defenders and conservation efforts. The IUCN Red List is today one of the flagship efforts to determine the “health of the world’s biodiversity”, yet the conservation community remains fragmented in terms of determining the health of its environmental defenders and their working spaces. If IUCN has proven its capacity over the years to set up an impressive system for recognising species under threat of extinction (IUCN, 2021c), the topic of environmental defenders under threat and harassment in the network is only starting to get documented, leaving most defenders invisible, and thus highly vulnerable.

Our forthcoming research, conducted together with the IUCN Secretariat, demonstrates shared concerns across the network, though the Union currently lacks a system for documenting such concerns and responding collectively. The argument here is not to propose, per se, that a Red List of threatened environmental defenders30 be created, thus classifying defenders and their countries in terms of murders, threats of violence (or threat of extinction as the Red List is centred upon), but rather, it is a call for more systematic documentation, prevention and collective responses. Also, what is needed beyond naming and shaming is a systematic and concerted effort to understand the specific drivers and contexts leading to violent environments as well as mobilising Union responses.

Environmental human rights defenders in the pandemic: the Geneva Roadmap & strengthening IUCN actionPhoto: Ana Valerie Mandri Rohen & IUCN CEESP
Figure 1
IUCN-CEESP international workshop, “Environmental human rights defenders in the pandemic: the Geneva Roadmap & strengthening IUCN action”. (IUCN, 2021a)  GRAPHIC BY ANA VALERIE MANDRI ROHEN, CEESP.

3.    Looking forward: how can IUCN respond in the years to come?

As COVID-19 presses on, WCC arrangements are in the (re)making, and the dedicated resolutions on environmental defenders prompted by the IUCN Council, Members and Commissions reveal the high hopes that IUCN will shift gears from a fire-fighting, naming and shaming approach to a more comprehensive stance. Such an approach would engage not only the IUCN Secretariat, but also its members, Commissions and National Committees in efforts to protect environmental defenders. As an IUCN Guidance Note on National Committees mentions:

The ability of IUCN to fulfill its Mission depends directly on the capacity of all its constituencies – the Members, the Commissions, the National/Regional Committees, the Secretariat, the Council as well its external partners and stakeholders such as donor agencies, project collaborators and the public – to work together with confidence, respect and mutual support (IUCN, 2020c).

Responding to defender concerns need not only be a question of high-level support, but may in the future involve a wide range of grassroots, national and international responses that build on the growing body of experience by defenders themselves and their supporters.

Resolutions are not magic bullets, nor is their content set in stone. Moving forward with IUCN action, in support of environmental defenders requires cool pragmatism about the potential and limitations of resolutions and Union action. The current draft motion suggests strengthening knowledge, but also reviewing the existing programme in order to develop an “IUCN policy and action plan on environmental human rights defenders and whistleblowers”, among other things, and to allow for dialogue and independent fact- finding with state members.

As a recent meeting of researchers, defenders and civil society organisations in Geneva demonstrated (Figure 1) (Larsen & Lador, 2021), there is no reason to reinvent the wheel, but rather to benefit from the multiple initiatives in the making promoted by both environmentalists and the human rights community, including defenders themselves (, 2020) As the human rights community is being mobilised, notably through a recently adopted resolution, Human Rights Council (HRC) 40/11 (RightDocs, 2019), there are also multiple obstacles to a full-blown environmental human rights and conservation alliance. Many conservation actors do not necessarily associate themselves with human rights, and some, indeed, may directly oppose being associated with human rights in public, let alone being classified as an environmental human rights defender. 31

This is, for example, the case in countries where raising environmental concerns is considered acceptable, but invoking human rights discourse and claims is not. Self- identification as an activist, defender, conservationist, or professional varies over time, space and even individual careers. This does not make human rights irrelevant to the conservation world. On the contrary, it must prompt careful thinking about how best to reach a potentially large group of environmental defenders far from the radars of
mainstream human rights monitoring. IUCN is not only in a privileged position to reach such actors, but a critical space and network that conservation actors can access. UNEP and other international organisations are stepping up action in support of defenders.

Responding to the needs and rights of environmental defenders is today an urgent testing ground for IUCN to mobilise its convening power of government and NGO membership for those most in need.

29) For more on the political dimensions of environmental defender issues, see Middeldorp & Le Billon (2019).
30) Mongabay, the on-line website for primarily environmental justice news, runs a series entitled, “Endangered Environmentalists” (Mongabay, 2021).
31) On some of the more political dimensions of environmental defender issues, see Middeldorp & Le Billon (2019).