WCEL partners with UN Environment to launch campaign to protect environmental defenders

WCEL joins historic effort to protect environmental defenders through the Environmental Rights Initiative led by UN Environment on 3 September 2018 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

First Panel

UN Environment, in partnership with the IUCN World Commission on Environmental Law (WCEL), the Global Judicial Institute on the Environment (GJIE), the Organisation of American States (OAS), Global Witness, Ministério Público Federal, Museu do Amanhã, and Instituto de Desenvolvimento e Gestão, launched the historic UN Initiative for Environmental Rights at the Museu do Amanhã on 3 September 2018 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The day-long event – “Environmental Defenders: Bringing environmental protection nearer to the people" – featured the global debut of the UN Environmental Rights Initiative, the release of the Global Witness Annual Report, and a poignant Environmental Defenders photo exhibition.

Denise Hamú, UN Environment Representative, Brazil, and Ricardo Piquet, Director of the Museu do Amanhã (Museum of Tomorrow) opened the event with welcoming remarks.

The event opened with a high-level panel announcing the launch of the UN Initiative for Environmental Rights. Panellists included Leo Heileman, UN Environment Director for Latin America and Caribbean; Niky Fabiancic, Resident Coordinator of the United Nations System; Antonio Herman Benjamin, Justice of the National High Court of Brazil, WCEL Chair and GJIE Interim Governing Committee Member; Gustavo Rocha, Minister of Human Rights; and Brazil Raquel Dodge, Attorney General of Brazil.

The panellists emphasized the importance of holding environmental rights to the same standard as human rights. Panellists urged OAS Member States to sign and ratify the “Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin American and the Caribbean,” when it opens for signature later this month. Panellists called for States to protect those who defend the environment, stressing that more environmental defenders are murdered in the region of Latin America than anywhere else in the world.

Taís Araújo, one of the most famous actresses in Brazil who is also an activist, and Beatriz Azevedo, Director of Social Responsibility at TV Globo, announced an innovative partnership to publicize the plight of environmental defenders.

Representatives from NGOs discussed current problems and realities regarding environmental rights in a session chaired by Jon Watts, Global Editor for Environment at The Guardian, with Arnold Kreilhuber, UN Environment, Law Division Director; Claudia de Windt, Secretariat for Multidimensional Security at OAS; Billy Kite, Campaign Director at Global Witness; Cristiane Passos, Communication Assessor at Comissão Pastoral da Terra (CPT); and Sandra Carvalho, Global Justice. The panellists stressed the importance of State action to protect environmental defenders globally but particularly in Latin America, which sees forty to fifty percent of the murders each year.

Closing remarks were provided by Jon Watts, The Guardian, Global Editor for Environment and Maria do Socorro Costa Silva, Environmental Defender.

Summaries of Speakers’ Remarks

Leo Heileman (UNE Director for Latin America and the Caribbean) discussed the urgency of protecting environmental defenders, stressing that 900 were killed from 2002-2015, and 200 were killed in 2016 alone.

Niky Fabianic (Resident Coordinator of the United Nations System) articulated the importance of Rio de Janeiro and Brazil in the context of international environmental law. He emphasized that environmental pollution affects the present generation, but our children are the ones that pay the highest prices. He emphasized that we have a responsibility to protect our children’s right to have an environment free from pollution.

Antonio Herman Benjamin (National High Court of Brazil; WCEL Chair; GJIE Member): “Attacks on environmental defenders around the world represent the collapse of the Rule of Law. People who dare to speak up for their communities, for biodiversity, for future generations, and for Mother Earth deserve encouragement, praise, and the highest respect. No nation can claim to be really civilized when the fundamental right to advocate for collective rights and nature conservation puts one’s life, safety or family at risk.

“The shocking daily assaults on environmental defenders around the globe is unacceptable. It is a duty of State institutions, including judges and society as a whole, to stop and punish these attacks that take many forms, including assassination, violence, personal and family harassment, silencing of speech, disenfranchisement, and the inappropriate use of the legal system itself (Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation – SLAPs).

“The hundreds of environmental leaders who have suffered attacks or perished defending the foundations and community of all life are more than victims of brutal violence in a particular country. They are in fact contemporary planetary martyrs. Therefore, we must do more, now, to globally and nationally strengthen the recognition and protection for those who have the wisdom and courage to give a voice to Mother Earth and future generations.”

Gustavo Rocha (Minister of Human Rights, Brazil) described his journey to get to his current position as the Secretary of Human Rights, promising to be more vigilant and act with more strength regarding the 257 murders of environmental defenders since 2017.

Raquel Dodge (Attorney General of Brazil) contemplated the tragedy of losing the Brazilian National Museum, which caught fire the night before the event. She compared losing centuries of history in the fire to losing 257 environmental defenders through murder. Attorney General Dodge called for society and the State to act to protect environmental defenders, all of whom are in favour of the sustainable development and are humanity defenders.

Taís Araújo (Actress and Activist) expressed her hopes that her series will enter peoples' hearts and move people to change the sad reality of the deaths of those that defend our lives daily.

Arnold Kreilhuber (UN Environment, Law Division Director) articulated that the initiative will solve all problems but will change the conversation. Environmental defenders have a face and a name do not die in complete anonymity.

Claudia de Windt (WCEL Steering Committee; Secretariat for Multidimensional Security at OAS) emphasized that environmental defenders have the courage to speak out about values that societies have thought important enough to be reflected as principles and rights in constitutions.

Sandra Carvalho (Global Justice) asserted the importance of an active society active regarding the environment and supporting the agenda of the Ministry of the Environment.

Maria do Socorro Costa Silva (Environmental Defender) is from the State of Para, the most dangerous location in Brazil for environmental defenders. She detailed how “development” by multinational corporations kills the environment and the local people. She acknowledged that her life is in danger, but she speaks for future generations. She maintained, “the birds and the fishermen told me the forest and sea were sick. I defend life. Many have died. I could be dead tomorrow.” Her dream: “I want to go to Norway and meet the CEO of the company that is killing my land and give him a glass of the polluted water his company is responsible for.”

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