Protecting environmental defenders, a State duty that mustn’t be deferred | Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA) Skip to content Skip to navigation
29 June 2020

Every day men and women around the world dedicate their lives to protecting the ecosystems upon which entire communities and other living things depend. This work, essential for the protection of our planet, is carried out in legal, social, and political spheres. 

Unfortunately, those who defend the environment are victims of threats and assassinations. For many years now, Latin America has been the most dangerous region in the world to be an environmental defender, accounting for nearly 60 percent of these crimes. This, despite the fact that national and regional governments recognize human rights like free speech and a healthy environment, as well as the rights of nature.

In 2019, Global Witness reported on the murder of 164 environmental defenders, many from Latin American nations—Colombia (24); Brazil (20); Guatemala (16) and Mexico (14).  The report explained, “mining was the worst sector, causing 43 deaths, though deaths related to conflicts over water sources also surged. Attacks driven by agribusiness, logging and hydropower continued too.”

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the grave risk facing environmental defenders has not ceased. Despite social distancing and other measures adopted to slow the spread of the virus, violence aimed at defenders has continued. 

It is important to consider that the pandemic strains the networks of protections that exist to respond to emergencies, putting environmental defenders at increased risk.  This, combined with the lack of will or ability for institutions to respond to any problems other than the current health crisis, makes for a complicated security situation.  

In effect, States must respect and guarantee human rights at all times. These are obligations that cannot be deferred, even in emergency situations, and must be emphasized and strengthened for those at risk, like environmental defenders.

stATE’s Role as Protector

The work of environmental defenders has been recognized within the international system of human rights as essential, in a democratic society, for strengthening the respect and enjoyment of other rights. 

The reality of the dangers with which these defenders live has been accompanied by a judicial evolution, as evidenced by international legal instruments such as the Escazu Agreement, which for the first time included environmental defenders as people subject to special protection.  

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights said that this type of protection is especially necessary due to the threats and intimidation defenders face. 

States have the obligation to:

  • Avoid violating human rights and prevent others from doing so, something that applies to all people.
  • Ensure a safe and conducive environment for environmental defenders to freely carry out their work, and therefore take special action to protect them when they are threatened; refrain from imposing obstacles that hinder the performance of their work; and seriously and effectively investigate violations committed against them.
  • Ensure compliance with procedural rights in environmental matters, i.e. the right to information, public participation and access to justice.
  • Refrain from acting in any way that encourages, stimulates, favors or deepens the vulnerability of these persons; and take necessary and reasonable measures to prevent or protect the rights of those who are in such a situation. This is relevant in the face of the increasing criminalization of human rights defenders by governments, who accuse them of "going against development" in a discourse that has wide reach.
  • Conduct a prompt, serious, impartial and effective investigation into cases of violent death.
  • Always include the perspective of women, since women defenders are exposed to higher levels of violence due to the context of pre-existing inequality.

Finally, it’s important to highlight the need for all measures taken by States to clearly respect human rights and, at the same time, assure the life and integrity of environmental defenders as an indispensable element for climate justice and environmental democracy.

About the Author

sgarcia's picture
Sofía García León

Sofia Garcia Leon is an intern with AIDA's Human Rights and Environment Program from Mexico City. She studies Law at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, where she focuses her learning on international human rights law and environmental law with a gender and intersectional approach.

Latin America

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