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Rapid response mechanism to protect environmental defenders established under the Aarhus Convention

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A decision establishing a rapid response mechanism for the protection of environmental defenders was adopted by the Meeting of the Parties to the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention) at its seventh session in Geneva, on 21 October 2021.

This is the first such mechanism specifically safeguarding environmental defenders to be established within a legally binding framework either under the United Nations system or other intergovernmental structure. The decision marks an important step for the advancement of environmental democracy, helping to uphold the universal right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment – as recognized by the Human Rights Council earlier this month.

The 46 countries in the pan-European region and the European Union that are Party to the Convention agreed to establish a mechanism in the form of a Special Rapporteur on environmental defenders under the Aarhus Convention to provide a rapid response to alleged violations. The Rapporteur’s role is to take measures to protect any person experiencing, or at imminent threat of penalization, persecution, or harassment for seeking to exercise their rights under the Aarhus Convention.

Whether groups who protest against the construction of a dangerous dam or individuals who speak out against harmful agricultural practices in their local community, environmental defenders are vital to the preservation of the environment across the globe. Under article 3 (8) of the Aarhus Convention, Parties shall ensure that persons exercising their rights in conformity with the provisions of the Convention shall not be penalized, persecuted or harassed in any way for their involvement. It is crucial that environmental defenders be able to exercise their rights under the Convention without fear. Unfortunately, Parties, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and other stakeholders have reported shocking cases in which environmental defenders face dismissal from employment, surveillance, heavy fines, threats and intimidation, criminalization, detention, violence, and even killings for their environmental work.

Incidents of harassment and violence against environmental defenders are far from uncommon. A report to the Human Rights Council by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Ms. Mary Lawlor found that one in two human rights defenders recorded killed in 2019  had been working with communities around issues of land, environment, impacts of business activities, poverty and rights of indigenous peoples, Afrodescendants and other minorities.  Among the Parties to the Aarhus Convention, incidents of persecution, penalization and harassment of environmental defenders have been reported in 16 countries since January 2017. For instance, in 2020, after speaking out against an oil project, two environmental defenders in France experienced harassment from the authorities, including airport detentions and home raids. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, in 2019, peaceful female protestors experienced excessive police force, and misdemeanour charges, as well as being denied proper medical care, for their environmental and human rights activism. This not only infringed on their rights under the Aarhus Convention and threatened their safety, but also likely had the effect of deterring others from exercising their environmental rights. A report from a civil society representative in Ukraine stated that “at least 55 activists have been attacked in total since early 2017 and more than 40 in the past 12 months.” Even more worryingly, in 2019, two forest rangers were killed for trying to thwart illegal logging in forests in Romania, and many others were harmed or harassed. Global Witness recorded that 1,539 environmental defenders were killed between 2012 and 2020 worldwide, and this is widely regarded as a gross underestimate due to widespread underreporting. 

In contrast to current existing initiatives on environmental defenders, which function mainly by building political pressure through press releases and media statements, the Aarhus Convention’s rapid response mechanism is built upon a binding legal framework and does not require available domestic remedies to first be exhausted. Any member of the public, Party to the Aarhus Convention, or the secretariat can submit a complaint to the Special Rapporteur. Taking into consideration that time is of the essence when it comes to the precarious safety of environmental defenders, complainants may file a complaint even if domestic remedies (lengthy court trials, etc.) have not yet been exhausted, and may maintain confidentiality when providing information on violations of article 3 (8) of the Convention. 

The Special Rapporteur has various tools for resolving complaints and protecting environmental defenders quickly and effectively, which may include issuing immediate and ongoing protection measures, using diplomatic channels, issuing public statements, or bringing the matter to the attention of other relevant human rights bodies, and of the concerned Governments and Heads of State. Protection measures will be tailored to each situation; this could mean that it will list several actions that the Party concerned is directed to take to ensure that environmental defenders are not subject to further persecution, penalization and harassment.

Furthermore, the Rapporteur will take a proactive role in raising awareness of environmental defenders’ rights under the Aarhus Convention and will cooperate with other relevant human rights bodies and organizations. 

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated: “I remain deeply concerned by the targeting of environmental activists. I welcome your efforts to establish a rapid response mechanism to protect environmental defenders. This is an important contribution to help advance my Call to Action for Human Rights”. He recalled that “Twenty years ago, the Aarhus Convention entered into force, bridging the gap between human and environmental rights. Today, as the devastating effects of climate change continue to ravage the world, the Convention’s core purpose – of allowing people to protect their wellbeing and that of future generations – has never been more critical.”

UNECE Executive Secretary Olga Algayerova welcomed the creation of the rapid response mechanism stating: “This landmark decision is a clear signal to environmental defenders that they will not be left unprotected. It demonstrates a new level of commitment to upholding the public’s rights under the Aarhus Convention, as well as Parties’ willingness to respond effectively to grave and real-time challenges seen in the Convention’s implementation on the ground.” 

Austria and Ireland announced their commitment to co-lead the rapid response mechanism, and Parties agreed to hold an extraordinary session of the Meeting of the Parties in 2022 to elect the Special Rapporteur.

More information: 

Decision VII/9 on a rapid response mechanism to deal with cases related to article 3 (8) of the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters:… 

Information note on the situation regarding environmental defenders in Parties to the Aarhus Convention from 2017 to date:

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