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December 10 is international human rights day: FoEI remembers environmental activists

by Denis Burke — last modified Dec 10, 2012 12:00 PM

Friends of the Earth International marks December 10 – the international day for human rights – by reflecting on the sacrifices and victories of environmental activists around the world. Human rights abuses perpetrated against environmental activists have gained more and more attention in recent times.

Victor BarroGlobal demand for ever diminishing levels of natural resources has caused increased competition among transnational corporations (TNCs), which often leads to irreparable social and environmental damage and to brutal responses to protests, including the criminalization of environmental and human rights defenders.

This year alone, Friends of the Earth groups have been among the targets of human rights abuses. Friends of the Earth groups in the Phillippines, Uganda, Swaziland, Mozambique, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, among others, have been the targets of transnational corporations or government harassment, intimidation or arbitrary arrest.

There can be no doubt as to the legitimacy of the right to protest, to peacefully protect your community and to voice concerns about international projects that impact your way of life, culture or family. Most of the cases that Friends of the Earth International has handled in 2012 have been related to protests around the extractive industries; particularly dams, mines and plantations (land grabbing has been a common cause of protest that has often been met with an unlawful, inhumane response).

The severity of this situation has recently become clearer thanks to the committed work of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. Friends of the Earth advocates for justice for those affected and works to raise awareness with the support of the European Union.

When we talk about violations committed against environmental activists, we refer to individuals or groups who are victims of human rights violations because of their involvement in environmental activism, including all people opposed to destructive projects in the extractive, infrastructure and development sector; the rights of indigenous communities and minorities; the rights of women, communicators, lawyers, academics; or simply those who defend their own rights to protect their sustainable livelihoods, such as artisanal fisherfolk. When we talk about environmental defenders we include individuals who do not necessarily identify themselves as environmental justice activists, but who through their actions are defending environmental justice or defending people affected by environmental injustices, whether at community, national, regional or international level.

Why is this happening?

Defenders have often been targeted for their resistance to policies or regulations that move power away from the local level and concentrate control over land and resources in the hands of elites and transnational groups. TNCs investment expansion, combined with weak state-level human rights institutions have led to an increase in land grabbing, resource appropriation and attempts to privatize community managed assets. Activists and journalists responding to these issues have suffered unlawful detention, threats, harassment and break-ins. Murders and disappearances are also alarmingly common. The Global Witness report A Hidden Crisis says that there was one death per week on average in the decade to 2012 . The perpetrators of these abuses regularly operate on behalf of national governments or transnational companies. Private and public security forces are increasingly involved in harassing or harming activists, and increasingly heavily armed.

Information on these abuses is too sparse to say whether or not this trend is worsening. The Global Witness report A Hidden Crisis says that there was one death per week on average in the decade to 2012 . Reporting mechanisms have become more sophisticated and rights awareness has grown in much of the world, but understanding what is happening is still problematic. The scale of this issue is largely invisible as global monitoring remains very difficult: the relatively small numbers of incidents reported in Africa and Central Asia, for instance, is telling. Local, municipal, regional and even national governments have rewritten laws to give legitimacy to their heinous rights violations, providing legal cover for rights abuses.

Friends of the Earth member groups are continuing their work on this issue. Please check back regularly to see how you can spread the word and offer support.

Friends of the Earth Groups and Human Rights


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