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Working to make the world a cleaner, fairer place can be a dangerous and thankless task. Occasionally, voices for justice and equality, like Mandela or the Dalai Lama XIV, are praised internationally. But most of the people who make great personal sacrifices to protect our collective wellbeing are people you and I have never heard of – and some of them are in danger all the time.

Turkish people in Chicago protesting Turkish government and police brutality in Turkey.

On September 19, 2013, thirty Greenpeace activists were arrested following an attempt to stage a peaceful protest on board a Russian oil rig. One month later, the activists are still being detained in Russia while the security services ‘investigate’ charges of piracy. Unfortunately, the use of such absurd charges against environmental activists, who are manifestly innocent, is not unusual at all: Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan’s characterization of the Gezi Park protesters as ‘looters’ is a similar example.

From Honduras to Russia to Turkey, activists and community leaders are being harassed and intimidated for standing up for environmental or social causes. We can’t say with confidence that environmental activists are suffering more persecution now than in the past  – there simply isn’t enough current or historical data to be sure – but as international organizations pay more attention to the overlap between human rights violations and environmental activism, the severity of this global trend is slowly becoming apparent.

ITN report on Greenpeace case

Explanations for this pattern vary, but the following factors certainly contribute.

Increased competition for natural resources and tighter environmental regulations in most rich countries have caused a race to exploit the cheaper resources of under-regulated, cash-hungry southern countries, creating more possibilities for conflict over land and other resources.

International human rights standards do not currently go nearly far enough towards ensuring that transnational companies respect social and environmental standards abroad. This combination of inadequate international standards with weak or greedy national systems creates conditions where, for example, Chinese factory workers make goods for western markets under dangerous, exhausting,  or exploitative conditions that would no longer be accepted in the West. Their government won’t take steps to ensure their wellbeing and the international community can’t agree on workable solutions to insist that governments protect their citizens. But these are also the legally nebulous circumstances that see opponents of dams or palm oil plantations being harassed, kidnapped, threatened or killed with almost total impunity in a number of countries.

The 2008 credit crunch and subsequent financial crises have created an appetite among investment banks and large pension funds for new ventures outside of the rich world’s battered economies. Even some supposedly environmental programs, such as tree plantations, deserve their share of the blame, as they cause more problems than they solve. Clearing land to construct a dam or plant a monoculture plantation often leads to people being pushed off their land and protesters being threatened. Environmental activists, like most activists, are also a lot more vulnerable because they tend to get in the way of the plans of powerful people. Friends of the Earth groups around the world have been working hard to bring attention to these cases.

Front Line Defenders interview with Berta Cáceres

In the same week that the Greenpeace incident was reported, an activist called Berta Cáceres was sentenced to serve a jail sentence in Honduras and has since had to go into hiding. Friends of the Earth believes that her life is in danger if she goes to prison. She is a long term advocate for environmental and human rights justice in her region of Honduras. Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, could just as easily have been talking about Berta Cáceres when he described the Russian court’s treatment of the Greenpeace campaigners as ‘Nothing less than an assault on the very principle of peaceful protest’. Rulers have understood and largely respected the immunity of diplomats since antiquity. Peaceful protest needs the same respect. As the environmental crisis  we face becomes more severe by the day, the need for governments to respect and protect the human rights of environmental protesters is more urgent than ever.

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This blog post was written by Denis Burke for Blog Action Day 2013. The views expressed are the author’s and do not strictly reflect the position of Friends of the Earth International.

Top image: Turkish people in Chicago protesting Turkish government and police brutality in Turkey. June 15th 2013. By Mental Balance