Protecting Environmental Defenders: Updates and Challenges

Protecting Environmental Defenders: Updates and Challenges

About this Session

Environmental human rights defenders (EHRDs) have been increasingly under attack. Despite the triple planetary crisis and the global recognition of the right to a healthy, clean and sustainable environment, the number of cases of threats, intimidation, harassment and persecution of environmental human right defenders is rapidly increasing. The involvement of State and nonstate actors, the shrinking civil society space, corruption and impunity as a whole have made the work of these defenders even more challenging and deadly.

This event provided an overall landscape of the current situation of environmental human right defenders not only from the defenders themselves but also from the work of UN experts and relevant mandate holders who have been following and addressing these developments.

Following the previous events organized on these defenders these last years by the Geneva Roadmap 40/11, it also provides an opportunity to take stock of the steps made in the implementation of the HRC resolution 40/11 on the protection of Environmental Human Rights Defenders, since its adoption without a vote on 21 March 2019.

In the face of the three interrelated environmental crises — climate change, loss of biodiversity, and pollution — the recognition of the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment by the UN Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly is an important milestone that puts environmental issues at the forefront of the human rights agenda.

The Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment reports to the Human Rights Council during its March session on issues related to his mandate. The Geneva Rights and Environment Talks aim to harness the opportunity of this moment of the year to reflect on the challenges posed by the rapid decline of nature and biodiversity and the intertwined human rights implications. The talks are also an opportunity to discuss how Geneva contributes to bringing together the actors working towards ensuring the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is upheld for all.


By order of intervention.

Peter Bille LARSEN

Senior Lecturer and Researcher, Institute for Environmental Sciences (ISE), University of Geneva


Centre de conseils et d’appui pour les jeunes en matière de droits humains (CODAP), Colombia


Director, Comision Colombiana de Juristas, Colombia


Executive Director, Center for Environmental Concerns, Philippines

Joseph BURKE

Researcher & Head of Nairobi Office, Universal Rights Group

David BOYD

UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and environment

Clément VOULE

UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and of association

Michel FORST

UN Special Rapporteur of the Aarhus Convention on Environmental Defenders


Legal Counsel & New York Office Co-Director, International Service for Human Rights


Coordinator, Geneva Environment Network | Moderator




Diana RIZZOLIO | Coordinator, Geneva Environment Network | Moderator

  • This event with the Special Rapporteurs on human rights and environment, on freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, and on Environmental Defenders under the the Aarhus Convention, is an opportunity to reflect on the challenges caused by the rapid decline of nature, biodiversity, and the human rights implications.
  • It is also an opportunity to discuss how International Geneva contributes to bringing together the actors working towards the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. We will also provide an overall landscape of the current situation of environmental defenders, not only from the defenders themselves but also from the work of the United Nations experts.
  • The event is organized with the Geneva Roadmap 40/11. Six years ago, the Human Rights Council adopted the resolution 40/11 on the protection of environmental human rights defenders. In view of the current increase of threats and attacks on people engaged in the protection of the environment, this resolution requires strong implementation.
  • In 2020, environmental defenders initiated Geneva Roadmap 40/11 with the aim of fully utilizing the opportunity offered by the Human Rights Council sessions to promote exchanges between states, researchers, and human rights and environmental defenders’ organizations.

Testimonies from Environmental Human Rights Defenders

Emiliana RICKENMANN MONTES | Centre de conseils et d’appui pour les jeunes en matière de droits humains (CODAP), Colombia

  • Youth voices are often excluded and marginalized from these spaces where it is so important to have a transversal and inclusive approach.
  • I would like to emphasize the work and the importance of youth organizations working for this matter as well as all the young activists and defenders in the global South fighting to protect our planet and for the creation of a more equal and better world.
  • In Latin America, when we asked for international solidarity and support, and we got nothing from the Global North that is when we founded Latinos for Climate because we realized the importance of working together as a region to fight against the unfair and disproportionated charge the Global South has, when we are the one contributing the less to the climate crisis and yet suffering the most.
  • Latinos for Climate fights for climate justice, also pushing to have an intersectional approach because the climate crisis is a gender, a social, a racial, and generational crisis. It is a crisis putting in evidence all the inequalities we face in the world, especially in the global South.
  • The climate crisis needs to be seen as a human rights crisis not only because it exacerbates those inequalities but also because behind every environmental issue there are defenders risking their lives to combat it and survive.
  • We must urge everyone worldwide to acknowledge this reality because it is not possible that we only know about environmental defenders in the countries where they are more at risk.
    • It is not possible that we speak more about their debts than about their work.
    • It is not possible that here in Geneva, at the university where I am studying right now in the classrooms, we barely talk about this.
    • It is not possible that when I talk about defenders here most of the people do not know what I am talking about.
    • It is not possible that here in Switzerland, in Europe, and in the Global North people are not aware that their lifestyles, the banks, public and private, the insurance, and the multinationals they support are companies often responsible for the extractivism and violence in our territories.
    • It is not possible that when it comes to talking about environmental issues, we do not talk about the violence on people at front lines risking their lives to defend them.
  • We need a structural change from the narrative that has been driven by the global north and privileged people for years and years hiding the impact of their neocolonial and imperialist systems, perpetrated by extractrivist multinationals responsible for the threats, criminalization, and violence against defenders.
  • We need to change the narrative because even in the climate movements very often plastic matters more than that. People need to connect all environmental issues we imagine when we think about climate change, with the lives behind.
  • We must humanize environmental issues by highlighting the lives at stake because when it comes to deforestation there are indigenous peoples and defenders behind that are fighting. When it comes to water pollution, there are defenders fighting for the rights to clean water and for the survival of the communities. When it comes to fossil fuels, there are defenders fighting for the protection of their territory, of their home, and their resources.
  • When I was at COP-26 the only way to get the president of Colombia to address these issues in 2021, which was the deadliest year for Colombia, the only way was by interrupting his speech asking him to address all the lives that were lost because of their fight for the protection of the environment. It was the only time during the COP when he mentioned it, and later, we got to reunite with the vice minister of the environment who told us that human rights had nothing to do with the environment.
  • We must dismantle the colonial narrative full of economic interests, putting profit before life and recognize that the climate crisis is inseparable from human rights. Until we do not see the whole picture and until we do not see that the climate crisis is a human crisis, until we do not see environmental defenders as well as the climate, until the defenders are fairly represented in the decision-making spaces we will not get anywhere.
  • As young people, we do not only have to fight for our future but also for our present and I have faith in Civil Society to do so especially young people, women, and girls from the Global South because I know that the power is in the people.

Anna Maria RODRIGUEZ VALENCIA | Director, Comision Colombiana de Juristas, Colombia

  • Last year the government commission of jurists registered 175 human rights defenders killed in our country. The number is lower by 13% than the number of 2022 so it is an improvement, but it is still a very critical and alarming figure that should keep us worried.
  • Last week, the inter-American commission for human rights insisted that Colombia is the part of the region where most of the defenders are killed and where most of the environmental defenders, Afro-descendant and Indigenous leaders in the region and in the continent are killed.
  • Colombia has the highest number of environmental defenders killed in around the world with 60 persons killed in 2022. This is a very difficult situation in the region and in the world with regards to defending those who defend the environment.
  • Although we have had a change of government, we have a strong commitment to what human rights and environmental defenders do on their side. Our constitutional court issued a ruling in December last year, which is called “Unconstitutional State of Affairs,” which means that the court, from concrete individual cases in the context of vulnerability or of repeated violation of rights for those who defend human rights or the environment, can considers that the violation of rights is structural. It entitles the court to give structural orders to the institution to try to stop the levels of violence.
  • The court can give three types of different orders:
    • On one hand, short-term measures are 20 concrete cases that were the ones starting the constitutional challenge, it was a group of organizations that presented these cases to the court and those 20 cases should be immediately addressed in less than three months in terms of giving them concrete protection measures but also concrete results in terms of the investigation.
    • Then, midterm and long-term measures, the court ordered the Colombian government to issue an integral protection plan that includes protection measures. It is a protection plan, individually and collectively for those defending the environment or human rights. It includes concrete advances in terms of investigation both on the criminal but also on the disciplinary level, concrete measures in terms of dismantling armed actors and criminal groups attacking those who defend the environment, the reactivation and the proper functioning of scenarios for dialogue between civil society and the government with regard to the protection of defendant and finally a concrete communication system that allows communities defenders and NGOs to present concrete urgent cases
  • We hope for the ratification of the Escazu Agreement which is all already halfway in Colombia to give concrete tools for environment defenders in Colombia.

Lia Mai D. TORRES | Executive Director, Center for Environmental Concerns, Philippines

  • My two colleagues were abducted when they were working on researching the impacts of land reclamation projects or the dumping or failing of materials to extend coastlines and the consequent raging that is needed to get these materials. While they were conducting research, they were surveilled while going around talking to fisher folks and after weeks of surveillance they were abducted in September last year. Their colleagues found out because somebody posted on social media that someone was abducted. After that, there were 17 days of silence. We found them because there was a press conference, held by the military saying that two women are going to surrender as communist rebels. During the 17 days of silence, they were interrogated and tortured to admit that they were communist rebels, hence, they had no choice because they feared for their life. However, during the press conference along with the military in the panel they told the truth because of the presence of civil society organizations, schoolmates, and colleagues. Therefore, we asserted their release, and they were given to the commission on human rights.
  • There are only two successful stories of all the cases in the Philippines because most of the time they do not get surfaced at all.
  • Now, they cannot go back home because their families and their communities are being surveilled, and they cannot continue with their advocacy of environmental protection.
  • Their situation reflects many other cases happening all over Asia where the attacks are related to projects that are being pushed by governments and corporations even if there is a guiding principle. The military is also used against them, under the justification of counter insurgency, peace and security, or counterterrorism to justify the attacks.
  • We have no regional mechanism in Asia and even if there is an ongoing process of the ASEAN regional framework, it does not look promising.
  • The most effective actors that can address these issues are people’s movements, civil society organizations, solidarity from other organizations in other countries and this is why we are also here, engaging in the Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva, to tell the truth and to gather support because we know that our governments are saying different things compared to what civil society are saying.

Joseph BURKE | Researcher & Head of Nairobi Office, Universal Rights Group

  • Even though environmental defenders are leading reforms to protect the people in this planet by speaking up against activities that harm the environment, they are often opposing powerful interests in putting themselves, their families, and communities at risk.
  • Despite this, there are some positive developments as various stakeholders have established initiatives to recognize the work and contributions of the defenders and secure their safety and support.
  • In line with this, there is an upcoming report by UNEP and Universal Rights group called “Protecting the Frontline: Good Practices for Supporting Environmental Human Rights Defenders” which illustrates some of these initiatives implemented around the world from which we can all learn to do more to protect and support environmental defenders. The report will show that recognition and support strategies tend to focus on three lines:
    • The first of which is the increase, respect, and acknowledgement of the essential role of the HRDs and prevent risks to their enjoyment of human rights.
      • Examples of good practices include the legal recognition of the legitimacy and value of HRDs work, express recognition of Human Rights and their inter relationship with the environment, regulation of business enterprises activities and responsibilities as well as facilitating access to information and public participation processes.
    • The second line relates to addressing and responding to situations that impact human rights in order to mitigate the impacts and prevent their escalation since the work of HRDs tends to conflict with powerful interests in all countries, regardless of how open the civic spaces are and how robust the rule of law system is. HRDs face risks and obstacles that threaten the enjoyment of their rights, well-being, and work. In response to these attacks HRDs and supporting actors have put in place emergency or rapid response strategies which include 24/7 services through which HRDs can access information, legal advice, and financial support.
    • Third, supporting HRDs access to justice systems and effective remedies has been identified as a key strategy to address the underlying causes of violence and other forms of aggression against them and to thus secure the realization of their human rights and their ability to do their work as well as to increase accountability for those who harm the environment and violate the rights of defenders.
      • While justice systems may be inaccessible to HRDS for a variety of reasons, support practices can help remove these barriers by creating enabling frameworks that allow citizens to demand the observance of environmental laws and standards including corporate accountability legislation and by raising awareness of the discriminatory operations of justice systems.
  • This report aims to strengthen and foster the replication and permanence of such support strategies and has the overall objective to contribute to maintaining an open civic space for environmental protection across the world and to promote a positive narrative of HRDs and to recognize their contributions to addressing the interlinked environmental prices afflicting our planet.

Remarks and Updates on Recent Reports by the Special Rapporteurs

David BOYD | UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and environment

  • As a Special Rapporteur, I draw an incredible amount of inspiration from the courage of these people.
  • There is not a single week without hearing the horrific things about intimidation, murders, criminalization, red tagging from environmental human rights defenders who are now in jail in Vietnam for example, women human rights defenders in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua who are really literally putting their lives on the line every day in the work that they do, young women from Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire in West Africa who are fighting these transnational corporations that are just running a mock on our planet.
  • My latest report to the Human Rights Council is about those large transnational businesses and the way that they are systematically abusing human rights and in particular the right to a clean healthy and sustainable environment.
  • We have the UN Declaration on human rights defenders, we have Human Rights Council resolution 40/11 on environmental human rights defenders but there is such an enormous gap between the words on those papers and the conditions that people are facing on the ground that I think we must focus our attention on closing that gap and to close that gap really means changing the system.
  • The global economy is based on the exploitation of people by the Global North but also by wealthy people wherever they live. Indeed, there are also important communities of vulnerable and marginalized people in the Global North who are living in sacrifice zones.
  • Changing the system is the path forward and it requires two things:
    • The first is states have human rights obligations to do everything we are asking them to do, these are not options, these are not possibilities, they are clearly articulated obligations to respect: protect and fulfill the rights of environmental human rights defenders. One of the most important obligations is to control the businesses that are within their territory’s jurisdiction. States are failing to fulfill those obligations. Instead of fulfilling their human rights obligations, they encourage, enable, and subsidize about $1.7 trillion in environmentally destructive business behavior which is impacting people’s human rights.
    • Businesses can only comply with their human rights responsibilities if they are being forced to do so through strong legislation regulations and implementation and enforcement of that legislation and regulations.
  • We do not need a bunch more research about what the problem is, we know what the problem is, and we do not need a bunch more research about what the solutions are because we know what the solutions are. What we really need to do is to focus with intensity on holding states to their obligations and that will have cascade effects on businesses right down to the people on the ground whose rights are being violated.
  • I think that the recent recognition of the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment gives us an incredibly clear tool to use in holding states accountable because it means they must provide people with information, with opportunities for public participation, with access to justice, all those things without discriminations.
  • Everyone has a right under the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, to clean air, safe and sufficient water, healthy and sustainably produced food, non-toxic environment recognizing that humans are part of and not separate from nature and must live in a safe and livable climate.

Clément VOULE | UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and of association

  • The current climate crisis presents a challenge of unprecedented proportion. It is already responsible for generating and exacerbating widespread human rights violations around the world. If forceful action is not immediately taken this will lead to even more catastrophic harm and human right suffering in future
  • Undeniably climate change will affect the future of all of us, but its impacts are disproportionately affecting marginalized communities and poor regions and countries.
  • The strongest voices pushing back against the static and for more meaningful climate action have come from civil society including indigenous people, young people, children, and other communities that that have experienced the impact of the crisis, Unfortunately, instead of receiving support climate, justice advocates have been attacked and both by states and by business interests.
  • In 2021, I presented to the UN General Assembly thematic reports in which I state that the exercise of the right to freedom, of peaceful assembly, and of association are essential to advancing climate justice.
  • These rights provide means through which civil society and activists may come together to build a greener and more sustainable future for all. For decades people around the world have organized in association formal or informal to tackle climate change and support effective and equitable measures that will guard against the dangers of global warming. Such association have produced and analyze scientific data, help shape policies collaboration among key stakeholders, help communities to adapt to climate change impacts, ensure that the voices of marginalized and at-risk population are considered, and shed lights on issue affecting these populations.
  • The inaction of the international community and states to address the climate change crisis has triggered a new wave of global activism. The people who formed this growing global climate justice movement are working to protect their natural environment and the human rights that depend on it.
  • Unfortunately, in the past years have we have seen a consistent and worrying increase in the number of attack and killing of environmental human right defenders both by state and non-state actors.
    • The repression has taken many forms: criminalize their work, threatened, property attacks, and suffer online harassments as well as physical and sexual assault.
    • They are forcibly displaced or in some cases disappear, and they are excluded from decision making on issues of vital importance to them.
  • Because of their marginalization, the work of environmental human rights defenders is often a silent struggle. In the worst cases they are even portray by media, businesses, and governments as an anti-development or even eco-terrorists.
    • The repression has also taken the form of protest ban and law criminalizing legitimate acts of peaceful protest.
  • Urgent attention is needed at the local, national, regional, and international level to ensure that climate action and climate is recognized but also to ensure that there is a just transition. Climate crisis should not be used as an opportunity to further close the civic space. A security-based approach characterized by the stigmatization and criminalization of environmental human right defenders and peaceful protest is not only unacceptable under the international human rights law but also counterproductive.
  • The urgency of climate action means more people will be in activism and protest. To address climate crisis states should facilitate peaceful protest and not suppress them. States should respect, protect, and facilitate these protests and engage with organizers and participants in meaningful dialogues.
  • I have presented to the Human Rights Council a model protocol for law enforcement to promote and protect human rights in the context of peaceful protest. The model protocol provides practical guidance to how law enforcement officials can ensure from the preparation to the facilitation of the protest that law enforcement applied the human rights approach principle and that their decision is in line with international standards.
  • I urge state to take into account the provision of the model protocol and its complimentary tools to ensure that individual and groups can exercise their fundamental freedom to peaceful protest and participate in the decision making regarding solving the climate crisis and achieving a climate justice for all.

Michel FORST | UN Special Rapporteur of the Aarhus Convention on Environmental Defenders

  • Many groups for the past agreements are using classic forms of mobilization like demonstration, rally, social media campaigns advocacy but now many of the young people, children’s defenders are using more creative forms of mobilization like civic obedience, climbing to trees, interruption of sporting events, blocking roads and shareholders meetings all of these to highlight the different way to raise awareness on what must be done to protect the environment.
  • What they are facing in return is strong repression by governments which is for me a bridge of
  • States are not fulfilling the international obligations; we have clear examples in public discourse of politicians using words like terrorists, criminals and which lay ground for new legislations and new policies to be develop targeting defenders with no respect for their right to protest. It also lays the ground for brutal environmental law enforcement leading to abuses because they are called criminals, and they are treated as criminals. We have many examples of brutality and violence in many countries.
  • What is happing is grave, it has direct effect that prevents defenders’ voices from being heard, with no mention of climate change. Hence, now we have societies where people are concerned by those issues but fear to protect, fear to go to the streets, fear to demonstrate and it is a clear reach against the 3.8 right to protest.


Peter Bille LARSEN | Senior Lecturer and Researcher, Institute for Environmental Sciences (ISE), University of Geneva

  • Sometimes, we talk more about the death than about the work and indeed I think we must talk more about the everyday work of environmental actors, ranging from individuals to organizations to communities and the conditions under which they do the work.
  • We are seeing systemic challenges really affecting these conditions of work and so we need systemic change. At the same time, all these everyday decisions that are affecting the working conditions of environmental defenders are taking place every day.
  • In terms of shrinking spaces for civic spaces we must have rules determining what environmental organizations can do.
  • In our work and our research at the University, we see organizations facing these changes in everyday decisions, being taken locally, regionally, and even globally.
  • We need system changes, but we also need to acknowledge that every day there are situations where people are fearful in so many ways and fundamentally afraid of doing their work.
    • This goes not only for frontline defenders, but also for government officials responsible for these domains and even for the scientific community. Environmental scientists are being silenced.
  • We must make states accountable but also all the other environmental actors working in the field that fundamentally are able to speak in a certain way, but critical voices are too often left outside of the decisions.

Tess McEVOY | Legal Counsel & New York Office Co-Director, International Service for Human Rights

  • We are calling the Declaration plus 25 to look at where we are now 20 years after the adoption of the UN Declaration of Defenders. It is a project that must be guided by civil society and experts.
  • We have been consulting with defenders during the last year and the outcome of this project will be a civil society “Le document” that will be endorsed by experts who considers how international and regional jurist prudence in relation to defenders has developed over the last 35 years.
  • We will look at changes in national, regional context evolutions of human rights movement and activism, addressing gaps and limitations in the Declaration and reflecting experiences and elements that have arisen.
  • We will have conversations including positive decisions by courts and development of binding obligations such as the Aarhus convention and Escazu agreements, intersectionality elements on civil disobedience and assemblies that have being shared by foreign recognition and protection.
  • We hope this project will strengthen all standards and their implementation and assist holding states accountable and focused on prevention.


Live on Facebook

About the Geneva Roadmap 40/11

The Human Rights Council resolution 40/11 – Recognizing the contribution of environmental human rights defenders to the enjoyment of human rights, environmental protection and sustainable development – was adopted by the Human Rights Council by consensus on 21 March 2019. Following the adoption, platforms, coalitions and networks of defenders met in February 2020 to launch the Geneva Roadmap 40/11 for the implementation of this Human Rights Council Resolution 40/11.

The Geneva Roadmap 40/11 on the protection of the rights of persons engaged in the defense of the environment seeks to ensure the effective implementation of the right to act for the protection of the environment and to promote free and safe spaces for information and discussion on environmental matters.

The 55th regular session of the Human Rights Council (HRC55) is taking place in Geneva and online from 26 February to 5 April 2024. This regularly updated page highlights the environmental-related activities of this session.

Photo Gallery 

Read More