The world must be made a safer place for people working to protect the planet, who sometimes pay with their own lives for their activism, UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet said on Tuesday.
Speaking at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, which is holding its annual month-long session, Michelle Bachelet revealed how speaking out and standing up for environmental rights can come at an enormous cost as activists have been killed or subjected to abuse, threats and harassment.
“At particular risk are people who speak out against deforestation, extractives, loss of cultural heritage or identity, or large scale agribusinesses and development projects – including those intended to produce clean energy, such as mega-dams,” she said.
Bachelet said entire communities may face threats and intimidation when someone speaks out on their behalf. She underlined that governments have an obligation to respect and protect the rights of environmental human rights defenders, and the communities they represent. Authorities must also prevent and ensure accountability for attacks. These actions are in line with a Council resolution adopted last year which upholds the right to a healthy environment, she said.
“In addition, it is critical that States effectively regulate businesses and hold them accountable for human rights violations,” the UN Human Rights chief said, adding that corporations also have a similar duty, as outlined in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
Michelle Bachelet advised that prior to undertaking any climate project, both governments and businesses must carry out human rights risk assessments. “If indigenous peoples’ rights are at risk of being adversely affected by such projects, it is crucial that their free, prior and informed consent is obtained,” she said.
Additionally, the rights to information, participation and justice are also protected under international human rights law, and further stipulated in environmental accords. When these rights are upheld, “both the earth and the people who defend it are better protected,” she added.