Civil rights, Climate Change, Environment, Human Rights, Neo-liberalism, Politics

The time has come to end the silent war against protectors of Mother Earth

Dec 10 2019

 By Francesco Martone*

More than 20 years have passed since the United Nations adopted a Declaration on Human Rights Defenders that acknowledged the role of individuals and collectives that struggle to protect human rights. Since then, multiple initiatives have unfurled and multiplied at various levels, in what can be described as a perfect example of multilevel governance. 

From the bottom, thanks to the initiative of a growing number of civil society organizations and municipal authorities offering temporary shelter to defenders, to the national level, with the commitment of a range of governments to support and respect human rights defenders and their activities, to the global level, with the creation of multiple instruments and for a where defenders can seek support and redress. Be these intergovernmental bodies such as the UN, the OSCE, or representative of private sector and business.

Nevertheless, in spite of the wide range of protection mechanisms, government and private sector statements, and the expanding scope of action of civil society and movements, the number of defenders that are killed, threatened, criminalized is growing worldwide. Indeed, one should not fall into the trap of quantifying an alarming and worrisome trend only by the number of people killed, since the phenomenon is much wider and encompasses different modalities in which individuals and communities are put at risk. Simply pointing to a death tally risks to hide the real factors behind this “silent war”, that are both political and economic.

 Lack of governments determination to prioritize rights over profit, human rights over corporate interests and the expansion of trade and investments, impunity, corruption, and the lack of recognition of rights of indigenous peoples living in resource rich territories all concur to undermine and threaten the activities of activists fighting for rights. 

Statistics drawn by organizations such as Global Witness and FrontLine Defenders show that at least 164 environmental rights defenders have been killed in 2018. Most of these were indigenous peoples, protecting their land and territories from the impacts of extractive industries and agribusiness. Women defenders are particularly at risk, being also victims of patriarchal prejudice and marginalization. These figures are just the tip of the iceberg, with the Environmental Justice Atlas (  registering as many as 3000 conflicts over resources and land worldwide.

The attacks against environmental rights defenders are not only confined to countries like Brazil, Colombia, the Philippines to name those where the number of killings is higher, but also occur in what can be defined as the Global North. The case of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) protests and the ensuing police repression and criminalization of protest is a significant case in point. But many more can be documented, all of which are the result of the convergence of different trends. One is the growing expansion of extraction of materials worldwide with the creation of the necessary infrastructure and operation patterns.  “The necropolitics of extraction” as arts critic TJ Demos puts it, brings with it human and environmental costs, be them ecological destruction or the deterioration of the social fabric, the displacement of communities, the extinction of fragile and unique ecosystems, and of the peoples that have been living there for time immemorial.

 Those killings and the repression of communities and peoples in resistance to extraction, for the protection of the rights of humans and of nature, represent the hidden cost of the expansion of extractive capitalism. The other trend is therefore represented by the growing curve of repression and of the shrinking of civic space worldwide. The brutal reaction of police and military to try to control and repress movements and citizens’ actions as we can witness now in Latin America and elsewhere is the ultimate consequence of the securitization of the public space, one common feature that the expansion of extraction of materials and value from all forms of life brings along.

A logic and dynamic that was well explored and identified in occasion of an unprecedented international workshop organized by the Transnational Institute and local movements opposing the Transadriatic Pipeline (TAP) in Salento, Apulia, in autumn 2018. Participants concluded that privatization of profit, commodification of nature, the securitization and militarization of public space go hand in hand. Lastly, this dynamic need to be unpacked along a decolonial narrative. As a matter of fact, it is indigenous peoples and more generally of communities that live in peripheric territories and are historically marginalized, that pay the highest price. 

 Most recent data published by the Global Initiative to Address and Prevent the Criminalisation and Impunity  against indigenous peoples ( show that in the period 2017-2019 as many as 472 indigenous defenders have been killed, 423 subject to arbitrary detention, 237 to illegal arrests and 1630 suffered from threat and intimidation in 19 countries , with Colombia , Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Philippine being the riskiest countries.

Given the complexity of the concurrent causes of the growing attack to defenders worldwide, in particular those connected to resource extraction and use, new approaches are required. Existing mechanisms and commitments to protect defenders do not seem to consider the need to address these root causes, and those linked to global trade and capital, rather still focus on protection of individual activists, when in most cases it is communities and collective movements that are under threat.

The ongoing conflict in Colombia, where defenders of land and rural and indigenous leaders are killed in an unprecedented scale, in particular in the Cauca region is emblematic. It also offers further evidence of the need to change paradigm, and develop new approaches to collective protection, and in particular address the challenges in territories that are conflict-prone or conflict-ridden. A clear commitment to stop the violence and killings in resource extraction and supply-chains is therefore urgently required. Zero tolerance has to be implemented by governments and companies alike, that should pledge to act accordingly at various levels.

Governments in consuming countries should adopt legislation that commits companies to respect human rights, and recognize the rights to access to information, consultation and in the case of indigenous peoples, Free Prior Informed Consent and the right to land. Laws should be passed to tackle the drivers of attacks to defenders, protecting the rights to mobilize and organize, and targeting the expansion of the extractive frontier.

 The international community should speed up the negotiations toward the adoption of a binding treaty on transnational companies and human rights. Companies should commit to Zero Tolerance on attacks against defenders linked to their supply chains, by introducing mandatory procedures to ensure that human rights are fully respected in all their operations. Investors should stop investing in activities that generate violence and threats to communities and peoples.  With this purpose an unprecedented alliance of indigenous peoples’ organizations, indigenous, rural and Afrodescendant leaders from 14 countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa, met in Geneva in late November in conjunction with the annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights. Supported by a wide coalition of support NGOs spearheaded – among others- by Forest Peoples Programme, IWGIA, Asian Indigenous Peoples’ Pact, the coalition launched the Zero Tolerance Initiative and adopted the Geneva Declaration, urging States and companies to act with determination and resolve.

 As UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Michel Forst stated in occasion of the international seminar that delivered the Geneva Statement: ‘I have worked the past 20 years on human rights defenders and so many have come on board making countless reports and recommendations. By now we know the situation, and we keep repeating recommendations. It is time to act!’ The Zero Tolerance Initiative will be led by indigenous peoples’ organizations and is open to support and endorsement from organizations, NGOs, and movements that share the same goal, and will target governments, companies, investors and international bodies.

 It will closely collaborate with the Global Initiative to Address and Prevent the Criminalisation and Impunity against indigenous peoples that will be officially launched in occasion of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples in New York in May 2020. This initiative will be led by indigenous peoples leader from all over the world with the common goal of stopping  killings and threats against indigenous communities and peoples protecting their lands, and the global environment. Once for all. 


*Italian activist, former Senator of the Republic now engaged in the world of international solidarity, pacifism, environment and human rights. Analysis  sent to Other News by the author, on 12, 10, 2019

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