Reported killings of environmental defenders just the tip of the iceberg


The UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders has presented a grim warning that documented killings of environmental defenders are likely only the tip of the iceberg of the attacks against them.

In his presentation of his report on the situation for environmental defenders, UN Special Rapporteur, Michel Forst, has told the General Assembly’s Third Committee – which considers social, humanitarian and cultural issues – in New York that environmental defenders are being killed in record numbers for daring to speak truth to power.

‘The scale of killings indicates a truly global crisis,’ said Mr Forst

Mr Forst cited the murders of Honduran defenders, recalling the killing of Berta Caceres in March 2016. He went on to provide a picture of who environmental defenders are.  

‘They are people whose struggles are frequently a question of survival - faced by the loss of homes and lands in the face of extractive or hydroelectric projects,’ said Mr Forst. ‘The only means they have to defend their lands is to raise their voices in protest.'

Mr Forst noted that the context in which environmental defenders operate is one where odds are stacked against them.  Impunity reigns in the majority of cases of attacks and a lack of transparency breeds corruption. The media often contributes to a climate where environmental defenders are stigmatized. 

The Special Rapporteur spoke of the importance of environmental defenders to success of sustainable development including global policies such as Agenda 2030 – the UN’s ‘blueprint’ for how the world’s nations could and should work together to eradicate poverty and realise human rights for all.

Mr. Forst noted that environmental defenders are vital to future of the planet. Protecting human rights defenders is a matter of self-interest for States, he noted. He called States out for the low level of response to communications. 

The Special Rapporteur announced a new approach for the mandate: sending letters of allegation directly to companies.  He welcomed some policy initiatives taken by companies to protect human rights – citing some mining companies in Canada as an example. Canada noted that they were working with extractive companies to avoid risks. They spoke of the reputational benefit for companies to operate in line with the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations. 

The Special Rapporteur’s call for action were echoed by several States including Cameroon, France, Norway, and Mexico who also emphasized need to cooperate with the mandate holder.

The US, Ireland and the EU spoke of their concern about reprisals. Canada, the UK and Switzerland placed an emphasis on how governments and businesses could work together to support human rights defenders. Switzerland also emphasized the need for better, more systematic collection of information on the situation for defenders. 

Colombia spoke of the need to challenge stigmatization of defenders, noting work to develop the legitimacy of human rights organisations. They noted the partnerships between civil society, States and the international community.

Russia took a critical line, suggesting that the protection of environmental defenders was a politicized issue. Russia said the report sought to establish a specific regime for the protection of defenders – an approach that did not speak to the principle of equality. Russia rejected the notion that human rights defenders are a vulnerable group.

Brazil spoke to the framework of consultation with affected communities articulated within the ILO Convention. They were cautious about the idea that financial institutions should impose conditions around the loan of money. They suggested this was inappropriate in trade deals as well.     

The Special Rapporteur ended welcoming the appointment of the ASG to coordinate the UN wide response on reprisals. It was appropriate, he said, that this issue be dealt with at the highest level. 

Mr Forst announced an upcoming report will be on women human rights defenders. 

The Special Rapporteur’s visit to Mexico was confirmed for the 16-24 January 2017. 





  • Human rights defenders
  • Reprisals and intimidation
  • UN General Assembly
  • Third Committee of the UN General Assembly