By Phyllis Omido
The announcement of the winners of this year’s Goldman Environmental Prize is an opportunity to celebrate activist leaders. But it is also a moment to recognize just how much courage their efforts (and those of a great many others) can demand.
When my dear friend Berta Cáceres and I won the prize in 2015, Berta said in her acceptance speech, “I have given my life for the service of mother earth.” Not long after, Berta was assassinated in Honduras. Her story is tragic, but not unique.
Indeed, just months later, Isidro Baldenegro López, another Goldman Environmental Prize recipient, was shot dead.
There has never been a more dangerous time to be an environmental activist. Consider the violence unleashed against the environmental defenders protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline in the United States. Police were accused of using excessive force to try to disperse members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their supporters, who argued that the project would contaminate water and damage sacred burial sites.
Fortunately, no one was killed during those protests. But elsewhere, in more fragile democracies, environmental campaigners who stand up to polluters are paying with their lives. A Global Witness report documented 185 killings across 16 countries in 2015 alone. That is almost double the number of journalists killed that year.
My own experience highlights the dangers facing environmental crusaders. For eight years, my community in rural Kenya, Owino Uhuru, has been exposed to toxic lead poisoning caused by the operations of a state-licensed smelter.
The World Health Organization’s measure of lead poisoning is five micrograms per deciliter. The highest lead level recorded in Owino Uhuru was 420 micrograms per deciliter. In the highly publicized contamination case in Flint, Michigan, the readings were 35 micrograms per deciliter.
When my community found out that we were being poisoned, we fought back. We wrote letters to the government and organized peaceful protests. With the support of my community, I founded the Center for Justice, Governance, and Environmental Action (CJGEA) to hold the state and corporations accountable for ensuring a clean and healthy environment.
In February 2016, the CJGEA went to court against six state agencies and two corporate entities. Nothing happened. One year later, when we published public notices in local newspapers of our intention to sue the two corporations, all hell broke loose.
Despite the murders of Berta and Isidro and so many others, I did not fully recognize the danger of challenging a powerful government-backed operation. Soon, I received a chilling phone call warning me to watch over my son carefully.
Environmental activists within the community were attacked, their houses surrounded by thugs wielding machetes. The son of a close ally was abducted – and, fortunately, later released – by unidentified men.
You might expect that the state would protect its citizens from such tactics, if not from being poisoned in the first place. We broke no laws; on the contrary, we have been upholding Kenya’s constitution, which guarantees citizens’ rights to a safe and healthy environment.
But perhaps we should not be surprised by the state’s behavior. After all, in 2015, Kenya’s government voted in the UN General Assembly, along with just 13 others, against a United Nations resolution calling for the protection of human-rights defenders.
Nature provides enough for everyone’s needs, but not for everyone’s greed. As natural resources become scarcer, Africa’s lush, mineral-rich lands are becoming more lucrative for investors seeking to maximize profits.
But, while governments should welcome opportunities for economic growth and job creation, they should not allow companies to damage the environment and threaten residents’ health and livelihoods.
As stories like Berta’s, Isidro’s, and mine demonstrate, we can no longer rely on state bodies, such as national law enforcement, to ensure this outcome, much less to investigate and prosecute crimes against the planet and those who fight for it.
That is why the world needs an independent, internationally recognized legal body to which communities and activists can turn to address environmental crimes.
The appointment in March 2012 of the first-ever UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment was a positive step. But we need a system with teeth. Twenty years ago, the International Criminal Court was established to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity. A similar court should do the same for crimes against the environment and its defenders.
Silencing the voices fighting to uphold environmental laws and regulations is self-defeating. People and the planet are dying. Those who are fighting to prevent those deaths deserve protection, not to become further casualties.
Published on Eco-Business on May 30, 2017.
Human rights and environment
In recent years, the recognition of the links between human rights and the environment has greatly increased. The number and scope of international and domestic laws, judicial decisions, and academic studies on the relationship between human rights and the environment have grown rapidly.
Many States now incorporate a right to a healthy environment in their constitutions. Many questions about the relationship of human rights and the environment remain unresolved, however, and require further examination.
As a result, in March 2012 the Human Rights Council decided to establish a mandate on human rights and the environment, which will (among other tasks) study the human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, and promote best practices relating to the use of human rights in environmental policymaking.
Mr. John Knox was appointed in August 2012 to a three-year term as the first Independent Expert on human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. His mandate was further extended in March 2015 for another three years as a Special Rapporteur.
The resolution 16/11 adopted by the Human Rights Council on 12th of April 2011 entitled “Human Rights and the environment” requested the Office of the High Commissioner “in consultation with and taking into account the views of States Members of the United Nations, relevant international organizations and intergovernmental bodies, including the United Nations Environment Programme and relevant multilateral environmental agreements, special procedures, treaty bodies and other stakeholders, to conduct, within existing resources, a detailed analytical study on the relationship between human rights and the environment” (para.1).
See also the Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes
Human rights and climate change
In its 5th Assessment Report (2014), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) unequivocally confirmed that climate change is real and that human-made greenhouse gas emissions are its primary cause. The report identified the increasing frequency of extreme weather events and natural disasters, rising sea-levels, floods, heat waves, droughts, desertification, water shortages, and the spread of tropical and vector-borne diseases as some of the adverse impacts of climate change. These phenomena directly and indirectly threaten the full and effective enjoyment of a range of human rights by people throughout the world, including the rights to life, water and sanitation, food, health, housing, self-determination, culture and development.