Media Urged to Protect Environmental Human Rights Defenders


Compiled by Batanai Mutasa

“Most human rights violations are well known and documented except environmental human rights, but environmental activists are losing their lives in numbers globally,” this was a passionate statement by Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association Legal Officer Effort Dube during a recent training for media practitioners on profiling Environmental Human Rights Defenders (EHRDs).

He went on to explain that environmental human rights defenders include journalists, bloggers, members of human rights NGOs, academics, lawyers, trade unionists, and representatives of indigenous communities but noted that the majority are ordinary citizens who are unaware of their EHRD status.

The United Nations defines environmental human rights defenders as “individuals and groups who, in their personal or professional capacity and in a peaceful manner, strive to protect and promote human rights relating to the environment, including water, air, land, flora and fauna.”

According to global statistics, this group of human rights defenders is facing increased violence and harassment because of growing demand for the extraction and exploitation of natural resources. As such, mining and extractives, hydropower, agribusiness, logging as well as roads and infrastructure are the sectors responsible for the most killings of human rights defenders. Environmental human rights defenders, therefore, suffer for defending their homes, forests, and rivers against destructive industries.

In the face of climate change, a global phenomenon which is threatening every aspect of human rights by displacing people from their homes, forcing migration, and threatening food security, the work of environmental defenders becomes a priority human rights issue as they work to protect their communities and the ecosystems that provide vital services including mitigation against the effects of a changing environment.

The situation is worse for Women Environmental Human Rights Defenders who are disproportionately affected by the changing environment and climate while also having to contend with gender bias and discrimination. Unfortunately, it is also women and girls who bear the burdens of more frequent climate disasters.  As such, it is not surprising that gender equality in environmental decision-making, policymaking and defense has been linked to better environment outcomes towards achieving a sustainable future, including better ecosystems conservation and protection outcomes, better national resilience outcomes, higher reduction of CO2 emissions, and a higher probability of ratifying environmental treaties.

But EHRDs continue to be persecuted with impunity said Dube as he identified the lack of political power and legal recognition of the groups that are often most affected by the increasing demand for resource extraction, direct involvement by State officials or representatives in violence against EHRDs, the failure of governments to investigate and punish harassment and violence directed against EHRDs, and the adoption and implementation of laws that restrict civic space as the biggest enablers of violence against EHRDs.

Illustrating the severity of the situation, ZELA Project Officer Obert Bore who is an International Trade & Human Rights Lawyer said the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment indicated that for every EHRD murdered, many more, in every region of the world, were subjected to other types of violence or harassment.

Bore went on to give damning statistics from the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, revealing that between 2015 and March 2023, there were more than 4,700 global attacks against human rights defenders raising concerns about harmful business practices, with 75% of these attacks being against environmental human rights defenders.

These levels of persecution subsist despite international legal frameworks that recognize and protect EHRDs such as the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, 2003 Kigali Declaration which supports the role of human rights defenders and the need for their protection and the fact that in 2004, the African Commission adopted its first Resolution on the Protection of African Human Rights Defenders which introduced the post of a Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders in Africa.

In Zimbabwe, these are supported by Section 73 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment (No.20) Act, 2013 which deals with environmental rights and gives everyone the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being; and to have the environment protected for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that- prevent pollution and ecological degradation; promote conservation; and secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development.

During the training, journalists were, therefore, implored to take up their Fourth Estate role in the protection of EHRDs by ensuring that the state meets its obligations towards EHRDs as stated by the United Nations Human Rights Council which urged States ‘to comply with their human rights obligations when developing and implementing their environmental policies’ by doing the following:

  • Respecting, protecting and fulfilling human rights, including in actions relating to environmental challenges;
  • Adopting and implementing laws ensuring, among other things, the rights to information, participation and access to justice in the field of the environment;
  • Facilitating public awareness and participation in environmental decision-making, including of civil society, women, youth and indigenous peoples, by protecting all human rights, including the rights to freedom of expression and to freedom of peaceful assembly and association;
  • Implementing fully their obligations to respect and ensure human rights without distinction of any kind, including in the application of environmental laws and policies;
  • Promoting a safe and enabling environment in which individuals, groups and organs of society, including those working on human rights and environmental issues, can operate free from threats, hindrance and insecurity; [and]
  • Providing for effective remedies for human rights violations and abuses, including those relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, in accordance with their international obligations and commitments.

“The media play a critical role in the advancement of EHRDs work by covering their stories and advocating for their protection,” concluded Dube.


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