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27 COPs Down the Line: Environmental Defenders Still Invisible

By Eva Maria Okoth

Last year’s UNFCC COP26 negotiations did not end on a positive note, with several climate activists and civil society organizations labelling it a failure. COP26 made one thing clear: a lot was yet to be done to address the climate crisis.  

Despite state’s commitments to reduce their carbon emissions, according to the Sixth Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world is off-track. We will not be able to limit global temperatures to below 1.50 C pre-industrial levels if we continue the way we are. An emissions gap report recently published by the United National Environment Program (UNEP) confirmed that all the combined commitments by states would still lead to an increase in global temperatures of between 2.60C and 2.80C.  

From South Africa to Kenya and other parts of the world, evidence of extreme weather conditions, characterized by excess flooding and severe drought, continue decimating the lives of millions of vulnerable communities. At the same time, there are reports of increasing reprisals and human rights abuses against environmental and climate defenders because they are demanding climate accountability from governments and private actors.  

Global Witness reports that at least one defender has been killed every two days since 2012. Beyond these assassinations, the ALLIED Data Working Group, through their report entitled Uncovering the Hidden Ice Burg”, documented the widespread presence of non-lethal attacks – often a precursor to lethal violence. This report, merging local, regional and international datasets, revealed 355 cases of non-lethal attacks against 536 distinct individuals, communities, organisations and unaffiliated groups in five countries (Colombia, Guatemala, Kenya, Mexico and the Philippines).

Earth Rights International also reported 134 cases where the fossil fuel industry has used SLAPPs and related legal tactics against its critics in the last ten years. These statistics underscore the magnitude of threats that climate change poses to democratic and civic space. 

Defenders demands at COP27 

This year’s UNFCC COP27 negotiations, which was convened at Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt, created tension particularly among climate activists owing to the country’s past poor human rights record. Just before and during the COP negotiations, various petitions and policy recommendations demanded the release of previously detained human rights and environmental defenders in Egypt. For many participants, this call for the respect of civic space and protection of environmental and climate defenders was a critical pillar for ensuring a successful outcome of these negotiations.   

Natural Justice, in collaboration with Global Witness, CIVICUS, Sociedad Peruana de Deretcho Ambiental (SPDA), Earth Rights International and the International Land Coalition, launched a set of policy recommendations on how the negotiations could enhance the protection of environmental defenders through the Action for Climate Empowerment (ACE) deliberations and the Global Stock Take (GST) process.

The recommendations urged parties to include activities in the ACE Action Plan aimed at creating space for dialogue with environmental defenders to identify obstacles and gaps to the effective exercise and realization of their civic rights to access information, education and participation in climate action. The policy also recommended the inclusion of targeted actions by parties, inter-governmental bodies and other relevant stakeholders to take action to increase the protection of defenders and create an enabling environment for the exercise of their rights.    

The key highlights of this policy recommendation were equally reiterated in a set of demands from African environmental defenders that was launched during our side event to the UNFCCC entitled “Environmental Defenders Advancing Climate Justice: Rights, Resilience and Resistance”. These demands were an outcome of the first African Environmental Defenders Regional Reflection Meeting held in Kilifi, Kenya with the support of the African Environmental Defenders Initiative.

Read the demands here:  

The unique vulnerabilities of African defenders, including indigenous and marginalized communities, women and youth defenders, calls for the urgent need by parties to the Paris Agreement to appreciate and provide legitimate recognition of the significant role defenders play in tackling the climate crisis and preventing violence against defenders.  

Parties concluded the ACE negotiations at the end of the first week of COP27, coming up with an ACE Action Plan detailing a clear roadmap for implementation of the Paris Agreement at the national level. 

Mixed outcomes during the ACE negotiations 

On a positive note, the adopted Action Plan includes language on a human rights-based approach to climate action by incorporating an activity that calls for specific attention to human rights in the implementations of the six pillars of ACE, as well as in the annual reports to the COP. Whereas this paves the way for monitoring the extent to which Parties adopt a rights-based and participatory approach to climate action, we are disappointed that the provisions of this text excluded specific reference to actions which parties must take to enhance the protection of environmental and climate activists in Africa and across the globe. 

It has been two weeks of intense discussions at COP, but sadly history seems to be repeating itself all over again as many appear to have already lost hope that this so called “African COP” will deliver on its promise to address what is now a climate emergency requiring urgent but real action. The failure to integrate the protection of environmental defenders as a key prerequisite for the successful and effective implementation of climate action continues to encourage reprisals and risks to the earth’s first line of defense against the climate crisis.   

24 November 2022


Environmental Defenders

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