When changing development is a matter of life and death

By Josephine Ong, Intern
By Josephine Ong, Intern

In the aftermath of the deaths of more environmental activists last week, it could not be more clear that governments around the world are unable or unwilling to effectively protect environmental defenders.

Following the death of Berta Cáceres and intense international pressure for justice and the protection of her compañer@s, the government of Honduras has again failed to protect yet another indigenous environmental leader, Lesbia Yaneth Urquía, who was killed last Wednesday. Urquía’s death comes four months after that of Cáceres, who was a fellow member of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH).

Both women had received constant threats to their safety for advocating for indigenous rights and opposing government hydroelectric projects financed by international finance institutions in their respective communities. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) had granted both Cáceres and COPINH (and thereby Urquía) precautionary measures against these threats, but the government of Honduras still failed to provide the crucial protection to enable the women to survive.

Even though environmental activists worldwide are facing increasingly threats to their safety, most do not receive adequate State protection against violent intimidation.  In the past year, Global Witness found that 185 environmental defenders were killed across 16 countries, which represents a 59% increase from 2014.

In July, CIEL and Article 19 prepared a submission to United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders Michel Forst, who is soliciting civil society’s inputs on the situation of environmental defenders. (He will present a report on this topic to the United Nations General Assembly in October 2016.) Our submission detailed various threats facing environmental defenders, which range from surveillance and defamation campaigns, judicial harassment, and physical attacks such as acts of torture and even assassinations. In our submission, we also highlighted that these defenders are often targeted because of their opposition to large-scale infrastructure projects supported by States and corporations.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) is also seeking civil society organizations and activists input on examples of national policies that have been able to effectively protect human rights defenders. However, this is hardly the first time the IACHR has tried to call attention to the increasing risks to the safety of human rights activists. In its 1998 Annual Report, it acknowledged the situation of Human Rights Defenders in Latin America and recommended that States “take all necessary measures to protect the physical integrity of human rights defenders and to ensure they can work under appropriate conditions.” Since then, the Commission has been examining, advising, and reporting on the deteriorating situation faced by activists throughout the Americas, culminating with a report on the “Criminalization of the work of Human Rights Defenders” in 2015.

These efforts to hold governments accountable for attacks committed against environmental defenders indicate that international institutions like the UN and IACHR are eager to address the increasing dangers faced by human rights defenders. However, international finance institutions (IFIs) that provide essential financial support for governments’ large-scale infrastructure projects have not made any clear efforts to protect environmental defenders who often oppose these projects to protect the environment, their land, their livelihoods, and their lives.

In fact, the World Bank and other international finance institutions have announced their intentions to increase funding for large-scale infrastructure projects. During a speech given at the World Bank annual meeting in 2014, President Kim claimed that “….without infrastructure – electricity, water, and roads – growth will never take off…”. President Kim then argued that although the World Bank’s investments in infrastructure represented 40% of its total commitments in 2014, the Bank still intends to fund an additional $1-1.5 trillion by “tap[ping] into the trillions of dollars held by institutional investors…and direct those assets into projects that will have great benefit for a range of developing countries.”

However, President Kim failed to clarify how the Bank’s institutional investors–namely the State and corporations–can possibly bring benefits to local communities when they are so often linked to attacks and intimidations committed against environmental defenders.

To confront, address, and reform international finance institutions’ lack of accountability and increasing investment in large-scale infrastructure projects that have the highest tendency to harm local communities, more than 150 civil society organizations- including CIEL- have come together to call for IFIs’ adoption of specific measures to defend human rights defenders worldwide today. In our statement, we “…call on all international financial institutions to ensure that the activities they finance respect human rights and that there are spaces for people to participate in the development of IFI projects” while also ensuring that human rights defenders can “hold IFIs to account without risking their security.”

By continuing to fund the development projects that harm local communities and lead to the targeting of environmental activists that oppose them, the World Bank and other IFIs are also complicit in the various attacks committed against environmental defenders. In failing to protect the safety of these defenders, IFIs have failed to prioritize the very communities they claim to support.

In our statement, we urge international finance institutions to ensure meaningful community participation and involvement in their investments, which includes respecting environmental defenders’ right to express and advocate for their rights to a healthy environment, to land and livelihoods, and to all human rights.

Considering the elevated risks environmental defenders currently face, States must be held accountable for the protection of all human rights defenders yesterday. The UN and IACHR’s recommendations could lead to the creation of domestic regulations that protect human rights defenders, but the successful implementation of these national standards also relies on IFIs creating binding requirements to increase and ensure public participation, and increase accountability in their development projects.

As funders of development projects, IFIs have the responsibility to listen to the needs of the communities they claim to support. By adopting reforms to ensure meaningful and safe public participation in the creation and implementation of projects, international finance institutions will truly prioritize community needs and concerns in development and thus encourage the States they fund to do the same.

As of now, environmental activists risk their lives to advocate for their communities’ human rights. The rising death toll of environmental defenders proves that reforms to development investment priorities are long overdue.