Interview with John Knox: what causes violence against environmental defenders?

IUCN NL’s Femke Wijdekop invited two internationally renowned human rights lawyers to engage in a conversation on the challenges environmental defenders face and how to tackle them. As the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, John Knox is the leading ambassador for defenders who are fighting for their right to a sustainable environment. Netherlands-based human rights lawyer Jan van de Venis is committed to the same cause, as well as being a passionate advocate for the rights of future generations. In this first story in a series of four, they focus on the causes of the increased violence against environmental defenders.

Jan: Nearly four environmental human rights defenders are killed every week. What are the main causes of this violence?

John: The numbers are really shocking. Global Witness reported that in 2016, 200 murders of environmental defenders occurred in the world, which translates to nearly four a week. That’s a pretty marked increase over earlier numbers. I think there are three types of factors that drive the threats to environmental defenders around the world.

First of course is the rising demand for natural resources. As economies grow and more people join the planet and want to consume more, the demand for natural resources of all types increases, ranging from precious wood, to minerals, oil, gas, coal, gold, other precious minerals, but also endangered species, all of which are found in areas that are relatively underdeveloped. So one aspect is simply the sheer amount of wealth that is at stake for those who are trying to exploit these natural resources.

A second factor is that often, environmental defenders come from societies that are already somewhat marginalized in their countries. Often they are minorities in their countries, often they rely more than the other people in their country on the resources that nature offers, often they are indigenous peoples. And this has two types of effects. One is that it means that they are particularly dependent on the resources that are sought to be exploited. For them, it becomes it a kind of existential crisis. It is not as if they can simply pick up their belongings and move somewhere else. They would be abandoning their own people, their own culture. That makes it worth fighting for. Second, their marginalization means that their situation often is simply invisible to many people, including to their own culture, their own society or country. What happens to them is not often on the front page of even the local papers, much less getting international attention.

Then finally, there is the problem of the lack of rule of law. Many countries have resources that are under pressure and many countries have marginalized communities, but it is in countries that lack effective rule of law where we see that these factors come together in unshackled violence, intimidation and murder of environmentalists.

It is in countries that lack effective rule of law where we see unshackled violence, intimidation and murder of environmentalists – John Knox, UN Special Rapporteur

Also, I have heard it described that these environmental defenders are often ‘accidental defenders’. They don’t set out to become rights defenders, they are forced into that role. Often they don’t consider what they do as defending human rights; what they are trying to do is to protect the health of their community by finding out why their water is no longer drinkable, or why the wells are contaminated, or why there is more poaching going on, or simply because one day the bulldozers are knocking down the trees around their community. And this makes the situation more challenging, because they lack the kind of more sophisticated connections and understanding of the applicable laws that might help them.

Do female environmental defenders face special risks compared to their male colleagues?

As is often the case, there are degrees of vulnerability. Female environmental defenders have all the same types of vulnerabilities as male environmental defenders, but they also have additional types of vulnerabilities. In the culture that they are operating, maybe the very fact that a woman is presuming to speak out in public may give cause to harassment, and it may also be the case that she may be subject to sexual harassment in a way that a man would not. Essentially, being an environmentalist may be enough in some countries to make you the subject of discrimination. But the discrimination can have additional levels of severity if you are also a woman, or a member of an indigenous group, if you are also disabled or otherwise limited in accessing the benefits of the culture you reside in.

This interview originally appears at IUCN National Committee of The Netherlands here and is part of a series of four interviews on: what can the United Nations do to protect environmental defenders?