by Yeniva Massaquoi, WEDO Women’s Human Rights Fellow, from COP20 on International Human Rights Day
Article 6(a)(iii) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) commits 196 member states to the promotion and facilitation of public participation at national, subregional and regional levels. Despite this commitment, environmental human rights defenders continue to be penalized and persecuted for their lawful attempts to publicly participate on climate change issues. We are reminded of this by the recent killing of Ecuadorian environmental activist José Isidro Tendetza Antún this past week as he prepared to come to Lima COP20 to participate in the Rights of Nature Tribunal. As noted in the Guardian newspaper, this killing illustrates the “risks facing environmental activists” as in another case the paper notes that a caravan of climate change activists were stopped six times by police on the way to Lima and eventually had their van confiscated. As such, this article seeks to highlight the incongruence between the high level commitment to public participation under the UNFCCC Article 6 and the continued persecution of human rights (environmental) defenders when they attempt to publicly participate on environmental issues.
At the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), we have been especially concerned by the continued and systematic penalization of women human rights defenders globally. Despite this, women have continued to emerge as strong advocates for climate change as both environmental rights defenders and leaders. In South Korea, local women organized protests through sleep-in camps, occupations and demonstrations against proposed construction of overhead electricity power/transmission lines. In Godda India, women mobilized against a proposed coal-power plant project and were consequently among those detained by the police. Examples continue with women human rights defenders active in denouncing land-grabbing (China), denouncing encroachments on their lands (India, Nepal), campaigning against nuclear power plants (Philippines), filming a documentary on the harmful impact of oil production (Nigeria), campaigning for water rights and against the construction of a dam (India), and campaigning against mining projects (Peru). For their efforts, these women have received death threats (Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Philippines, Peru), been harassed or intimidated (Bahamas, Mexico, Peru), been attacked by armed assailants (Kenya, Guatemala), been killed (Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras). Beyond the physical threats, women human rights defenders also find themselves stigmatized, arrested arbitrarily (Nigeria) and even criminalized on accusations of espionage (Angola). Permeating many of these examples is the fact that the women human rights defenders are persecuted based on gender.
The foregoing underscores that gender is a cross-cutting issue in all UNFCCC Article 6 activities including public participation. Public participation is a critical feature through which women can contribute to climate change decisions, ensure policies responding to their unique situations, ensure equity and overcome inequalities. Crucially, climate change requires participation of every actor. The critical question is how can individuals become involved in climate change discourse if that commitment is so often criminalized? Human rights defenders require protection in order to participate in climate change.
In an important precedent, the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW 57) in its Agreed Conclusions first recognized women human rights defenders, requiring States to “support and protect those who are committed to eliminating violence against women, including women human rights defenders in this regard, who face particular risks of violence.” Critical to this recognition of the women human rights defenders was the acknowledgement that human rights defenders often cannot participate solely because this very action endangers them.
Like CSW 57, UNFCCC Article 6 must respond in kind to its embedded weakness of calling for public participation without providing explicit human rights protections for lawful activism by human rights defenders. Language must be introduced that anchors public participation in human rights to ensure a safe environment in which human rights defenders can publicly participate.
Beyond the integration of human rights language into the call for public participation in UNFCCC Article 6, effective and meaningful public participation requires several key elements. These include training and increased public awareness. However, promotion of such initiatives require that human rights defenders do not fear social and criminal penalties for participating. As such, though UNFCCC Article 6 provides a useful platform for citizen engagement in the climate change process, this provision can be further instrumentalized to be robustly inclusive.
Around the world, thousands of individuals suffer systematic human rights abuse and structural power inequalities that impact their ability to meaningfully participate on environmental issues. To promote a truly effective climate change participatory process, UNFCCC Article 6 must promote protection of these individuals by integrating human rights language.