Aarhus Convention gets new mechanism to protect environmental defenders

October 26, 2021

The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters was adopted on 25 June 1998 in the Danish city of Aarhus. The Aarhus Convention establishes a number of rights of the public (individuals and their associations) with regard to the environment. The Parties to the Convention are required to make the necessary provisions so that public authorities (at national, regional or local level) will contribute to these rights to become effective. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/10/11/new-right-to-healthy-environment-ngos-urge-action/

Now (on Thursday 21 October 2021) the 46-strong group of countries across the wider European region has agreed to establish a new legally binding mechanism that would protect environmental defenders.

It takes the form of Special Rapporteur – or independent rights expert – who will quickly respond to alleged violations and take measures to protect those experiencing or under imminent threat of penalization, persecution, or harassment for seeking to exercise their rights under the Convention. As time is of the essence to buttress the safety of environmental defenders, any member of the public, secretariat or Party to the Aarhus Convention, will be able to submit a confidential complaint to the Special Rapporteur, even before other legal remedies have been exhausted. The agreement delegates setting up the new mechanism to the United Nations, or another international body. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/11/28/cop25-climate-defenders-also-needed-to-be-shielded/

I remain deeply concerned by the targeting of environmental activists”, said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, welcoming the rapid response mechanism as “an important contribution to help advance my Call to Action for Human Rights”. 

This landmark decision is a clear signal to environmental defenders that they will not be left unprotected”, said UNECE chief Olga Algayerova. “It demonstrates a new level of commitment to upholding the public’s rights under the Aarhus Convention, as well as Parties’ willingness to respond effectively to grave and real-time challenges seen in the Convention’s implementation on the ground”.   

A report to the Human Rights Council by Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, found that one-in-two human rights defenders who were killed in 2019 had been working with communities around issues of land, environment, impacts of business activities, poverty and rights of indigenous peoples, Afrodescendants and other minorities. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/09/13/global-witness-2020-the-worst-year-on-record-for-environmental-human-rights-defenders/  

Since January 2017, among the Parties to the Aarhus Convention, incidents of persecution, penalization and harassment of environmental defenders have been reported in 16 countries

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