Posts Tagged ‘environmental issues’

Profile of Alfred Brownell, Liberian human rights defender for more than 20 years

May 20, 2019

Under the title “This Liberian lawyer has withstood presidents, multinationals and militias” Front Page Africa on Line published on 3 May 2019 an extensive profile of Alfred Brownell.

Twenty-two years ago Alfred Brownell could see a problem. The government of his country, Liberia, was awarding contracts for the exploitation of natural resources without consulting local communities; forest and mineral resources were being taken away with no questions asked. “It was at a time when a very notorious company called OTC and many other companies were cutting down the forest for timber and no benefit was going back to the people,” Brownell says.

Then a law student in the capital, Monrovia, Brownell challenged President Charles Taylor and his government on the operations of OTC – the Oriental Timber Company. The company was later found to be involved in arms smuggling, Taylor is in prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity – and Alfred Brownell has just been awarded the African Goldman Environmental Prize for 2019 at a ceremony in San Francisco. see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/05/13/winners-of-the-2019-goldman-environmental-prize/]. Brownell’s organisation, Green Advocates, has become a household name in Liberia as a champion of customary rights to land and natural resources for indigenous communities. He is helping thousands of people around the country to fight multinational companies and regain their rights.

Sowing seeds

In 2003 when the war to oust Taylor was raging in Monrovia, Brownell had just graduated with a degree in Environmental Law from Tulane Law School in New Orleans, Louisiana, the previous year. Green Advocates was still an idea and Brownell had no money – only a vision.. The Fund for Global Human Rights gave Green Advocates its first seed money in 2003 of $10,000 after Brownell returned to Liberia following the ouster of Taylor and Green Advocates began operations from a tiny office in Monrovia. “We did not have a bank account; we were not a formal organisation,” recalls Brownell.

“The Fund for Global Human Rights had a lot of confidence in me. They awarded me the grant even without a formal structure in place.” John Kabia works for The Fund for Global Human Rights as programme officer for thematic initiatives. He has worked closely with Green Advocates over the years and says that the lack of a track record meant that the Fund was taking a risk, but it was a risk worth taking. “We feel at the Fund that our very reason for being is taking those smart risks, because that is the only way you can identify and support new and emerging actors and new ideas,” he says.

He says it is convenient for international donor organisations to support groups they already know. The threshold for approving support is set very high, making it difficult for small and emerging groups like Green Advocates to gain recognition and support to advance their work. However, seed funding can provide an organisation the necessary credibility and opportunities it needs to attract support from other funders and partners. “Often times if people are given the opportunity and investment to turn their ideas into reality, you’d be amazed by what they can do. I think the example is Alfred and Green Advocates,” he says. “Seeing how Alfred and the communities have mobilised and successfully pushed for major policy and legal reform is impressive. I think that type of smart risk-taking is what many other donors and development partners should be taking on.”

But for such risks to be sustainable, Kabia noted that it is critical for seed funding not to be a one-off, short-term support. “Change doesn’t happen overnight,” he says. “Long-term and capacity-building support needs to accompany an initial seed grant in order for promising organisations to thrive and reach their full potential.”

Big concessions, big government

Back in 2003, Liberia was just emerging from conflict and Brownell knew that the country lacked expertise on land and natural resources governance.

“It was sad to see a country with a natural-resource-endowed economy [where] its lawyers were not learning anything about natural resources or environmental laws,” says Brownell. “I said we have to use the law to help our people.”

“When I graduated, we worked to set up Green Advocates to provide support to the poor, marginalised, vulnerable, who had no voice. To focus our effort on creating policies to protect people through advocacy and campaigning for regulations.”

In 2005, Brownell partnered with over a dozen other local organisations and took on the transitional government of Liberia headed by the late Charles Gyude Bryant. It was the first post-war challenge to the government of Liberia by rights groups. The government had awarded contracts to a Chinese company for the shipment of iron ore from the port of Buchanan against the wishes of the citizens. A subpoena was issued by the Supreme Court of Liberia to stop it, but the government defied the court and shipped the ore anyway.

After successfully challenging a government contract to ship iron ore from the port of Buchanan against the wishes of local people, Brownell and Green Advocates began to expand their work. Both the government and the companies that profited from concessions to exploit Liberia’s natural resources began to see them as a threat. Green Advocates was involved in massive public sensitisation about land rights across the country, and started taking on companies as huge as the US tyre and rubber multinational Firestone, the Malaysian palm oil giant Sime Darby and Golden Agri-Resources, the world’s largest oil palm conglomerate – not to mention the government of Liberia itself.

One of the biggest cases involved Firestone, Liberia’s largest and oldest rubber concession-holder. For 75 years it had dumped all its waste into the Farmington River in the community of Owens Grove. That blatantly violated Liberian laws prohibiting the discharge of waste into the water system. Green Advocates filed complaints that led Firestone to create a waste treatment facility after almost a century of operations. The organisation also partnered with other rights groups in a US lawsuit that accused Firestone of using child labour. After six years of litigation Firestone won that case, but significantly the judge ruled that companies can be sued in the US for human rights abuses outside the country. In addition, Firestone was forced to introduce reforms that addressed the root causes of child labour in its plantation. This included reducing the quotas for workers, to prevent them having to bring their children to work, and building more schools within its concession area.

Doing it for the people

By this time Brownell was at odds with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who had become president in 2006. As Africa’s first elected female head of state she had won admirers around the world; in 2011 she shared the Nobel Peace Prize. But her international eulogists turned a blind eye to some dubious actions at home: by 2010 her government had awarded massive amounts of land to agriculture companies through a ‘backdoor’ scheme, despite agreeing to landmark land reform.

“You’re talking about 300,000 hectares of forest land without consulting the people” says Brownell. “There was no mapping or surveying to know where the land was, who grew what on the land or what the cultural impact was on the people.”

Brownell says that Green Advocates’ first grant from the Fund for Global Human Rights, and the organisation’s ongoing support over 16 years, has given other funders confidence to provide revenue that has supported other projects. For instance, Green Advocates has also gone on to establish the Alliance for Rural Democracy and the Natural Resources Women Platform, and was key to the formation of the Mano River Union Civil Society Natural Resource Rights and Governance Platform, which now covers eight west African countries.

The fight gets real

As Brownell was fighting to help communities understand their rights to the land and push companies to reform and make policies that would benefit the local population in the concession areas, he also faced a battle of his own. A battle for personal safety.

Brownell and his staff came near death on several occasions while on their many trips in rural areas. On one occasion, in Tarjuwon, Sinoe County, people had complained that Golden Veroleum Liberia had decided to construct an oil mill on a site that was used for annual religious worship. They resisted and Green Advocates was called in to help. Brownell and his colleagues went to Sinoe to see what was happening. On their way to the area, the team came under attack from militia that Brownell believes were working for the company.

The men, dressed in company security uniforms, had set up a roadblock. They were ex-combatants armed with machetes and sticks, according to Brownell. Brownell and his colleagues resigned themselves to death – until the intervention of the town chief.

“I had given up and was just praying to God. I had no idea how we were going to get out of there because we were completely surrounded by these men,” he says.

“We knew that the attack against us in Tarjuwon was not just the company. We think the government was also very complicit in those attacks to try to eliminate us,” he says. Brownell says the Liberian government has been behind several attacks, and felt his organisation was standing in the way of its development objectives. The government did not take kindly to Green Advocates trying to enlighten people on their right to the land and natural resources.

Francis Colee is head of programmes at Green Advocates and has worked on several court cases on land rights issues brought against the Liberian government. He says the government sometimes brands the organisation as anti-development, but its focus is to ensure good investment that protects the rights of people and not alter their livelihood.

“We have argued that it is good that we have investment, but we have also argued that we need to ensure a delicate balance between the protection of human rights, the environment and the investment,” says Colee.

“In most cases, what we have seen is that the project-targeted communities end up becoming worse off than they were before the coming of the investment.”

In 2016, the government accused Brownell of refusing to help give testimony in the trial of the Dutch businessman Guus Kouwenhoven, the former head of the Oriental Timber Corporation – Brownell’s first case. The Green Advocates office in Monrovia was raided and ransacked by plain-clothes police officers. Some of the staff were arrested. The police even went to his home and arrested his uncle when Brownell himself could not be found.

“It was a ploy to get me. They use the criminal justice system to threaten people,” he says.

“They made Liberia very unsafe for me when they started threatening me and so I was forced to flee with my family to come [to the US]. President Sirleaf has directly threatened me, in my face, ‘I will charge you with sedition’.”

In a strongly worded letter to the president of Liberia, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders condemned the attacks on Brownell, and through the support of the Fund for Global Human Rights and other groups he fled the country with his wife and children. He now serves as an associate research professor at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston. Green Advocates’ work in Liberia continues, even with Brownell in the US, through support from a team of dedicated local activists and Green Advocates staff.

Land rights at last

Despite the challenges, Green Advocates has helped ensure Liberia passed sweeping land reform legislation in 2018. Local communities now have the exclusive right to possess and use land for different purposes, and to lease it.

But there is still a long way to go in terms of actual impact on land rights despite these reforms, says Simpson Snoh, who represents the Alliance for Rural Democracy, a Liberian non-governmental body working closely with Green Advocates. Green Advocates is in the process of taking the message to the people, and helping to translate laws into action.

“After years of securing rights for its community partners,” says Brownell, “Green Advocates is currently exploring options for translating these rights into economic opportunities to address not just the bread-and-butter issues these communities face, but a business and development model that can co-exist with nature.”

Snoh says that with funding, local organisations can move quickly to help communities that are facing serious human rights abuses from multinational companies and governments. This is because community-based groups best understand the needs of the communities more and what the issues are.

Brownell echoes Snoh’s sentiments. He believes that international funders should be able to bet their money on local organisations like Green Advocates, just as The Fund for Global Human Rights did when the organisation was still just an idea. He feels Green Advocates has been able to enlighten the people on their basic human right – the right to own land.

“The government’s perception that there was free land or open spaces where they could give concessions to companies was a complete false assumption. All these years the government had lied,” he says.

“The future of Liberia is never ever going to be with massive foreign investment through transnational corporations coming to Liberia. Liberia’s future comes from its own people.”

This article is part of an editorial partnership with the Fund for Global Human Rights.

This Liberian lawyer has withstood presidents, multinationals and militias

 

Profile of Putla: a 75-year-old indigenous rights defender in Cambodia

May 16, 2019

….if you drive two and a half hours West of Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, you reach a community consisting of five small villages with a total population of around 1,350 people. They are the last members of the indigenous Souy people, who until recently, lived peacefully on their ancestral land. This is where the indigenous rights defender Putla has lived most of her life – except when she was forced to move away by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime in 1979.

Today, she is a 75-year-old woman whose skin has been tainted by the sun and from a hard life. She is a tiny woman, not more than 150 centimeters tall, and often dresses in the Souy people’s traditional black cloth. Putla is a woman who looks fragile at first sight – but this impression only lasts until she starts to speak, or until you look into her eyes. She has a strong and crisp voice, and her eyes reflect the hardships that she has endured in her life. She is a very warm woman who often finishes her tirades with heartfelt laughter. Read the rest of this entry »

Report “Indigenous World 2019” launched on 24 April in NY

April 24, 2019

On 24 April 2019, at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York, IWGIA released The Indigenous World 2019, an extensive yearbook presenting a comprehensive, global overview of the developments indigenous peoples experience. The book documents an increasing trend towards the harassment and criminalization of indigenous peoples and communities. It also highlights the rising tensions between states and indigenous peoples, shrinking civil society space, loss of land rights and lack of access to justice for indigenous peoples to enjoy their rights.

“Indigenous peoples make up 5% of the world’s population, yet they represent 15% of the world’s poorest, and in 2017, half of the approximately 400 environmental and human rights defenders killed. The numbers for 2018 are as-yet-unknown, but this troubling trend hasn’t seemed to stop,” Julie Koch, IWGIA Executive Director, says. “We need to do more to protect, learn from and support indigenous peoples and their traditional, sustainable practices as key actors in ensuring a safer and more equitable world.”

In 2018, there has been an increase in the documentation and reporting of illegal surveillance, arbitrary arrests, travel bans preventing free movement, threats, dispossession and killings of indigenous peoples. We have witnessed instruments meant to protect indigenous peoples being turned against them, through the use of legislation and the justice system, to penalize and criminalize indigenous peoples’ assertion of their rights. [see e.g. https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2017/08/08/9-august-international-day-of-the-worlds-indigenous-peoples-un-experts-see-increasing-murder/]

The intensification and exploitation of natural resources is leading to a global crisis for indigenous peoples’ rights,” Koch says. Many indigenous peoples live in the Earth’s last remaining biodiversity hotspots and are often called the “guardians of the forest”. Several studies have shown that tree cover loss is significantly reduced on indigenous land compared to non-indigenous controlled land.

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2017/07/15/documenting-the-killings-of-environmental-defenders-guardian-and-global-witness/

Tensions are rising between states and indigenous peoples

Important legal victory for land rights defenders in UK Court

April 11, 2019

Vedanta building in India
Image copyright VEDANTA

On 10 April 2019, BBC and others reported on a landmark judgement in the UK that could have big implications for others cases in which human rights defenders seek compensation from multinationals. Nearly 2,000 Zambian villagers have won the right to sue mining giant Vedanta over alleged pollution, the UK Supreme Court has ruled. The landmark judgement means other communities in developing countries could seek similar redress in the UK.

Zambian villagers have been fighting for the right to seek compensation in British courts for several years. Vedanta had argued that the case should be heard in Zambia. The UK Supreme Court disagreed, saying that the case must proceed in the UK, due to “the problem of access to justice” in Zambia. The case relates to allegations by villagers living near the huge Nchanga Copper mine, owned by Konkola Copper Mines (KCM), a subsidiary of UK-based Vedanta. Vedanta said: “The judgment of the UK Supreme Court is a procedural one and relates only to the jurisdiction of the English court to hear these claims. It is not a judgment on the merits of the claims.

Martyn Day, senior partner at law firm Leigh Day, which is representing the Zambian villagers, said: “I hope this judgment will send a strong message to other large multinationals that their CSR [Corporate Social Responsibility]. policies should not just be seen as a polish for their reputation but as important commitments that they must put into action.

[In 2015, Zambian villagers accused Vedanta of poisoning their water sources and destroying farmland. Leaked documents seen by the BBC appeared to show that KCM had been spilling sulphuric acid and other toxic chemicals into the water sources. …In India’s Tamil Nadu state, a Vedanta-owned copper smelting plant was closed by authorities in May 2018.]

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/03/23/human-rights-council-recognises-vital-role-of-environmental-human-rights-defenders/

‘Belgrade Call” presses governments to protect rural human rights defenders

April 9, 2019

On 9 April 2019 the International coalition: ‘Belgrade Call to Action’ urges governments to address rural repression”

The “Belgrade Call to Action” presses governments and members states of the United Nations to act upon the deteriorating conditions for civil society and the growing human rights violations targeting human rights defenders in the context of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda. The Civil Society Partnership for Development Effectiveness (CPDE), CIVICUS, Action for Sustainable Development, Civic Initiatives and the Balkan Civil Society Development Network initiated the launching of the action agenda on 8 April 2019, while civil society organizations worldwide are gathered in Belgrade, Serbia for the 2019 International Civil Society Week.

The People’s Coalition on Food Sovereignty (PCFS) finds the Belgrade Call to Action timely and relevant especially to land rights defenders including farmers and Indigenous Peoples groups who brave repression for their opposition to state-sponsored and corporate-backed development ‘aggression’ projects.

According to Sylvia Mallari, global co-chairperson of PCFS, the Belgrade Call to Action lays down practical measures for UN member states and international organizations to address the shrinking space of and foster an enabling environment for civil society organizations and human rights defenders, which would significantly advance the Agenda 2030 and its SDGs.

We hope that the Belgrade Call to Action will push the governments of these countries to undertake appropriate measures that will put an end to the phenomenon of peasant killings and promote genuine agrarian reform to uplift farmers from their dire conditions,” Mallari stressed.

………

We hope that through the Belgrade Call to Action, rural repression will end and land conflicts will be addressed. We appeal to the member states of the UN and the international community to support and adhere to the Belgrade Call to Action,” Mallari said.

http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/WO1904/S00064/belgrade-call-to-action-to-govts-on-rural-repression.htm

OSCE Human Rights Monitoring and Security Training for Human rights defenders: apply soon

March 23, 2019

The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) is pleased to offer a five-day training event on human rights monitoring and safety and security for human rights defenders (HRDs) working in three thematic areas: 1) human rights of Roma and Sinti, 2) human rights of people of African descent, and 3) environmental protection issues.
The objective of the training event is to enable human rights defenders (HRDs) to independently carry out quality and objective human rights monitoring activities in a safe and secure manner and taking into account relevant gender considerations. The event will take place in Montenegro from 27 to 31 May 2019, and will cover the human rights monitoring cycle and principles; physical safety and security of human rights monitors; and digital security, including secure information management. The language of the event will be English. The training will be based on interactive learning methods and requires a high level of active participation by all participants. During group exercises, participants will be divided based on their field of work/interest and coached by a senior professional expert. ODIHR will select up to eight participants per group.

The size of the entire group will be limited to 25 participants, selected according to the following criteria:
• Citizenship or residence in one of the OSCE participating States;
• Involvement as a human rights defender in one of the specified fields: environmental protection, human rights of Roma and Sinti, or human rights of people of African descent;
• Limited or no experience on human rights monitoring and reporting;
• No or limited previous training in safety and security (including digital security);
• Relevance of the training for future human rights activities in OSCE the region;
• Computer literacy;
• Fluency in English.

The OSCE/ODIHR recognizes as a human rights defender any person promoting and striving for the realization of human rights regardless of profession, age or other status. Human rights defenders carry out their human rights activities individually or jointly with others, as part of an informal group or as a non-governmental organization (NGO), and act in a voluntary capacity or professionally. ..The workshop is designed for activists with limited or no skills who can benefit fully from receiving the training. Accommodation and travel for the selected human rights defenders to attend the event will be covered by ODIHR.

Deadline for submission: 29th March 2019. If you have any questions about the content or the selection procedure of the training, please do not hesitate to contact David Mark david.mark@odihr.pl and Marine Constant at marine.constant@odihr.pl.

https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSfQUm0t3S8vU3Kat8C46gbcRlxSaXQC6ZcMA7DwKmEyngknQA/viewform

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/02/28/human-rights-education-courses-also-exist-in-europe/

CIVICUSat the 40th Human Rights Council: counter-terrorism, environmental defenders and more

February 28, 2019

During the 40th session of the UN Human Rights Council, the NGO CIVICUS will be presenting research and conducting advocacy activities and is organising a number of side events, issuing advocacy statements and supporting our members engage in official proceedings, where they can inform government and UN officials on the state of civic space conditions in their countries.

Panel discussions CIVICUS will be co-organising:

Friday, 1 March, 13:00-14:00 (Room XXVII) | The Role of Counter-Terrorism Laws in the Closing of Civic Space | Civic Space Initiative (Article 19, CIVICUS, ECNL, ICNL, World Movement for Democracy)

This event will examine the misuse of counter-terrorism laws by States to target government critics and human rights defenders. The panel will look at how states are abusing security legislation to curtail civic freedoms. See full invitation. Speakers include:

Tuesday,  5 March, 13.00-14:00 (Room XXVII) | Escazú and Beyond: Strengthening the Global Normative Framework on Protecting Environmental Defenders | Article 19, Centre for Environmental Rights, CIVICUS, Defend Defenders, Frontline Defenders, Global Witness, Ground Work, Human Rights Watch,  International Land Coalition

This side event will review State obligations for protecting the rights of environmental defenders and how the recently adopted Escazú Agreement can inform the work of the Human Rights Council. The panel will look at how the standards of the regional Escazú Agreement in Latin America and the Caribbean can support global efforts to end the widespread attacks against environmental and land rights activists. See full invitation. Speakers include:

  • Leiria Vay, Comité de Desarrollo Campesino, CODECA Guatemala
  • Matome Kapa, Attorney, Centre for Environmental Rights, South Africa
  • Marcos Orellana, Director Human Rights and Environment Division, HRW
  • David Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment
  • Moderator: Natalia Gomez, Advocacy & Network Engagement Officer, CIVICUS

Other events that CIVICUS is co-sponsoring at the 40th Session of the Human Rights Council, include:

  • 5 March (10:00-11:00) | The case for international action on Bahrain | Room XV
  • 6 March (11:00-12:00) | Women Human Rights Defenders: Local Realities & Shared Global Challenges | Room XXI
  • 8 March (12:00-13:00) | East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project – Human Rights in South Sudan | Room XXVII

CIVICUS will be live-streaming events through its Facebook page and posting updates on Twitter.

https://www.civicus.org/index.php/media-resources/news/united-nations/geneva/3753-civicus-at-the-40th-human-rights-council

Profile of Mexican indigenous defender Romel Rubén Gonzalez Diaz

February 17, 2019

ISHR published on 21 January 2019 this profile of Romel Rubén Gonzalez Diaz from the Indigenous and Popular Regional Council of Xpujil. This organisation works in partnership with the Cooperativa Chac Lol, in the defense of the territory, training in municipal and human collective rights, generating sustainable development alternatives (agriculture, biocultural tourism, sustainable management of natural resources). The main problem in Muna, Yucatan is the proposal to establish a solar park megaproject with 1227,000 solar panels, destroying 700 hectares of tropical forest, by the company Sunpower of the USA.

Liberian environmental human rights defender Silas Siakor wins another award

February 6, 2019

Silas Siakor smiles as his received the Black World Prize to the Fraternity from the Spanish magazine Mundo Negro and Comboni Missionaries on February 2, 2019 in Madrid Spain 

James Harding Giahyue reports that Liberian Silas Siakor, founder of the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) and winner of the Goldman Environment Award, has added another recognition for his work in Liberia’s natural resource sector.

Siakor on Saturday received the Black World Prize from the Mundo Negro magazine and the Comboni Missionaries at an elaborate ceremony in the Madrid, Spain.  The groups said they gave Siakor the award (€10,000) for defending rural communities and nature against concession companies and politicians.

Silas Siakor stars in a fight against illegal logging and political corruption in his country, Liberia,” said the Mundo Negro in a statement on its website.  “His work highlights the desire and power of people who want to change the world, even if they sometimes face the interests of groups that accumulate money and power” .

Siakor in 2006 landed the Goldman Environmental Award, the world’s most prestigious environmental prize, for exposing the Charles Taylor-led government’s use of illegal logging to fund Liberia’s brutal civil war that left 250,000 dead and more than a million displaced.   He also won the Whitley Award for Environment and Human Rights; as well as the Alexander Soros Award for Extraordinary Achievements in Environmental and Human Rights Activism.

Siakor also stars in the 2017 80-minute film, “Silas” about his work, which has been screened at a number of film festivals across the world. The film Silas by Hawa Essuman and Anjali Nayar, chronicles the life of its eponymous main character in his fight over the years against convicted war-criminal Charles Taylor and the illegal deforestation and corruption in his native Liberia.

https://frontpageafricaonline.com/news/liberian-environmentalist-wins-top-international-award/

Michelle Bachelet, new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, gives major interview

October 18, 2018

In August 2018, Michelle Bachelet, twice-elected President of Chile was confirmed as the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, replacing Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. [see e.g.: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/08/22/change-of-high-commissioner-for-human-rights-at-the-un-optimism-warranted/]. Minutes after she was approved, UN chief Antonio Guterres told reporters he was “delighted” by the news of her official appointment, describing Ms. Bachelet, a “pioneer”, has been “as formidable a figure in her native Chile, as she has at the United Nations”. Shortly after assuming office in early September, Ms. Bachelet was in New York for the General Assembly’s high-level general debate. She spoke then with UN News on the rights situation around the world, the priorities for her tenure, and how can rights be better protected. It was published on 17 October 2018.

Bearing in mind her own personal experience of being detained and tortured in Chile, the interview started with a question on how she overcame the hardships she suffered under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet (file photo) ILO/M. Creuset

Michelle Bachelet: ….there was a period of my life that I really hated what was happening – I had so much rage. But afterwards, I started thinking, “you know what, I do not want this to happen anymore in Chile or in any other country of the world. So, what can I do to contribute, that Chile will be a peaceful, democratic society?” So, I sort of put all my energies on that, and that is why I started working on defence issues to be able to speak to the militaries, because I never thought I was going to be Minister of the Defence or President of the Republic.,,I would say it permitted me to understand that, first of all, lessons learned, and if you really want some objective, and in a possible, constructive way, it can be done.

As the High Commissioner, you have come in a time when human rights are under serious attack globally. What your priorities are going to be?

Michelle Bachelet: …. first of all, of course, my priorities are to do what my mandate tells me to do, to be the voice of the voiceless. But also to engage with governments so they respect human rights, protect people from rights violations, and promote human rights.

….But one of my particular priorities from the Secretary-General is prevention. I am not saying I will succeed on that, maybe not. But I will try to design a system where we can have early warning signs and try to think on early action. …..

Right now, some countries do not want to cooperate with OHCHR or question the worth of the Human Rights Council. How do you plan on bringing everyone together?

Michelle Bachelet: In my opening statement, I spoke about, that consensus could be possible, that we should not lose ourselves in sterile disputes. Of course human rights is a very political thing and you see that here in the General Assembly, in the Security Council, so it is not in the Human Rights Council, by itself.

I mean, countries have their visions, their interests, and sometimes, they are not interested in some issues. But what I have been doing is meeting, not only with the whole council, but with groups of countries in Geneva such as the Group of Latin American and Caribbean countries, the African countries, the Arab countries, the Asia-Pacific countries, the West European and Other countries, the Eastern European countries, speaking but also listening. Because, sometimes, you know what you have to do, but the way you do it can be more successful than others. Sometimes you need to speak out. Sometimes you need to strategize in terms of saying, look, it will work better if we do diplomatic prevention, if we start engaging the government. But today the world is complicated, and it is very polarized in some issues………

This year is the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. What progress do you think has been done in the past 70 years?

Michelle Bachelet: …..Think of 1948: how many countries allowed women to vote, for example; how many respected of freedom of speech. If you think of the different aspects of the human rights, even in more complete things that usually people do not think of as human rights, but they are human rights: on health, on education, on sanitation, on housing. The world today is better than 70 years ago. But having said that, there are a lot of threats, there are a lot of threats for multilateralism, there is a lot of threat and pushback on human rights. …We see a pushback, we see that in some documents, human rights is not mentioned, and when you ask, they say, “it is mainstream.” And if it is mainstreamed, it is fantastic, because everybody’s doing their job. But if it is invisible, mainstream, that is not a good thing. On the other hand we see human rights defenders and civil society having their space shrink. They have been under attack. Journalists have been killed.

So there is a lot of challenges. The only thing I can say is that the struggle for human rights probably will never end, because it is a process where you advance, but there will be always people who want to push back, and that could be governments or that could be armed groups. The task of the UN is to ensure and promote the whole human rights system. And I will do what I have to do about it, but it cannot be only the task of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, it has to be the task of the whole UN system….

I would like to ask you about protecting those who protect: human rights defenders are often targets of abuse and violence. How can they be better protected?

Michelle Bachelet: Well, the curious thing is that, as we are celebrating the 70th year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we are celebrating 20 years of the Declaration on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. And in November 2017, a resolution on the protection of human rights defenders was approved unanimously by the General Assembly.  No country voted against it. So, the issue is: on paper things can look very good, but reality is another thing. I think we have the task of making people accountable for the things they have approved. Second, to monitor implementation of those agreements that everybody has made, and engage governments, and in the cases where things are happening, holding them accountable and responsible for the killings, the torture, the detentions of many human rights defenders.

You have been a very important defender of women’s rights. How is that going to continue, as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights?

Michelle Bachelet: The thing is that, people tend to see OHCHR as only concerned with civil and political rights, and that is not it. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly states the rights for migrants, for children, for women; right to health, to education. It is very comprehensive. Even though I am not intending to replace any other agency, I always speak about gender issues, gender empowerment. This morning I was speaking about women who are women’s human rights defenders, who have been attacked, threatened with rape.

I will be always raising the voice for women, trying to support their capacities, and building partnership with UN Women, as we have spoken with Henrietta Fore, the head of UNICEF to see how we can create synergies. …..

One of the most pressing issues for the entire world is climate change. How are human rights linked to the environment?

Michelle Bachelet: ..There are so many concrete consequences that will be effects in people’s lives and their rights. That is why we also believe that working strongly to combat climate change is a very essential task, including of the High Commissioner. I think also that we need to be more part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and how we support the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). ..

And climate change is of huge importance, because I have seen places where there is no more water and people who depend agriculture, mainly women, and now have to think how they get their incomes. With climate change, we have seen, and scientists tell us … about worsening natural disasters and extreme weather, forest fires. And all of these will have a lot of consequences for the life of people. It is very important to work very closely on that, too. I completely agree with the Secretary-General when said that this is one of the major, major challenges that we have.

Full interview at: Human Rights