In the wake of assassinations of activists, the UN Human Rights Council recognizes the major role of defenders of economic, social and cultural rights

FIDH at the UN
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(Geneva) Days after the murders of land and environmental rights activists Berta Cáceres and Nelson García in Honduras and of indigenous leader Walter Manfredo Méndez Barrios in Guatemala, the UN Human Rights Council adopts today a strong resolution focused on economic, social and cultural rights defenders. It reaffirms their legitimate work, their protection needs, and the states’ obligations in this regard. It also condemns attacks against human rights defenders and their widespread impunity, within the global context of shrinking space for civil society.

In the framework of the current globalised world, it has become increasingly evident that the pressure on land is unbearable and that mobilisation for the respect of the economic, social and cultural rights of affected communities has become a high-risk activity. Too often states negotiate investments and trade agreements without taking into account the needs and will of entire communities, and trample their rights.

Moreover, private actors, especially national and transnational enterprises, both at home and abroad, contribute to human rights violations, for instance by implementing hydroelectric or mining projects without engaging in consultations to obtain the prior, free and informed consent of the affected communities, in particular when these are indigenous peoples. Furthermore, in most places, persons who defend communities against development projects are attacked or assassinated with almost total impunity. They are routinely accused of being “criminals”, “traitors”, “terrorists” or “enemies of development”. Accessing justice largely remains an illusion for the victims.

In a report published in 2014, FIDH and OMCT, within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, shed light on the daily struggle carried out by land rights defenders in all regions in the world, Asia and Latin America being the most affected. Confronted with economic super-powers supporting unbridled development, land rights defenders face an extremely hostile environment and are captured in a seriously disproportionate fight. In fact, the affected communities and their activists very often live in remote rural areas, far from actors of protection that could ensure their personal integrity and help them to seek justice. The aforementioned factors facilitate widespread acts of violence against them, the level of violence being proportional to sky-rocketing profits.

Today’s resolution was adopted in spite of attempts by a group of states led by Russia, Egypt, China, Cuba and Pakistan to obstruct it by proposing numerous amendments that ran counter to its spirit and purpose. These hostile amendments mirror the position taken by the same states during the vote last December of the UN General Assembly resolution on the protection of human rights defenders. The same position was adopted this time at the Human Rights Council and shows these states’ willingness to repress independent civil society at home as well as at the international level, and their failure to ensure protection against attacks for defenders.

Building on this important resolution, the international community – including states, regional organisations, businesses, international financial institutions, development and other economic actors – should unequivocally recognize the role played by economic, social and cultural rights defenders, in particular land and environmental rights defenders and those who work to protect human rights in the context of corporate activities. Human rights and their champions must be placed once and for all at the center of the development, trade and investment agendas in order to make international governance genuinely open, fair and democratic.

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