Press Release

IACHR issues call for OAS States to Protect Defenders of the Land and Environment

June 5, 2017

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Washington, D.C. – On the occasion of 2017 World Environment Day, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) is spotlighting the invaluable role defenders of the land and the environment play in helping to build a solid democratic society and to promote sustainable development in the countries of the region. The IACHR further urges the Member States of the Organization of American States (OAS) to adopt urgent measures to recognize and protect the work of these defenders.

The Commission has witnessed the growing number of socio-environmental conflicts and the failure to adopt and implement effective measures to recognize and protect those who defend and promote the right to territory, a clean environment and to other rights associated with access to land. As a consequence, these defenders are at higher risk of murder, assault, threats or processes of criminalization for the causes they defend or for the substance of their demands. Accordingly, in its report Criminalization of the Work of Human Rights Defenders, the Commission voiced its concern over the use of criminal law against indigenous, Afro-descendant, campesino and community leaders, as well as against defenders associated with the protection of the land, natural resources and the environment, in retaliation for their opposition to extractive activities and for decrying the negative impact that said projects have on the ecological balance, human health, community relationships or on the enjoyment of other rights.  

Over the past year, the IACHR has viewed with great concern the increase in these processes of criminalization and stigmatization. The Commission has closely monitored, inter alia, a number of judicial proceedings of this nature against indigenous and environmental defenders in Ecuador, accused of crimes of “attack” and “resistance” after the events that occurred during the indigenous uprising and the national strike. In Peru, the farmer and environmental defender Máxima Acuña faced a criminal procedure for more than six years, until April 2017 that Peru’s Supreme Court of Justice decided to dismiss the case due to insufficient evidence against the defendant. The Commission stresses that States are obligated to ensure that criminal offenses included in their legislation are formulated in a manner consistent with the principle of legality. That is, expressly, precisely, comprehensively, and previously, with a clear definition of the criminalized conduct. Also, States must ensure that criminal proceedings brought against defenders are resolved impartially, with special regard for the job they perform, inasmuch as being subjected to criminal proceedings places great limitations on their defense work.

This Commission has also closely followed, inter alia, the murders of land and environment defenders Berta Cáceres, Noel García, José Ángel Flores and Silmer Dionisio George in Honduras, all beneficiaries of precautionary measures granted by the IACHR, and Waldomiro Costa Pereira and Antonio Mig Claudino in Brazil. The Commission also received information on the murder of the environment and indigenous leader Isidro Baldenegro, in Mexico, on January 15, 2017. Isidro Baldenegro opposed the extraction of wood in the Sierra Madre Occidental, territory of the tarahuamas. Days later in Guatemala, on January 17, Sebastian Alonso Juan, a defender of indigenous rights and of Yulchen's native territory, died of gunshot wounds fired by gunmen during a peaceful protest against a hydroelectric project in Ixquisis, Huehuetenango.

It has been reported that, in some of these cases, there has been a lack and denial of information about the investigations into the murders, as well as that the proceedings are moving at a slow pace. In this regard, the IACHR recalls that States have the obligation to combat impunity in instances of assaults against defenders of the land and environment by conducting a serious, independent and transparent investigation in order to identify the masterminds and actual perpetrators and to ensure adequate reparation.

“I am greatly concerned that criminalization, stigmatization, intimidation and murders of persons who defend the land, territory and the environment, has become a constant throughout the Americas,” said the Rapporteur on the Rights of Human Rights Defenders, Commissioner José de Jesús Orozco. “Defenders of the land and the environment must perform their job of defense in a conducive atmosphere, free of obstacles to the defense of human rights and this is not possible in a context of constant danger to their lives and safety.  States must put into place overall policies to protect human rights defenders, with a special focus on prevention, protection and investigation of attacks against defenders of the land, the environment and indigenous peoples, so that they are able to continue to engage in their work without fear,” he added. 

The Inter-American Commission reiterates the overriding obligation of States to prevent any attempt on the lives and physical integrity of defenders of the environment, the land and territory and to ensure in all circumstances that these defenders are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities without fear or retaliation and free of any restriction. It is the duty of States to guarantee the safety of groups of defenders living and working in special situations of risk. Acts of violence and other attacks on defenders of the environment, the land and territory undermine the critical role they play in society and render defenseless all of the persons on whose behalf they endeavor. In particular, such violence and attacks have a dual adverse effect on social leaders and indigenous community authorities, inasmuch as not only are they adversely affected in their capacity as human rights defenders, but they are also impeded from performing their duties as representatives and leaders or from serving in their official positions, thus adversely affecting society at large as well.

On this last score, the IACHR urges the States of the region to adopt necessary measures on an emergency basis so that these human rights defender protection systems and programs are brought in line with the principles of effectiveness and are properly coordinated.  This Commission underscores the dire need for protection measures to be adequate and effective and, as such, to be suitable to protect the particular defender from the specific situation of risk faced by her or him and achieve the anticipated outcome in order to put an end to the risk to that person. Likewise, States must take into account the specific risk factors to which the defenders of the environment, the land and territory are exposed at the time when specific measures are adopted so that protection measures can be tailored to their particular needs, such as implementing specialized protocols. 

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote the respect for and defense of human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 072/17