When it was announced that the government of Fiji would chair this year’s climate talks in Bonn, Germany, expectations were high. As a small island, Fiji sees climate change as an existential threat.

Indigenous peoples demand their rights at climate negotiations in Marrakesh, Morocco, November 2016,

© 2016 Katharina Rall / Human Rights Watch

The talks wrapped up on Friday, and during the last two weeks, advocates for gender equality and indigenous peoples made their voices heard and won hard-fought battles to better respect their rights. Notably, governments agreed to create a platform to promote the participation of indigenous peoples in United Nations climate responses, and adopted a Gender Action Plan that aims to better integrate gender equality in climate change policies.

There was also increased attention given to environmental rights defenders and indigenous people who have been killed, attacked, and threatened for their activism. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights noted that governments often fail to conduct serious and timely investigations.

Just when the talks were nearing their end, human rights were pushed to the fore when Fijian prime minister and president of the climate talks, Frank Bainimarama, convened a high-level event about the importance of rights in climate negotiations. Why was this such a big deal? Because never before has any government presiding over the talks hosted an official event on human rights.

Bainimarama has also long been among those who have been silent on human rights issues. But on Thursday, he announced that integrating human rights in the implementation of the Paris Agreement was an important element of Fiji’s presidency, which will continue through the coming year. Costa Rica’s environment minister, Edgar Gutiérrez-Espelata, also proposed concrete ways to integrate rights into the current negotiations about the so-called Paris Rulebook. For example, governments could reference human rights obligations in climate change action plans and climate negotiators could agree to build capacity among states on promoting human rights in climate action.

Of course, such commitments are worth little unless governments are willing to turn rhetoric into reality. If they are serious about fighting climate change, governments should also do more to integrate the protection of human rights in climate policies, while defending the rights of people working to protect the environment.

Author: Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Volunteers tend to a man in a wheelchair and his partner, after they were rescued during flooding from Tropical Storm Harvey in Orange, Texas, Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017.

© 2019 AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

The United Nations Human Rights Council made history on Friday when it adopted a resolution on climate change and the rights of people with disabilities. The resolution calls on governments to adopt a disability-inclusive approach when taking action to address climate change.

The impacts of climate change disproportionately affect people with disabilities. They are frequently in situations of social, economic, and political disadvantage and may not have access to adequate resources, information, and services necessary to adapt to the effects of climate change. For example, people with disabilities may feel the health impacts of climate change more severely, as some are more susceptible to invasive disease due to pre-existing health conditions. Additionally, many are at particular risk of neglect, abandonment, and even death during instances of migration or natural disasters, which are increasing in frequency and ferocity, due to physical, communication, and other barriers, as well as disrupted support networks.

This is the first time the Council has addressed the rights of people with disabilities as they relate to climate change. While women, indigenous peoples, and youth have successfully become part of discussions around climate action, persons with disabilities have largely been absent.

This resolution could be an important first step to remedy that gap, presenting an opportunity for persons with disabilities to engage in the conversation about climate resilience and for governments to ensure that happens. The resolution includes a mandate for the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights to conduct a comprehensive study–engaging governments, United Nations bodies, intergovernmental organizations, and disability rights groups–focused on ways to better protect and promote the rights of persons with disabilities in the context of climate change.

As is central to the disability rights movement, governments, UN agencies, and environmental groups should echo the principle “nothing about us, without us” in acting on this resolution. Governments need to reach out and listen to people with disabilities, who are among those who feel, or will feel, more acutely the adverse effects of environmental change, and will be important leaders in fighting it.

Author: Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

French CRS riot police forcibly remove French youth and environmental activists as they block a bridge during a demonstration to urge world leaders to act against climate change, in Paris, France, June 28, 2019.

© 2019 Reuters/Charles Platiau

Last weekend, France recorded an all-time heat record of 45.9 degrees Celsius. With rising temperatures globally, heatwaves are becoming more intense and frequent and their impacts can be devastating. But when a group called Extinction Rebellion organized a protest on a Paris bridge on June 28 demanding France act more swiftly to reduce carbon emissions, they faced a harsh police response.

Video footage from the protest shows Paris riot police using teargas from very close range against a couple dozen activists peacefully staging a sit-in.

Human Rights Watch has documented cases of disproportionate use of force by French police including unnecessary use of teargas against migrant children in Calais in 2017, and during some “yellow vest” and student protests last year. As climate activists ring alarm bells, they are facing government repression in many parts of the world. Some climate activists were prevented from participating in last year’s climate talks in Poland.

But the French police response comes at a time when much of the government seems to agree that acting on climate change is a priority.

Last week, the French High Council for the Climate, a government-mandated panel, published a report finding that France is not on track to meet its goals under the Paris Agreement. The French Parliament has recognized the global threat by declaring a climate emergency. In the lead up to the G20 Summit in Japan, France’s President Emmanuel Macron announced he would treat climate change as a red-line issue. In a recent speech, he even called on student climate activists to continue holding their leaders to account: “I need you to make our lives impossible…because the more you do that, the more likely we are to act.”

The French minister of the interior, Christophe Castaner, has asked for a written account from Parisian police authorities about Friday’s response. On Monday, the public prosecutor also opened an investigation to assess whether the police response was proportionate.

The government should also reflect more broadly on the implications of its actions toward climate activists. At a time when environmental defenders are under threat globally, the French government should listen to those raising climate concerns, not repress them.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Environmental activists and petitioners listen to a tribunal ruling over the construction of a coal-fired power plant, at the supreme court building in Nairobi, Kenya Wednesday, June 26, 2019.

Environmental activists in Kenya scored a unique victory last week. On June 26, the National Environmental Tribunal revoked a license issued to Amu Power Company to establish a controversial coal-fired power plant in Lamu.

The Tribunal found the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) had issued the building license even though the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) was prepared without public consultation or participation.   

Following the decision, if Amu Power still plans to proceed with the project, it would need to successfully appeal the ruling or carry out a fresh ESIA, looking at the impacts of the power plant on people’s livelihoods, health, and land issues, and reapply for a license from NEMA. While this decision still allows Amu Power to restart the process, it will give Lamu activists an opportunity to raise their concerns over the establishment of a coal plant, such as their pollution of land, sea, and air; the destruction of Mangrove forests; and lack of clear mitigation measures for climate change.  

Environmental activists campaigning against the coal plant, which is linked to Lamu-Port-South-Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET), a massive regional infrastructure development project that connects at least three countries, have suffered harassment by the Kenyan state authorities. Activists in Lamu, who have teamed up with other activists in and outside Kenya, have held peaceful protests, carried out community meetings, and lobbied the international community. In October 2016, they filed an appeal against Amu Power and NEMA at the Tribunal.

Activist groups such as Save Lamu and Lamu Youth Alliance have faced many challenges voicing these concerns and protesting the plant’s construction. In a joint report in December 2018, Human Rights Watch and the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders found that Lamu activists opposing the construction of coal plant had faced threats, arrests, detentions by police, and arbitrary restrictions on public meetings.

By ruling that the environmental authority failed to uphold Kenya’s own environmental protection laws when granting the license to Amu, the tribunal has given authorities a chance to re-assess the plant’s impacts and make sure affected communities are consulted as the law requires. The authorities should allow everyone the space to be able to make their views known.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Business owners and workers assess flood waters as some start cleanup on Wednesday, May 29, 2019, in Harmony, Pennsylvania. 

© 2019 AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

News from the central United States is full of natural disaster, sodden houses, and suffering as a flooding crisis continues in the region. The Anthropocene Alliance (Aa), an organization with more than 30 local and regional community leaders - mostly women - from 16 US states, is demanding action.

This week, they asked the US government to take “action now to stop development in wetlands and floodplains, reform flood insurance laws, and reduce human-caused greenhouse gases that cause global warming.”  

Aa’s executive director, Harriet Festing, told me after disasters it’s often women who pull communities together and lead responses to climate change impacts. Human Rights Watch has seen this first-hand speaking to women in Puerto Rico, a US territory, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017. Many women spoke about how, without any support from the US government, they and others took action and provided services, from thousands of meals to safe homes for domestic violence survivors.

Women community leaders we spoke to in Puerto Rico said they have never been consulted by government disaster experts about preparing for more extreme weather events, foreseeable because of climate change science. Activists, nongovernmental organization leaders, lactation consultants, ob-gyns, and others told us their work was taken for granted or ignored after the 2017 storm.

Women globally want states to take more action against climate change. On Friday, June 28, women leaders were at the United Nations Human Rights Council demanding not just that states reduce emissions but that women, who experience global warming impacts differently and often more severely than men, are empowered to protect communities. A new report mandated by governments at the council demands “full, equal, and meaningful participation of women with diverse backgrounds in climate change mitigation and adaptation at all levels.”

The Human Rights Council’s message matters for all women living with the impacts of climate change, including those facing flooding in the central US and in Puerto Rico. And it should matter to President Donald Trump.

He may have pulled the US out of the Human Rights Council and the Paris Accord on Climate Change, and ditched his predecessor’s climate action plan. But it’s time that he, and those who want his job in 2020, start paying attention to women, especially from poor and marginalized communities, on the front lines of climate change.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Alexandra Koroleva, Zelenogradsk, Kaliningrad region, Russia. 

© 2018 Private
(Moscow) – A prominent Russian environmentalist has fled the country as criminal cases were opened against her in connection to Russia’s law on “foreign agents”, Human Rights Watch said today. Alexandra Koroleva, 65, head of Ekozaschita! (Ecodefence!), one of Russia’s oldest environmental groups, is seeking asylum in Germany because in Russia, among other things, she could be imprisoned for two years for being held criminally liable for unpaid fines levied against Ekozaschita! under the abusive law.

Koroleva’s group refused to register under the 2012 law that requires any Russian group accepting foreign funding and carrying out activities deemed to be “political” to register as a foreign agent, a term that in Russia implies “spy” or “traitor.” However, in 2014, the Justice Ministry forcibly added Ekozaschita! to the “foreign agents” registry. The group and its supporters believe the move was a reaction to their campaign against the construction of a nuclear plant in the Kaliningrad region, where the group is based. The government should drop the cases against Koroleva.

“Instead of celebrating Koroleva’s lifelong commitment to environmental activism, Russian authorities have forced her into exile,” said Damelya Aitkhozhina, Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The cases against Koroleva should be dropped, and Russia should repeal its ‘foreign agents’ law once and for all.”

Human Rights Watch and multiple other human rights organizations and bodies have repeatedly condemned the Law on Foreign Agents as a violation of human rights norms, and called for its repeal. Ekozaschita!/Ecodefence! and 48 other Russian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have applications pending before the European Court of Human Rights (application no. 9988/13) arguing that the Law on Foreign Agents violates several human rights norms including on freedom of expression and association, a conclusion endorsed by the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights.

Although, as a matter of principle, Ekozaschita! did not comply with the reporting requirements in the “foreign agents” law, it continued to file all other reports required of civil society organizations by authorities in a timely manner. In May 2019, the Federal Court Bailiff Service opened five criminal cases against Koroleva for unpaid fines. Information about the cases was only made public in recent days.

Between 2016 and 2018, both Ekozaschita! and Koroleva in her personal capacity were fined on numerous occasions for failure to submit the reports under the “foreign agents” law and for refusal to publicly identify the group as a “foreign agent” organization.

The Federal Bailiff Service referred five unpaid fines for enforcement proceedings after the payment deadlines had expired. The fines range between 10,000 and 100,000 rubles (approx. US$150 and US$1,500), and the enforcement proceedings entailed an additional 10,000 rubles per case. The total amount of fines against Koroleva and Ekozaschita! deemed overdue or due by Russian authorities is about US$18,000. Koroleva’s colleagues are trying to raise the money on several crowdfunding platforms in the hopes that paying the fines will prevent Koroleva’s conviction.

In December 2018, Russian authorities froze Ekozaschita!’s bank accounts - as they had the power to do under the court decision execution proceedings -, leaving it unable to make any payments and effectively blocking its activities. In March, after the group found out about the fines, Ekozaschita!’s lawyer filed an application for the group’s liquidation, but the Justice Ministry refused to register it. Ekozaschita! is planning to go to court to contest the refusal, their lawyer said.

The Justice Ministry has initiated liquidation proceedings against several nongovernmental groups that it forcibly registered as foreign agents, including such prominent groups as Golos, an election watchdog, and Agora, a human rights litigation group. More than 30 organizations have shut down rather than accept the false and stigmatizing label of “foreign agent.”

Currently, the Justice Ministry’s registry of “foreign agents” includes 75 organizations. Under the law, offenses such as refusal to declare and register one’s organization as “foreign agent”, to submit reports as “foreign agents,” or to put a “foreign agent” marker on all publications, websites, and even staff business cards are punishable by fines of up to 500,000 rubles (approx. US$8,000); and there is no limit on the number of fines an organization can be ordered to pay. In November 2017, Human Rights Watch published a report documenting how the law has been used to silence some of the country’s most effective, rigorous, and committed environmental groups.

In June 2016, authorities in the Rostov region brought criminal proceedings against Valentina Cherevatenko, a prominent rights activist, for “malicious evasion” of the “foreign agents” law, but dropped the case a year later. Her case had been the only example of attempted criminal prosecution of an organization’s leader under the “foreign agents” law until the authorities targeted Koroleva.

“The cases against Koroleva are meant to punish her and her environmental group at a time when environmental activism and protests in Russia are on the rise,” Aitkhozhina said. “But the message the authorities want to send through the ‘foreign agents’ law is broader—that any organization that engages in activism in Russia does so at its own peril.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A beach where a heavy winds and strong waves washed ashore piles of garbage in Keserwan, north of Beirut, Lebanon, on 23 January 2018. 

© 2018 Marwan Naamani/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

(Beirut) – The Borj Hammoud landfill, one of two principal landfills serving Beirut, Lebanon, is set to reach capacity by the end of July 2019, Human Rights Watch said today. The government had initially estimated that the landfill would be in operation until 2020.

The government has taken no steps to provide an alternative site for Beirut’s solid waste. Instead, a 13-page solid waste roadmap the Environment Ministry submitted to a ministerial committee on June 3 recommends expanding the Borj Hammoud landfill. Experts say that the landfill is affecting nearby residents’ health. Yet, the Environment Ministry has proposed its expansion without an Environmental Impact Assessment or consultation with affected communities, solid waste management experts have said.

“The government has to answer for why Lebanon’s waste management infrastructure has not been improved upon four years after the last waste crisis led to mounds of trash in the streets of Beirut,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The government may be ready to bury its head in the sand but residents don’t want to end up buried in piles of trash.”

The Borj Hammoud landfill is currently emanating particularly strong odors, which an international consultant hired by the Environment Ministry determined was caused by manure and garbage in various states of decomposition that have been dumped there.

Nearby residents and public health experts fear that the odors signal the emission of toxic pollutants. According to air pollution experts, chronic exposure to these strong odors is linked to respiratory diseases, allergies, and the spread of bacteria. Further, experts state that leachate from the Borj Hammoud landfill is being dumped into the sea, polluting the water and making the sea in areas surrounding the landfill dangerous for swimming.

Both Lebanese legislation and international standards stipulate that an Environmental Impact Assessment must be conducted before a project can begin and that measures must be taken to mitigate unavoidable adverse impacts.

The ministerial committee should convene immediately to discuss the roadmap and share its contents with experts and with the public for a broader consultation prior to finalization and submission to the cabinet, Human Rights Watch said.

The roadmap also incorporates core aspects of the Environment Ministry’s strategy on solid waste management, a ministry official who worked on it told Human Rights Watch. The ministry was tasked with establishing the strategy under Lebanon’s Law 80/2018 on integrated solid waste management, the country’s first law on solid waste management, passed on September 24, 2018, and it was supposed to do so by March. However, the ministry official said it is still being finalized in line with the comments from civil society and other stakeholders.

Human Rights Watch reviewed a draft summary of the strategy and on March 20 submitted feedback and recommendations for revisions to better respect residents’ rights. In particular, Human Rights Watch recommended strengthening plans for consultation with the community, creating more effective monitoring and enforcement systems, combatting discrimination in the current waste management practices, and raising public awareness about waste management issues.

The ministry official said that the roadmap also includes a list of decrees and decisions that should be passed so that Lebanon’s integrated waste management law can be carried out and maps of existing facilities and of 24 other proposed sites for new sanitary landfills, along with a draft law outlining fees and taxes that the central government and the municipalities can impose to cover their waste management costs. Without such a law, neither the ministry nor the municipalities will be able to fulfill their commitments as set out in the law and the strategy, Human Rights Watch said.

The proposed expansion of the Borj Hammoud landfill is broadly considered a stopgap measure until the broader solid waste strategy is implemented. The initial establishment of the landfill itself was a supposedly temporary solution to the 2015 trash crisis, until the government found a more sustainable solution.

The 2015 trash crisis was caused by closing the Naameh landfill after years of protests by local residents, without an alternate waste management plan. Without a disposal site, the waste collection company halted its operations, and garbage built up on the streets of Beirut.

In 2017, Human Rights Watch investigated the health problems arising from the increasing open burning of waste as a consequence of the breakdown of existing waste management plans. Human Rights Watch found that the government was failing in its obligations to protect people’s health through its mismanagement of waste. Residents of areas where waste was being dumped and burned reported health problems including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, coughing, throat irritation, skin conditions, and asthma. Air pollution from open waste burning has been linked to heart disease and emphysema, and can expose people to carcinogenic compounds.

Experts fear that the proposed roadmap does not present sustainable solutions. An environmental expert has put forward a proposal that would avert the need to expand the Borj Hammoud landfill. It would cut the amount of waste in half and extend the life of existing landfills by requiring residents to sort their waste at home. This would give the ministry additional time to introduce more long-term solutions.

According to researchers at the American University of Beirut, only 10 to 12 percent of Lebanon’s waste cannot be composted or recycled. However, currently around 85 percent goes to open dumps or landfills. Sustainable waste management solution should focus on reducing the amount of waste sent to landfills rather than expanding existing landfills, Human Rights Watch said.

“There is no excuse for continuing to delay the implementation of a rights-compliant waste management system,” Fakih said. “The ministerial committee should urgently make the tough decisions necessary to solve the problem rather than continuing to adopt temporary half-measures.” 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Students march to demand action on climate change, in Santiago, Chile, Friday, March 15, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo/Esteban Felix

Clean air is a core component of the right to a healthy environment. So says the UN expert on human rights and environment to mark the occasion of World Environment Day.

The residents of Chile’s coastal region of Quintero and Puchuncaví know first-hand how air pollution can impact their rights to health and a healthy environment. In August and September 2018, two toxic air pollution incidents in the region caused a public health crisis which caused more than 300 people to seek medical treatment for exposure to toxic substances.

When I interviewed leaders of grassroots organizations in Quintero this year, they alleged neglect from the government and spoke of their hope for environmental justice. The region has seen intensive industrial development over the last 50 years, and hosts refineries, power plants, and factories. Because of the extensive contamination from industrial activity in the area, it is commonly referred to as a “sacrifice zone.”

Last week, Chile’s Supreme Court answered their plea. The court found that the Chilean administration has neglected the health and wellbeing of the region’s residents for many years. And it ruled that major failures by governmental entities violated the constitutionally protected rights to life, health, and a pollution-free environment.

Human Rights Watch had submitted an amicus curiae brief in this case, encouraging Chile’s Supreme Court to consider international law, human rights standards, and the environment as it considered whether the right to a pollution-free environment – guaranteed in Chile’s national constitution – had been violated.

In many ways, the situation in Quintero and Puchuncaví is symptomatic of many other areas around the world with extensive air pollution. The UN says that ambient and household air pollution contribute to 7 million premature deaths annually, including the deaths of approximately 600,000 children.

On this World Environment Day, the decision by Chile’s Supreme Court gives cause for hope that other courts around the world may find a basis in domestic law to uphold the right to a healthy environment.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Activists from mining communities protesting at the Pietermaritzburg High Court on August 24, 2018, KwaZulu-Natal.

© 2018 Rob Symons
Despite the global environmental crisis confronting our planet, environmental activism has become a dangerous activity. In many countries, environmental defenders are harassed, attacked or even killed for speaking out and mobilizing against projects that threaten the health and livelihood of communities.

The latest tactic is nuisance lawsuits, as a new report about South African mining communities shows. The companies that bring these baseless lawsuits—known as “Strategic lawsuits against public participation,” or SLAPPs—are not particularly concerned with winning. Rather, it’s a tactic to suppress environmental defenders’ effectiveness by intimidating them and burdening them with onerous costs of mounting a legal defense.

The South Africa report documents the targeting of community rights defenders in KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Northwest, and Eastern Cape provinces between 2013-2018 for expressing opposition to mining projects. Activists reported intimidation, violence, damage to property, use of excessive force during peaceful protests, and arbitrary arrest, but also frivolous lawsuits and social media campaigns to curb their opposition to the mining projects. The companies have often sought court orders to halt or ban protests. The report was a collaborative effort between Human Rights Watch, Centre for Environmental Rights, groundWork, and Earthjustice.

In 2017, for example, the mining company Mineral Sand Resources brought a defamation suit against two attorneys from the Centre for Environmental Rights and a local activist for statements they made during a lecture at the University of Cape Town’s Summer School concerning the company’s Tormin mineral sands mine, on the west coast of South Africa. The ongoing lawsuit seeks R1,250,000 ($89,936) in damages.

These lawsuits are a growing trend globally. In the United States, in May 2016, Resolute Forest Products filed a lawsuit against Greenpeace, which had been protesting what it considered to be unsustainable logging in the Boreal forest, one of the world’s largest forests and carbon sinks.  The lawsuit claimed that Greenpeace had violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) – the U.S. law passed to fight the mafia back in the 1970s. Ultimately and predictably, the RICO violation claim was dismissed, but only after three years of costly and time-consuming litigation. (A number of defamation claims against Greenpeace were allowed to go forward, and are still ongoing.)

More than five years ago, the same corporation alleged defamation against Greenpeace Canada, citing activists’ criticisms and filing a CAD$7 million lawsuit. The case is still ongoing.

In Australia, Adani—India’s largest coal importer with interests in a coal mine in Central Queensland—engaged a law firm that recommended adopting an aggressive legal strategy to bankrupt opponents, silence critics and pressure the government.

In France, the holding company Socfin and its Cameroonian subsidiary Socapalm, both affiliated with Bolloré Group, sued journalists and nongovernmental groups who reported on villagers’ protests against the companies’ palm oil plantations in their communities and land.

Nongovernmental groups have been mobilizing to resist these tactics. In late 2018, environmental and human rights organizations came together to form the Protect the Protest task force against these nuisance lawsuits. It offers legal and campaign support and solidarity to those involved in these cases. The task force takes the view that an attack against one group of environmental defenders is an attack against all. In South Africa, the Centre for Environmental Rights also opened an anti-SLAPP campaign in 2019 to coordinate resistance among activists against corporate bullying and to deter companies operating in the country from using litigation to silence activists and critics.

Governments are also enacting laws against these lawsuits to protect freedom of expression and public participation. Canada, Australia, and the Philippines have adopted legislation or procedural rules to protect against these cases. In the United States, many states have passed anti-SLAPP statutes. These statutes typically allow courts to promptly dismiss suits against actions involving public participation and may also allow defendants to recover attorneys’ fees and damages.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Czech Republic's President Milos Zeman speaks during the inaugural Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing Sunday, May 14, 2017.

© 2019 Lintao Zhang/Pool Photo via AP

(New York) – The Chinese government should ensure the projects it finances or engages in under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) respect human rights, Human Rights Watch said today. On April 25-27, 2019, President Xi Jinping will host heads of state and international organization leaders at the second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing. The BRI, announced in 2013, is China’s trillion-dollar infrastructure and investment program stretching across some 70 countries, linking China to the rest of Asia, Africa, and Europe via land and maritime networks.

Under the Belt and Road Initiative, the Chinese government should set out requirements to enable meaningful consultation with groups of people potentially affected by proposed projects. It should also ensure that affected communities can openly express their views without fear of reprisal. Other governments, the United Nations, and financial institutions should press Beijing to adopt such protections.

“Beijing claims it is committed to working with other countries to foster environment-friendly and sound development, but the practice so far has raised some serious concerns,” said Yaqiu Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Criticisms of some Belt and Road projects – such as lack of transparency, disregard of community concerns, and threats of environmental degradation – suggest a superficial commitment.”

In recent years, some BRI projects have not conducted or disclosed adequate environmental and social impact assessments, or sufficiently consulted local communities that would be affected by the projects during planning and construction processes, prompting widespread protests.

Such practices are inconsistent with basic obligations of states under international human rights law concerning a healthy and sustainable environment. Some BRI projects have also drawn criticism for facilitating corruption, nontransparent loan agreements, and noncompetitive contracts that require the use of Chinese companies. Amid inflated project costs, several BRI recipient countries, such as Djibouti, Pakistan, and the Maldives, are at high risk of debt distress, potentially diverting limited government resources away from essential services to debt servicing.

The China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China, two of China’s policy banks and the biggest financiers of the BRI, have not publicly articulated mechanisms to ensure transparency, accountability, or respect for human rights in financing BRI projects. A policy document issued in 2017 by the Office of the Leading Group for the Belt and Road Initiative, the government body that oversees implementation of the BRI, made no mention of human rights.

In Pakistan, the Chinese government has made developing the port city of Gwadar the centerpiece of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a flagship BRI project totaling US$62 billion. In 2015, as part of the project, the Chinese government offered a loan of $130 million to build the East Bay Expressway, which will link the port to a major national highway. Since the Chinese state-owned China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) started construction on the highway in October 2018, local fishermen in Gwadar have raised concerns about the lack of transparency and consultations, and potential impacts on their livelihoods. They have held news conferences, strikes, and marches to protest the highway, which they allege would block their access to the sea and deprive them of their ancestral source of livelihood without offering any alternatives. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan assured “inclusive development” but construction has proceeded without any of the fishermen’s demands being addressed.

In Myanmar, the Chinese government has ramped-up pressure on Myanmar authorities over the $3.6 billion Myitsone Dam project in Kachin State. The Myanmar government suspended the construction of the dam in 2011, after nationwide protests. Critics say the mega-dam would cause large-scale displacement, loss of livelihoods, wide-scale environmental damage, and destruction of cultural heritage sites significant to the ethnic Kachin people. The project has been criticized for having little transparency. In February, a Chinese government statement contending that most Kachin people support the revival of the dam project drew thousands of people to march in opposition to the claim. The Myanmar government briefly detained a protest leader.

In Sri Lanka, the CCCC in January completed the first phase of construction of Colombo Port City, a financial district in the country’s capital. The $1.4 billion development project has drawn continuing protests over environmental harm. Many residents fear that land reclamation required for the project would lead to coastal erosion and reduce fish populations, threatening the lagoon ecosystem and fishermen’s livelihoods. As with many other BRI projects, the agreement between the Sri Lankan government and the CCCC has not been made public.

The Chinese government and state-owned banks have responded to community opposition to planned Belt and Road projects in some cases. In March, Chinese authorities dropped a plan to blast rocky outcrops and islets in the upper reaches of the Mekong River to allow smooth passage of large cargo vessels, after strong protests by residents and environmental groups from Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand. Also in March, the state-owned Bank of China said it would evaluate the funding commitment to the Batang Toru hydropower plant in Indonesia, asserting that the bank was committed to supporting environmental protection and corporate social responsibility. Critics fear the dam would cause environmental degradation and threaten the critically endangered orangutan.

“People and governments in some ‘Belt and Road’ countries are pushing back against threats to their physical, financial, and environmental well-being,” Wang said. “Chinese authorities should respond by committing to meaningful community consultation, project transparency, respect for peaceful protest, and addressing community concerns.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

On Wednesday, Indonesians go to the polls to determine their next president.

For one demographic, the stakes of the vote, regardless of the results, remain uncertain: the country’s indigenous peoples. Indigenous rights groups that represent some 17 million people and that could be a decisive force in the elections have been reluctant to endorse either candidate—for good reason. Major questions about the future of land rights policy remain unanswered by both of them.

Last September, I stood on the hills of Semunying, in West Kalimantan, on the Indonesian half of the island of Borneo. What was once a green tropical forest lush with evergreen rambutan trees has been taken over by a commercial palm oil plantation. Evidence of the palm oil industry extended as far as the eye could see in every direction. Stuck in the middle of all this is a small village, home to members of an indigenous people, the Iban Dayaks.

The Iban Dayaks have a worldwide population of some 751,000. About 19,000 currently inhabit this area near the Malaysia-Indonesia border, where Ibans have lived for centuries. “Our identity as Iban Dayak is almost lost now. We have no forest anymore,” Ibu Della, a 40-year-old woman whose name I have changed for her protection, told me. Over the last 10 years she has watched the forest she depended on slowly being taken over by palm oil plantations.

In 2004, the Indonesian government effectively permitted Ledo Lestari, an Indonesian company commercially cultivating palm oil for export, to strip the Ibans of their access to community land, forest, and their way of life—their very identity. In the absence of strong laws protecting indigenous peoples’ rights, the company cleared the forests without any meaningful participation from these communities. Attempts in writing and by phone to reach the palm oil company to discuss the impact on people’s land and livelihoods went unanswered.

The village of Desa Sungai has lost its land and livelihood to a palm oil plantation. Singkil swamp rainforest, Aceh, Sumatra, Indonesia.

© 2008 David Gilbert
Palm oil is found in half of all grocery store products and is sometimes blended into biodiesel. According to the Indonesian government, as of 2017, the country had more than 12.3 million hectares of land under palm oil production. Foreign companies and domestic companies—both private and state-owned—own or control the large plantations that produce a large share of the oil. Land clearing for plantations has resulted in a loss of forest cover and forest fires that both cause air pollution, with serious risks to respiratory health in the region, and aggravate climate change.

Palm oil cultivation has been devastating for the Ibans, who depended on the land for growing their food and on plants that grew there to supply materials for weaving mats and baskets, their main source of income.

Around the globe, indigenous peoples struggle to have their land rights recognized as international standards demand. Several countries have adopted laws in favor of indigenous collective land rights, a few others have drafted and are debating legislation, but many have not acted at all. The failure of governments to ensure community land rights exposes indigenous peoples to all manner of human rights abuses.

A draft bill before Indonesia’s parliament, the law on the Recognition and Protection of Indigenous Peoples’ Rights, could prevent repeats of what has happened to Ibans in Semunying and to others across the archipelago. By simplifying the process for recognizing indigenous peoples and their territories, the draft law would not only be key to the survival of indigenous peoples in the country—it would also set a path toward the resolution of many of Indonesia’s ongoing land conflicts.

Neither of the 2019 presidential contenders—the incumbent Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, and his challenger, Prabowo Subianto, a former general—seems to have a detailed plan to protect indigenous rights in the world’s third-largest democracy. Experts say that Indonesia’s political parties have few major differences on policy and ideology. Most of the divergence relates to the role of religion in public affairs, and to the candidates themselves. Jokowi is not from the political elite and has no military background. He gained national prominence as governor of Jakarta between 2012 and 2014. Prabowo represents an offshoot of an Indonesian oligarchy—a former army lieutenant general and, since he left the service in 1998, a businessman with stakes in pulp and paper, palm oil, and coal mining. Prabowo’s business interests have cultivation permits to an estimated 362,000 hectares of land.

In two televised debates, in January and February, Jokowi had little to say on the topic of land rights. During the second debate, the candidates did exchange views on agrarian reforms, which aim to redistribute agricultural land to close the economic gap and reduce the country’s inequality.

Jokowi’s government had set itself a target of redistributing 9 million hectares of land during his current term. In a bid to carry out this policy, in 2016 and 2017, he handed over 29,500hectares of customary forest to 18 indigenous communities and more to smallholder farmers, but still a far cry from the amount pledged in the country’s National Medium-Term Development Plan.

In February 2018, Jokowi launched Complete Systematic Land Registration, a program with an objective of formally registering all land in Indonesia by 2025. And that September, he announced a moratorium on issuing permits for new palm oil plantation developments in forest areas.

Prabowo criticized these policies, weak as their implementation has been. While both candidates have avoided addressing the issue of land-related conflicts, both were vocal about expanding the use of biofuel, largely palm oil, to reduce the country’s reliance on imported fossil fuel. Subsequent debates did not touch on land conflicts nor environmental issues.

Few candidates in the regional elections last year made the issue a priority in their campaigns. One exception, Abdon Nababan, a prominent indigenous peoples’ rights activist who ran for governor of North Sumatra, alleged that local elections campaign financing was linked to huge business interests in land. A series of investigations by Mongabay and the Gecko Project in 2017 highlighted rampant corruption behind Indonesia’s deforestation and land deals, naming local officials who contravene the law and sell permits for plantations, often to raise money for political campaigns. But without urgent legislative action to protect indigenous peoples and their land rights, it will be hard to undo any of the devastation these communities have experienced.

According to Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara, one of the main advocacy groups for indigenous peoples in Indonesia, which Nababan runs, the country has a large number of unresolved land conflict cases involving indigenous peoples, companies, and the government—some of them ongoing for over a decade. Based on a 2016 National Human Rights Commission report, the main problem in resolving these cases is the lack of legal recognition of indigenous people’s claims over their traditional territories.

Laws on the books in Indonesia that offer indigenous groups access to what is known as customary land require that they first receive formal recognition by a district or province. However, the process of gaining recognition and transferring the land has been slow because of discrepancies between national, ministerial, provincial, and district-level regulations on recognition of indigenous rights. The Ibans’ territory, for example, is not legally recognized and not registered as collective property due to extensive delays in this process—a gap that companies are able to exploit for commercial gain.

Since a Supreme Court decision four years ago that codified these land rights, about 18 communities have seen the rights to use their forests recognized, a far cry from the more than 2,332 indigenous communities that make up an estimated 50 to 70 million people, between 20 and 26 percent of Indonesia’s population. This translates to less than 100,000 hectares of the more than 9 million hectares claimed by indigenous peoples nationwide.

In April of last year, Indonesia’s home affairs minister, Tjahjo Kumolo, questioned the need for the draft bill on indigenous peoples currently under consideration, potentially stalling its passage. The Home Affairs Ministry later backtracked on the objections, but it nonetheless slowed down the bill’s progress. It remains on the priority docket, and advocates for indigenous peoples’ rights continue to lobby officials and parliament to enact it.

What happened to the Iban community in Semunying shows why this protection is needed. “Community leaders have taken sweet promises from the company that they can replace the forest with money,” Della said. “They sold the land, we lost our adat forest to the company.” (Adat, a Malay word, is often translated as “customary” or “customary rules.” Adat forests are common resources that can be used by any individual within an indigenous community.)

She said that some community members had also traded away land in 2010, believing they had no option but to sell and without knowing the full implications of what they were doing.

Since the forest was cleared, vegetation and trees that are essential for the adat way of life are difficult to find. Weaving had long been the main revenue source for Iban women, but this skill that had been handed down from mothers to daughters is fading away. Pandan leaves used to make woven mats for drying rice and sitting on during special ceremonies have become scarce since the forest was cleared. Naturally growing vines used to make rattan are gone.

“We lost our sense of community,” said Kristi, a 28-year-old woman whose name has also been changed. “This place is not a village, you can’t call it home. These are shelters, not a community. It is owned by the company.”

In 2014, the Ibans sued Ledo Lestari and the regent of Bengkayang district, where Semunying, along with the village of Pareh, are located, to get their forest back, but they lost because they have no official document recognizing them as indigenous or giving them a collective right over the land. They plan to appeal. Legal status for the Ibans as indigenous could mean requiring the company to return their land at the end of its permit or pay compensation commensurate to the market value for its use. This would enable the Ibans in Semunying and Pareh to lease the land, if they chose, and develop diverse ways of generating revenue and protecting their interests.

Indonesia’s presidential candidates have not been eager to engage with the issue of clashes over land. The longer the subject goes ignored, the worse the situation will grow for indigenous people across the country.

In keeping with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Indonesia’s parliament should promptly enact the draft law to protect indigenous peoples from being dispossessed. The Indonesian government needs to make sure that this bill moves along and passes—and then take the steps needed to make the system for protecting indigenous communities work.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Community activists in mining areas face harassment, intimidation, and violence, the Centre for Environmental Rights, groundWork, Earthjustice, and Human Rights Watch said in a joint report released today. The attacks and harassment have created an atmosphere of fear for community members who mobilize to raise concerns about damage to their livelihoods from the serious environmental and health risks of mining and coal-fired power plants. 

The video cites activists’ reports of intimidation, violence, damage to property, use of excessive force during peaceful protests, and arbitrary arrest for their activities in highlighting the negative impacts of mining projects on their communities. Municipalities often impose barriers to protest on organizers that have no legal basis. Government officials have failed to adequately investigate allegations of abuse, and some mining companies resort to frivolous lawsuits and social media campaigns to further curb opposition to their projects. The government should protect the activists.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am


South Africa: Activists in Mining Areas Harassed

Community activists in mining areas face harassment, intimidation, and violence, the Centre for Environmental Rights, groundWork, Earthjustice, and Human Rights Watch said in a joint report released today. The attacks and harassment have created an atmosphere of fear for community members who mobilize to raise concerns about damage to their livelihoods from the serious environmental and health risks of mining and coal-fired power plants.

(Johannesburg) – Community activists in mining areas in South Africa face harassment, intimidation, and violence, the Centre for Environmental Rights, groundWork, Earthjustice, and Human Rights Watch said in a joint report and video released today. The attacks and harassment have created an atmosphere of fear for community members who mobilize to raise concerns about damage to their livelihoods from the serious environmental and health risks of mining and coal-fired power plants.

The 74-page report “‘We Know Our Lives Are in Danger’: Environment of Fear in South Africa’s Mining-Affected Communities” and video cites activists’ reports of intimidation, violence, damage to property, use of excessive force during peaceful protests, and arbitrary arrest for their activities in highlighting the negative impacts of mining projects on their communities. Municipalities often impose barriers to protest on organizers that have no legal basis. Government officials have failed to adequately investigate allegations of abuse, and some mining companies resort to frivolous lawsuits and social media campaigns to further curb opposition to their projects. The government has a constitutional obligation to protect activists.  

“In communities across South Africa, the rights of activists to peacefully organize to protect their livelihoods and the environment from the harm of mining are under threat,” said Matome Kapa, attorney at the Centre for Environmental Rights. “South African authorities should address the environmental and health concerns related to mining, instead of harassing the activists voicing these concerns.”

Interview: The Dangers of Opposing Mining in South Africa

Interview: The Dangers of Opposing Mining in South Africa

Fighting for a healthy environment in South Africa's coal mining communities can be perilous. At least three activists have been killed in the last three years. Birgit Schwarz talks to Robby Mokgalaka, Coal Campaign manager at groundWork, a South African environmental justice organization, about the impact of mining on rural communities and the dangers of being an activist in South Africa.

The Centre for Environmental Rights, groundWork, Earthjustice, and Human Rights Watch documented the targeting of community rights defenders in KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Northwest, and Eastern Cape provinces between 2013 and 2018. The groups conducted interviews with more than 100 activists, community leaders, environmental groups, lawyers representing activists, police, and municipal officials. Researchers also wrote to the relevant government agencies and to many of the mining companies in the research areas. Four out of eleven companies responded. The Minerals Council South Africa, which represents 77 mining companies, including some in the research areas, has stated that it “is not aware of any threats or attacks against community rights defenders where [its] members operate.”

Community members in mining areas have experienced threats, physical attacks, or damage to their property that they believe is a consequence of their activism. They described being assaulted, intimidated, threatened, and their property damaged.

“We know our lives are in danger,” one activist from KwaZulu Natal said. “This is part of the struggle.” Women often play a leading role in voicing these concerns, making them potential targets for harassment and attacks.

In one high profile case in Xolobeni, Eastern Cape province, Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe was killed at his home in March 2016. He and other community members had raised concerns about displacement and destruction of the environment from a titanium mine proposed by the Australian company Transworld Energy and Mineral Resources. No suspects have been arrested in connection with the killing.

But many of the attacks go unreported or unnoticed, in part because of fear of retaliation for speaking out, and because police sometimes do not investigate the attacks, the groups found.

“South African authorities and companies should ensure zero tolerance toward threats and abuses against rights defenders in mining-affected communities,” said Katharina Rall, environment researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Government departments and the police have an obligation to investigate incidents and work with mining companies to create an environment conducive to freedom of speech and to reporting threats against defenders.”

Municipalities infringed on citizen’s rights to freedom of assembly, imposing extra-legal requirements for protests, despite constitutional guarantees established in South African law. In other cases, it was companies themselves that requested community activists notify them of their upcoming protests, wrongfully claiming that this was a legal requirement.

Some companies have used the courts to harass activists by asking for financial penalties, seeking court orders to prevent protests, or filing vexatious lawsuits. These meritless lawsuits – known as “Strategic lawsuits against public participation,” or SLAPPs – are a growing trend globally that South Africa could tackle by adopting new legislation. SLAPPs can silence activists by hitting them with the cost and burden of mounting a legal defense. Companies have also used social media campaigns to harass activists and organizations who are challenging them, inflicting an emotional and reputational toll on defenders.

“Municipalities and mining companies want to suppress protests,” said Ramin Pejan, staff attorney at Earthjustice. “But suppressing protest does not solve the underlying concerns of these communities, and upholding the rights to free speech and peaceful assembly is their legal obligation.”

The groups also found a pattern of police misconduct during peaceful protests in mining-affected communities, including violently dispersing demonstrations or arbitrarily arresting and detaining protesters. South African police have also injured peaceful protesters with teargas and rubber bullets.

“These patterns of police violence and company tactics combine to create an environment of fear for community rights defenders and environmental justice groups in South Africa,” said Robby Mokgalaka, Coal Campaign manager at groundWork. “For some, this has meant reducing or stopping their activism. But for many, it means putting their lives at risk while they are continuing the struggle.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

What changes for a community once a mine starts operating?

Most mining in South Africa takes place in rural areas, where people live off the land and their livestock. Mining often forces people to leave the land they use for farming and grazing. Mining companies by law are required to make binding commitments for projects that will benefit a community that will be affected by mining. Our experience, however, is that the communities are rarely consulted and, as the South African Human Rights Commission has found in a recent report, compliance with these so-called Social and Labor Plans is poor. In the end, we don’t believe that the plans prioritize the needs of the community and often although local residents were promised employment, it goes instead to people from outside who have the required skills. Few people from the community in practice land a job with the mine.

Also, until recently, the government has allowed mines to operate on lands governed by customary or traditional laws without consulting with or seeking the consent of the communities living on them. In fact, the government has used mining laws to override legal protections for informal land rights. And although people have a right to be compensated for the loss of land even in the absence of formal land titles, we know of several cases in which no compensation was paid.

As a result, we find that the majority of those living near mines are left worse off than before because they no longer have enough land to farm. And to make matters worse, many end up breathing coal dust, getting sick, and their houses, most of which are made of clay, are cracking because of the blasting.

What are people’s biggest concerns?

One of the major concerns is water scarcity. Mines need millions of liters of water to wash coal. I remember one case where, during a drought, the community said the coal mine blocked off the entire stream that was their water source.


South Africa: Activists in Mining Areas Harassed

Community activists in mining areas face harassment, intimidation, and violence, the Centre for Environmental Rights, groundWork, Earthjustice, and Human Rights Watch said in a joint report released today. The attacks and harassment have created an atmosphere of fear for community members who mobilize to raise concerns about damage to their livelihoods from the serious environmental and health risks of mining and coal-fired power plants.

Pollution from insufficiently treated effluents - water that runs off after the coal has been washed and that contains toxic substances - and the pollution of streams and boreholes from acid mine drainage are another worry. In places like Witbank in Mpumalanga, where there are many active and abandoned coal mines, people’s tap water is undrinkable. Their only option is to buy water. Yet these are people who cannot even afford the most basic things like sufficient food or primary healthcare.

Exposure to coal dust compromises people’s health. When inhaled, this very fine dust can cause respiratory problems, coughs, and trigger asthma. People end up having to see doctors, which is another expense they cannot afford.

Does the government listen when people voice these concerns?

Local and national government officials rarely respond to formal complaints. A community’s last resort is to take the mine to court. But this takes resources most communities don’t have.

At the end of the day, people are angry. When no one ever responds to their grievances, they resort to protests. It’s only then that the municipalities react – by sending in the police.

Our constitution is very clear. Everyone has the right to peacefully protest without needing to obtain permission to do so. Municipalities, however, insist that unless communities have been granted a formal permission, their protest is illegal. The police are brought in, shoot teargas and rubber bullets into the crowd, and arrest whoever gets in their way. The municipalities will claim the protest was violent and all they were doing was trying to enforce the law. Most protests, however, are peaceful, and most arrests are baseless.  

How do the mining companies respond?

In our work with communities at groundWork we have found that some mines will do anything to discourage people from voicing their concern. They encourage the narrative that anti-mining protests will scare off investors. They want the police to react quickly and decisively. And they put activists at risk by claiming they are destructive and endanger the national interest. In one case, activists told us that they even went so far as to hire small groups of people to gather information about “trouble-makers”.

How dangerous is it to be an activist who challenges mining projects in South Africa?

In KwaZulu-Natal, a province with a violent history and hit-men for hire, the threats activists receive are very real. In Somkhele, an activists’ car was set alight, and at night, he was woken up by gun shots. Somebody tried unsuccessfully to burn his house down. In the morning, he found a dead cat in his yard, he thought it was a warning. Many activists have received anonymous calls threatening that they will be “dealt with”. A female activist and single mother felt so threatened by death calls that she moved herself and her daughter out of the village. Apparently, the village headman was not happy with her opposition to the mine.

What threats have you personally experienced in the course of your work?

A female activist in Mpumalanga had asked us to provide the community with more information about how a proposed coal mine might affect them. The village was in quite a secluded area. Suddenly, a group of armed men burst into the meeting, accusing us of being sell-outs, more concerned about the environment than development. The men did not even come from the community, but in the end, they had whipped up so much anger that 200 to 300 people were chanting the names of our organizations and pointing fingers at us. We felt very threatened and very concerned about the local activist who had invited us. Anything could have happened at that moment. There could have been shooting. So we decided to leave the meeting before the crowd moved outside, gave the lady who had invited us a lift home. and drove off.

Could you do anything to help keep the local activist safe?

We considered relocating her, but she did not want to move. So we bought her a cell phone and checked in on her regularly to make sure she was safe. As a woman she was particularly vulnerable, and we felt she was underestimating the threat. But eventually the situation calmed down.

How do these threats and attacks affect those opposed to mining?

The threats diffuse their courage and passion. There are people, especially the leadership, who say I don’t care, I can die for the truth. But others feel they need to retract. Some have families or dependents they have to look after. They know that anything can happen to them. And there are no security measures in place that make them feel protected.

Do the police not investigate?

Police will break up a protest, but they do nothing when activists who oppose mining are threatened. I don’t know of a single case that has been properly investigated. Not even when people were killed. Take the case of Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe, the chairperson of a community-based organisation in Xolobeni, Eastern Cape. He had raised concerns about a titanium mine that Australian company Mineral Commodities Ltd has proposed. Three years after his murder no one has been arrested.

Activists from mining communities protesting at the Pietermaritzburg High Court on August 24, 2018, KwaZulu-Natal.

© 2018 Rob Symons

Some communities have taken the government to court. What was the outcome?

In August last year, the Xolobeni community took the government to court arguing the community should have the right to decide what happens to the land their families have lived on for generations. The court ruled that customary land is only held in trust and that the South African Department of Mineral Resources cannot issue a mining license without the community’s consent. And last November, the Constitutional Court ruled that “restrictions [of protests] that are “blanket in nature” and criminalise gatherings “as an end in itself” are unconstitutional. This means that the protesters can no longer be prosecuted as a criminal offense, whether registered or not. These decisions are significant for the struggle.

What needs to change?

The government should take the injustices committed by corporations seriously. The Minister of Mineral Resources should ensure that issues raised by communities are addressed. The police need to understand that when people are protesting they are not criminals but human beings who care about their communities. And prosecutors should be trained in how to assess the validity of an arrest. We need to resolve these issues in ways that build trust with and calm down these angry communities who feel that, if they don’t fight for their rights, nobody will.

*This interview has been edited and condensed

**groundWork is one of four partners who researched the threats to activists in South Africa’s mining communities, resulting in a joint report “We Know Our Lives Are in Danger” and video. Other partners were Earthjustice, Centre for Environmental Rights and Human Rights Watch.

Author: Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Washington, DC) – Chile’s Supreme Court should consider international law and standards protecting human rights and the environment in its application of the right to a pollution-free environment guaranteed in Chile’s national constitution, Human Rights Watch said yesterday in an amicus curiae brief. The international law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP, and the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice of the New York City Bar Association, served as pro bono counsel for the amicus curiae brief filed in the Supreme Court of Chile.

In August and September 2018, two toxic air pollution incidents in Chile’s coastal region, in Quintero and Puchuncaví, caused a public health crisis in which more than 300 people received medical assistance for symptoms of harm from toxic substances. The region has been the site of intensive industrial development over the last 50 years, hosting refineries, power plants, and factories. Given the extensive contamination from industrial activity in the region, it is commonly referred to as a “sacrifice zone,” including by Chile’s National Human Rights Institute.

“The right to a pollution-free environment means everyone should be able to breathe without landing in a hospital emergency room,” said Marcos Orellana, environment director at Human Rights Watch. “The government has a duty to protect people’s health from being sacrificed for the benefit of industrial facilities.”

Human Rights Watch included in its brief an analysis of 16 framework principles developed by the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and the environment. The brief argues that the court should regard these principles as highly relevant to the interpretation of the right to a pollution-free environment in Article 19(8) of the Chilean Constitution.

Human Rights Watch highlighted the following principles as particularly relevant:

  • Framework Principle 1 provides that, “States should ensure a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment in order to respect, protect and fulfill human rights.”
  • Framework Principle 7 affirms that, “States should provide public access to environmental information by collecting and disseminating information and by providing affordable, effective and timely access to information to any person upon request.”
  • Framework Principle 11 maintains that, “States should establish and maintain substantive environmental standards that are non-discriminatory, non-retrogressive and otherwise respect, protect and fulfil human rights.”

Human Rights Watch did not take a position on the merits of the case. Instead, it provided Chile’s Supreme Court with legal analysis regarding the protection of human rights and the environment, including international law standards; jurisprudence from the European and Inter-American human rights courts; and decisions from courts and tribunals in Germany, France, and the United Kingdom.



Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am