Our Voices

A call to strengthen protect mechanisms for environmental defenders on International Earth Day

Being an environmental human rights defender is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Every day, government authorities, companies and other non-state actors seek to silence environmental defenders on the frontlines of the global climate and environmental movement through unwarranted persecution, harassment, detention and even murder. As we commemorate International Earth Day on 22 April, an annual celebration honoring those who fight for a clean environment, RFK Human Rights is calling for the international community and national authorities to redouble efforts to strengthen and fortify protection mechanisms for environmental defenders.

According to Front Line Defenders, land, indigenous peoples’ and environmental rights defenders were the most targeted human rights defender (HRD) sector in 2022. Representatives of national governments, private companies, militias and other non-state actors killed 194 land, environmental and indigenous defenders in 2022 accounting for 48 percent of all murdered defenders. Environmental defenders also face routine arbitrary arrest and detention, criminalization, physical abuse, death threats and other forms of repression. Across the world, sparse and tepid investigations into killings of environmental defenders have led to endemic levels of impunity and limited prosecutions.

As part of our work to protect civic space by defending fundamental freedoms, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights regularly works to ensure that environmental defenders have ready access to protection and accountability mechanisms. Through our strategic litigation programs, we collaborate with local partners to confront these systematic abuses through active litigation at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and at the United Nations. Under the auspices of our Speak Truth to Power campaign, we continue to provide human rights education programs that combine storytelling and interactive learning to provide the next generation of environmental defenders with the tools they will need to create change.

Together with various coalitions we constantly bring attention to the critical and invaluable work for environmental defenders. Just last week, RFK Human Rights joined dozens of civil society groups from across the globe to raise awareness about the forced disappearance of Mexican environmental defenders Ricardo Arturo Lagunes Gasca and Antonio Díaz Valencia. Both defenders disappeared on Jan. 15 only hours after participating in an anti-mining community meeting. The disappearances take place amid ongoing violence and persecution of land, indigenous and environmental defenders seeking to protect the environment in Mexico. Impunity for the killing of environmental defenders remains disturbingly high in Mexico– in 2021, according to Global Witness, nearly 95 percent of murders did not result in prosecution.

On 20 March 2023, following the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) findings, United Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued a clarion call “to massively fast-track climate efforts by every country and every sector and on every timeframe.” From the UN Sustainable Development Summit to the UN Climate Conference (COP 28), 2023 is replete with opportunities to institutionalize and codify the cherished ideals of environmentalism which we celebrate on International Earth Day. The international community, together with national governments and the private sector, must seize these crucial moments to publicly recognize the essential work of environmental defenders and recommit to ensure that they can conduct their crucial activities free from repression, reprisal and persecution.