Our Voices

Defenders in the Climate Emergency: The Advisory Opinion of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

On April 26th, RFKHR partnered with the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) and Fundeps to hold a virtual side event at the Third meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Escazú Agreement. The event, titled “Defenders in the Climate Emergency: The Advisory Opinion of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights,” hosted a panel of experts to discuss various amicus briefs that were submitted in regard to the Request for an advisory opinion on the Climate Emergency and Human Rights. The discussion centered around the briefs’ arguments, practices, and concrete cases on how to advance in guaranteeing access rights and facilitating the work of human rights defenders in the context of the climate emergency. Moderated by Luisa Gómez (CIEL), the webinar featured panelists Natalia Castro (Inter-American Court of Human Rights), Teresa Mayr (Secretariat of Aarhus Convention), Sofía Jaramillo (RFKHR), María Laura Carrizo (Fundeps), and members of VUDAS (Vecinxs Unidxs en Defensa de un Ambiente Sano).

Natalia Castro, an attorney at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, opened the panel by discussing the advisory opinion process at the Court and the general framework of the advisory opinion on the climate emergency. In this opinion, the Court will delineate  States’ obligations regarding climate change under the American Convention on Human Rights and other human rights instruments. The Court received over 200 amicus briefs for this advisory opinion–the highest number in history of the tribunal–with more than 600 organizations, States, academic institutions, individuals, communities, and companies participating from all around the world. 

Natalia also discussed how an essential pillar of the advisory opinion request is the protection of environmental defenders in the context of the climate emergency, stating that the Court should use this advisory opinion as an opportunity to give States a roadmap on protecting environmental defenders, especially because defenders are at risk and their rights are not guaranteed in the Latin American and Caribbean region. She closed her remarks by inviting the audience to follow “this process that is bringing citizens from the region close together and wants to call attention to the role of environmental defenders in our region and the impact that protecting these people has at the global level, considering the climate emergency and the need to protect the rights of those who defend rights.” 

Teresa Mayr, a legal officer who supports the Special Rapporteur of Environmental Defenders under the Aarhus Convention, discussed the Aarhaus Convention and its three main pillars: access to information, access to participation, access to justice. She then went on to explain why the protection that the Aarhaus Convention offers is relevant outside of the territory of parties to the Convention–including in Latin America and the Caribbean. Though the Convention operates within the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), States outside of Europe have the ability to sign and ratify it. Additionally, the Convention expressly provides that the rights it grants apply to the public without discrimination based on citizenship, nationality, or domicile, due to the global nature of environmental harm. Teresa also discussed the protections afforded to environmental defenders under the Convention, as well as the key trends the Special Rapporteur has seen regarding the risks defenders are facing: 1) physical violence and threats of physical violence; 2) an increase in strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs); 3) an increase in the criminalization of defenders engaged in peaceful protest and civil disobedience regarding the climate emergency; and 4) an overall increase in the limiting of civic space to exercise fundamental rights. She closed her intervention by encouraging the audience to look at the Aarhus Convention Secretariat and the Special Rapporteur of Environmental Defenders websites to better understand the mandate and the cases they have received. 

Next, RFKHR’s Senior Staff Attorney for Civic Space, Sofía Jaramillo, discussed the amicus brief that RFKHR and partners filed before the Inter-American Court regarding the advisory opinion. She began by explaining how RFKHR’s international advocacy and litigation team strives to create a jurisprudential dialogue between regions. This strategy was invoked in this brief, by presenting the Court with jurisprudence from the African, European, and International human rights systems, in addition to the Inter-American system. The legal team took this approach in order to show the Court best practices from around the world to contribute to the analysis and progressive protection of environmental defenders.  

Sofía then outlined the brief’s four main arguments: 1) Because environmental defenders address climate change through their work, States’ climate and human rights obligations require them to protect environmental defenders; 2) States’ obligations regarding human rights defenders also apply to environmental defenders; 3) because of the special risk environmental defenders face, States have a reinforced obligation to protect them; and 4) States must take a differentiated approach to protecting environmental defenders in order to account for the additional struggles faced by women, Indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants and rural farming communities (campesinos).

In her intervention, María Laura Carrizo discussed her organization’s amicus brief and the need for the Court to harmonize the Escazú Agreement with its jurisprudence. She explained how Fundeps made a respectful call to the Court to adopt specific standards of the Escazú Agreement, including: 1) to specify the minimum content of rights to access to information and right to environmental justice; and 2) to standardize instruments to guarantee the protection of environmental defenders in the region including a safe and adequate environment to carry out their work. Fundeps insisted that ratification and implementation of the Agreement is a step that States in the region must take to comply with their obligations. The brief also highlighted that States must consider the specific risks that women face in the context of the climate emergency and adopt adequate measures. María Laura also discussed how the just energy transition has been systematically violating the human rights of communities in Latin America, and gave the floor to VUDAS to tell the audience about their lived experience with this. 

VUDAS (Vecinxs Unidxs en Defensa de un Ambiente Sano, which translates to Neighbors United in Defense of a Healthy Environment) is a community organization based in the San Antonio neighborhood of Córdoba, Argentina. VUDAS has been working for over 10 years to fight against the contamination of their territory due to bioethanol extraction. The VUDAS representatives, Rosa, Maria, and Silvia, discussed how a company in their neighborhood violated their rights once it began producing bioethanol. Because the company works 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, the community is permanently inhaling the chemicals released in the air. A year after bioethanol production started, the community began experiencing different illnesses, including respiratory problems, skin rashes, and birth defects. The company’s activities clearly violate the communities’ rights to access a healthy environment and a dignified life. VUDAS is tirelessly advocating for the ability to enjoy these rights, and believes that the Escazú Agreement can be a force to save lives “because saving the planet means saving lives and the territory.”

Watch the webinar in English and Spanish.

Defenders in the Climate Emergency: the Advisory Opinion of the IACHR
Las personas defensoras en la emergencia climática: la Opinión Consultiva de la CIDH