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Taking a stand for the environment

The threats, challenges and opportunities of defending human rights from an environmental point of view have been shared by award-winning activists in a rich exchange hosted by the Geneva Environment Network.


“Human rights defenders face enormous challenges that are not diminishing, contrary to what we may think from our comfortable corners,” reminded Sylvie Motard, Deputy Director of UN Environment’s Europe Office, opening the event on 31 October.


Europe is not exempt from the oppression of good work by activists, stressed Monika Griefhan, Chair of the Right Livelihoods Award Board. In the UK for example, police have increased surveillance of environmental groups, she noted in her introduction.


Every week, two human rights defenders worldwide are estimated to lose their lives. The rise in deaths – thought to number 760 between 2002 and 2013 - is in line with a dramatic increase in demand for natural resources.


Dedication and inspiration


Alla Yaroshinskaya is a Right Livelihoods Award Laureate who – despite oppression – helped reveal the true effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and shared her story at the Geneva event.


Having witnessed the grave health effects of the nuclear incident first-hand, Ms Yaroshinskaya was denied the chance to report on them in the newspaper she worked for. However, she bravely spoke out on the issue on national television and distributed a 600-page secret document on Chernobyl’s effects.


Ms Yaroshinskaya’s book on the disaster has since been published in five languages and she has even helped negotiate an extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. “We try to push our authorities to do things in the interests of ordinary people,” she explained.


János Vargha meanwhile shared his experience of halting a project to build a dam on the Danube which was riddled with corruption and would have decimated biodiversity. When his article on the case was denied publication, Mr Vargha set up petitions and led a demonstration in front of the Hungarian Parliament.


As a result, the case is one of the very few engineering projects ever to have been halted on environmental grounds with the project 30% completed.


Global issue


“There are environmental human rights defenders putting their lives at risk for all of us – UN Environment is really proud of them,” said the organisation’s Legal Officer Barbara Ruis, moderating the session. “We do not see the environment as a stand-alone issue,” she stressed.


“Human rights defenders may now have the right to speak out – but it is the duty of the authorities to listen,” said Lukas Heinzer, of Switzerland’s permanent mission to the UN, as part of his summary of the discussion.


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