A landmark forum for environmental human rights defenders

Slaitip Subhanka, co-founder of Green South Foundation, protests the construction of a deep seaport in Thailand’s Satun province.
© Slaitip Subhanka

Advocating for a clean and healthy environment shouldn’t be risky. But in Asia, risks abound. According to Global Witness, of the 227 environmental human rights defenders (EHRDs) who were reportedly killed in 2020, 18 per cent were from the Asia-Pacific region. Against this backdrop, the UN Human Rights Regional Office for South-East Asia collaborated with the UN Human Rights Regional Office for the Pacific, UNEP, the Asia Pacific Network for Environment Defenders and CSOs to co-organize the first regional forum dedicated to their protection. The three-day event, “Building safe spaces for dialogue and support among environmental human rights defenders,” was held from 17 to 19 November and convened nearly 400 participants from 57 countries, online, to share their experiences and discuss key issues faced by women and vulnerable groups, including indigenous peoples and children. Discussions also considered how business interests are linked with human rights. Participants watched video messages from the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Special Rapporteurs on the situation of human rights defenders and on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. 

“This event was a significant milestone because it was the first dedicated space for EHRDs to come together and safely discuss, exchange and formulate recommendations for positive change in the region,” said Romchat Wachirarattanakornkul, the UN Human Rights Focal Point in Bangkok for Human Rights, Climate Change and the Environment. “We hope these recommendations will become a foundation for raising awareness among policymakers, the private sector and other stakeholders to encourage policies and practices that recognize the vital role of EHRDs.”

The Forum also provided a platform for peer-to-peer support. Slaitip Subhanka, co-founder of the Green South Foundation, which defends environmental rights in southern Thailand, said the Forum had shown her that other women in the region are facing similar harassment when advocating for the environment. “As women, we are dealing with challenges posed by the State and private actors and because of our gender,” Slaitip said. She added that much more needs to be done by all sectors of society to ensure a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

In order to disseminate the knowledge that was generated during the Forum to a wider audience, UN Human Rights and UNEP will issue a report in 2022 that will include a summary of the discussions, the final recommendations, regional statistics and inputs from civil society partner organizations. The recommendations will guide UN programming and advocacy at national and regional levels to continue supporting EHRDs. A follow-up forum on EHRDs will be held in 2022 to build on this momentum.

Banner of the Asia-Pacific Environmental human rights defenders forum.

Banner of the Asia-Pacific Environmental Human Rights Defenders Forum. © OHCHR

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