Environmental activists and journalists across Europe and Central Asia face severe challenges in
their efforts to promote both the access and dissemination of environmental information and public discussion of environmental issues. Without information and discussion, society is generally unable to achieve its right to a healthy environment: people remain unaware of the environmental threats that face them and are disempowered by not being equipped to participate fully in the development of policies, which includes being able to express independent opinions.
In many cases underlying problems are found in countries with weak democratic mechanisms. Yet threats are not confined to countries with a tradition of authoritarianism: even in long-standing democracies, including the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, unlawful techniques are used against those who speak out about environmental hazards.
The challenges that Environmental Human Rights Defenders (EHRDs) face are varied, ranging from physical attacks to unlawful surveillance. Often multiple forms of harassment are used against the same victims, escalating when softer methods are unsuccessful: thus, legal harassment and threats can lead to deadly attacks; surveillance can lead to provocation and imprisonment and limits to protests; civil society organisations are shut down after they refuse to accept unreasonable limits to their funding or activities. In order to withhold information or prevent its further dissemination, various measures, whether legal or illegal, are used against EHRDs, severely restricting their scope of action and restricting their fundamental freedoms.
EHRDs who engage in peaceful protests are protected by a plethora of provisions under international law, particularly with regard to their right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. Moreover, like all people, EHRDs are guaranteed the right to life, the right to physical integrity, the right to liberty and fair trial, and the right to privacy.
The right to freedom of association also enables individuals to form groups and organisations to carry out peaceful activities, including protests that might disseminate opinions and information which criticise private and state bodies. Obstacles to the exercise of these rights prevent the disclosure of information, including about extremely serious environmental and health hazards. In several of the instances described in this report, EHRDs are directly affected by environmental degradation, and frequently live near sites where environmentally unsound projects are implemented.
Lack of information encourages a climate in which companies can act with impunity, causing environmental damage and sacrificing human health for profit. The vital importance of protecting these people and organisations is recognised in the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision- Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, in which Article 3(8) obliges ratifying states to protect EHRDs.
The media carries out a special role in the dissemination of information in the public interest (including on environmental matters).The report reveals that, despite the existing guarantees of protection, EHRDs who speak out on environmental concerns remain vulnerable to harassment, threats, criminal prosecution, physical attacks, and, in the most extreme cases, loss of life. The right to access environmental information and the right to freedom of expression are closely linked to a range of other rights, including the rights to life, liberty, fair trial and privacy. Various forms of violations of these rights ultimately contribute to information in the public interest being withheld, and to debate on controversial matters being stifled.
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