Latin America is, by far, the most dangerous region of the world for environmental human rights defenders (EHRDs). The lack of effective guarantees of human rights protection in Latin American States has created this dire situation. The absence of effective safeguards is worsened by the weak rule of law in most Latin American countries, by worrying trends of impunity that corrode the fabric of society, and by the fact that environmental movements usually concern major development projects involving powerful governmental and corporate interests.
This report illustrates the severe human rights violations in Latin America against environmental defenders, who engage in lawful activities that bring to light environmental damage and human rights abuses. Though not exhaustive, this report provides an overview of recent incidents throughout Latin America. The incidents cited cover a range of human rights violations, including violent attacks, torture, disappearances, and killings.
Indigenous peoples are the most vulnerable because many development projects are located on their land. When States disregard appropriate consultation procedures, the result is often conflict, forceful displacement, environmental degradation, and human rights violations. Killings of environmental activists and journalists are increasing and members of indigenous communities comprise over 40% of the deaths. Of the recorded killings globally in 2014, 75% were in Latin America; the most dangerous country for environmental defenders is currently Honduras.
The persistent human rights violations targeting EHRDs are caused by resource exploitation, and increasing numbers of large-scale and mega-development projects in Latin American countries. For example, Honduras currently has 837 mining concessions, of which 411 have already been granted covering an area of 6,630 km2. In Colombia, coal extraction during 2000–2010 nearly doubled and the number of mining concessions has similarly maintained an accelerated pace. This has resulted in a substantial increase in attacks across the region. According to the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission/USA, in the decade between 2000 and 2010, 118 environmental human rights defenders in Guatemala were murdered and over 2,000 assaults occurred against groups of protesters. The November 2014 Global Witness report, Peru’s Deadly Environment, revealed that the majority of environmental killings in Peru were being perpetrated by the State and private security forces, and most were related to extractive sector projects.
International and regional human rights organisations have been reporting regularly on the critical situation of EHRDs in Latin America. The Organization of American States (OAS) General Assembly has been issuing annual resolutions since 1999, calling on member States to guarantee defenders’ rights. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has ruled, in numerous cases, that EHRDs must be protected. These have had little effect.
New measures which are implemented and enforced by the States themselves with strong oversight are needed.
To successfully protect EHRDs, Latin American countries must adopt a strong, legally binding instrument that ensures the full implementation of the access rights enshrined in Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration. The three fundamental “access rights” set out in Principle 10 are directly associated with problems faced by environmental defenders: (a) access to information, (b) access to public participation, and (c) access to justice. Effective recognition and enforcement of these human rights will reduce the number of human rights violations against environmental defenders and provide remedies for them. In addition, the regional instrument should include specific protections for EHRDs, in order to guarantee their rights.
This report explores, in turn, the various human rights currently denied to EHRDs in Latin America. It first assesses how the Inter-American human rights mechanisms respond to human rights violations against environmental defenders. Next, the report explains the special situation of indigenous peoples in Latin America, focusing on their particular vulnerability to human rights violations. The report then discusses how the rights to life and physical integrity are not being ensured for EHRDs. These rights are violated by persistent threats of killings, violent attacks, forced disappearances, and other crimes. The report then explores how Latin American States fail to protect the right to freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention by often criminalising and stigmatising the lawful activities of EHRDs.
Next, the report addresses violations of the right to freedom of expression and access to information. Latin American States limit these rights by using anti-terrorism legislation as well as libel threats and injunctions against EHRDs who oppose powerful governmental or corporate interests. Additionally, the report discusses how the rights to freedom of assembly and association are undermined by Latin American States when they limit where protests can occur, decide which non-governmental and civil society organisations are valid in their country, and restrict how such organisations may be funded. Brief case studies from different Latin American countries illustrate the human rights violations occurring throughout the region. The final section provides specific recommendations to address the human rights violations of EHRDs in Latin America.