International Union for Conservation of Nature – World Conservation Congress High-Level Dialogue on Environmental Defenders


Opening Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights 

5 September 2021

It is a pleasure to be with you all today, and I want first to express my profound gratitude and respect for your work.

Defending biodiversity, ecosystems and our environment as a whole is dangerous. Both in the field and at the global level, my Office has been monitoring the situation of environmental human rights defenders, including people who cooperate with the UN. Our work shows that threats and violent attacks against them are seriously under-reported. Killings occur with shocking frequency, and they are often not adequately investigated or prosecuted.

In June this year, Luis Urbano Domínguez Mendoza, a member of the Yaqui people, was shot and killed in Mexico. This was just the latest of a long line of attacks taking place in the context of the struggle to defend their traditional territories and waters.

In July, Joanna Stuchburry was shot and killed in Kenya. She was a long-standing campaigner against unprincipled development and constructions in the Kiambu Forest. 

These two precious lives are among many lost this year. According to the NGO Frontline Defenders, more than two-thirds of the 331 human rights defenders killed in 2020 were working on environmental issues. 

We honour their legacy by continuing their struggle for humanity and the planet. 

My Office, and the United Nations, is clearly demanding that States step up and protect the human rights defenders who work for our shared future and well-being. 

Each of your organizations can help.

IUCN’s member organizations can help promote the right to participation, the right to access information, and the right to access justice in environmental matters – for example by creating and supporting protection networks of defenders. 

This Congress will be deliberating on a resolution that is a real opportunity to develop a meaningful action plan that will protect environmental human rights defenders. 

The draft resolution calls for data collection, awareness-raising and direct dialogue with Member States to conduct fact-finding and improve systematic protection of defenders. These are the kinds of commitments we need.

At times, conservation projects have protected nature while neglecting human rights. On numerous occasions, indigenous peoples have been expelled from their ancestral lands, because they have been designated as nature reserves. This is unprincipled, and also counter-productive. Traditional practises are often extremely effective at conserving biodiversity and ecosystems. 

So it is important to change the conservation paradigm to become more inclusive and community-based, recognising people as part of nature – rather than separate from it.

The objectives of the Convention on Biological Diversity can only be met through such transformative change starting with protection of the rights of those who defend the environment. 

I urge all of you to support the inclusion of human rights in the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, including specific language related to the protection of environmental human rights defenders.

A strong protection framework is needed to protect environmental human rights defenders. The resolution under discussion will add to this – and my Office stands ready to support the IUCN and its members in this work. The advocacy and activism of environmental human rights defenders is essential to ensuring that people — now and in the future — can enjoy their human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. We are determined to do what we can to protect and empower them.