The right to liberty and security of person is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Article 3 of the UDHR states, ‘Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person,’ while Article 9 adds that ‘No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.’

This right has also been recognised by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); Article 9 establishes that ‘Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention. No one shall be deprived of his liberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedure as are established by law.’

At a regional level, the American Convention on Human Rights (Pact of San Jose) establishes in Article 6 the right to freedom of slavery and in Article 7 the right to personal liberty. The African Charter on Human and Peoples´ Rights states in Article 6 the right to personal liberty and protection from arbitrary arrest. This right is also recognized in the Arab Charter on Human Rights, the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, and the Commonwealth of Independent States Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

The term ‘liberty of person’ refers to freedom from the confinement of the body as a result of unlawful or arbitrary processes. In this sense, the right to liberty of person poses obligations on States to protect individuals from abduction or kidnapping by third parties such as criminal groups. Security of person, on the other hand, refers to protection from suffering bodily or mental injury by States actors regardless of whether the victim is detained or not, or by private actors.

The Human Rights Committee, the treaty body in charge of monitoring State compliance with the ICCPR, has explained that ‘The right to personal security also obliges States parties to take appropriate measures in response to death threats against persons in the public sphere, and more generally to protect individuals from foreseeable threats to life or bodily integrity proceeding from any governmental or private actor.’

Right to liberty and security of person and the right to a healthy environment

Liberty and security of person are necessary for carrying out activities related to environmental protection and defence. Ironically, the rights of personal liberty and security of environmental defenders are in fact often threatened by States and private actors when defenders are engaged in these activities.

In this regard, the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment has stressed that ‘States have obligations not only to refrain from violating the rights of freedom of expression and association directly, but also to protect the life, liberty and security of individuals exercising those rights. There can be no doubt that these obligations apply to those exercising their rights in connection with environmental concerns.’

Moreover, the Human Rights Committee has expressed that States ‘should also prevent and redress unjustifiable use of force in law enforcement, and protect their populations against abuses by private security forces.’ This includes abuses committed against environmental activists by private security forces associated with megaprojects like, inter alia, infrastructure projects, extractive industries, energy production, water supply systems, and transport projects for mega-events.

Similarly, the Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment affirm that States should respect and protect the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly in relation to environmental matters. In that sense, States ‘may never respond to the exercise of these rights with excessive or indiscriminate use of force, arbitrary arrest or detention, torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, enforced disappearance, the misuse of criminal laws, stigmatization or the threats of such acts.’

State and non-state violence and intimidation against environmental human rights defenders also represent major violations to their right to security of person. Accordingly, the Human Rights Committee has pointed out that ‘States parties must respond appropriately to patterns of violence against categories of victims such as intimidation of human rights defenders and journalists’.