During the annual HDIM session, Crude Accountability delivered a statement on the rights of environmental defenders in the countries of the former Soviet Union. The statement highlighted systematic harassment of environmental defenders that occurs in Russia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Ukraine. Read and watch the full statement below.
This statement can be called cross-session as it concerns a problem affecting freedom of association, democracy at the local level and the right to public participation.
The rights of environmental defenders throughout the OSCE region, but particularly in the countries of the former Soviet Union, are under attack. Particularly, the right of environmental defenders to participate in public life and enjoy their right to assembly and expression is increasingly and severely curtailed by the authorities. Physical and legal threats, defamation on mass media, have resulted in a smaller and smaller space for environmental defenders throughout the region. Legal changes are equally detrimental. Foreign Agent Laws and Undesirable Organisations Laws had a disastrous impact on environmental NGOs, further isolating them from the society and from their partners around the world.
Systematic attacks against the Russian NGO Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus, illustrate the point: over the past 20 years, 140 human rights violations against EWNC took place – of which 70 between 2012 and 2016. These included beatings, arbitrary detention, arrest and imprisonment, arbitrary document checks, etc.
Sadly, this case is not unique. Environmental defenders in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Ukraine have also suffered systematic harassment by the authorities, severely limiting their ability to participate in public and political life. Crude Accountability and Ecoforum of NGOs of Kazakhstan just published a report documenting many cases across the former Soviet space. This report will be uploaded in the documents distribution system.
All these countries except Russia have ratified the Aarhus Convention and in many cases, have put in place procedures and structures that on paper, guarantee the right to public participation. However, a procedure or a structure without the civil society organisations to use it will amount to window dressing.
The right to live in a healthy environment is a human right. There is a fundamental link between environmental issues and a wide array of fundamental human rights. These focused attacks on environmental defenders are not only damaging specific ecosystems, endangered species, biodiversity and other realities that seem far away from our everyday life. They are damaging a whole political and legal set up. In addition, if even environmental rights, that we all considered “non-political”, or “non-controversial” up to not long ago, are under the same attack of political rights -then we may well be entering a human rights winter, as one of the experts talking at the plenary said.
Therefore, we call on the OSCE to raise the visibility of environmental rights and the ways to exercise them such as public participation. This should include more space to these rights in future Human Dimension meetings and other activities.