46 Countries Agree To Better Protect Environmental Defenders

GENEVA: Nearly four dozen countries in Europe and central Asia have agreed to improve protections for environmental defenders who voice concerns on issues like the construction of dams, harmful agricultural policies, fallout from oil projects and illegal logging in forests, a U.N. body aimed to foster European integration said Friday.

The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe says 46 countries plus the European Union that are behind a pact on environmental protection known as the Aarhus Convention agreed Thursday to set up the “rapid-response mechanism” to help those who want to protect the environment.

“This landmark decision is a clear signal to environmental defenders that they will not be left unprotected,” said UNECE executive secretary Olga Algayerova. “We have seen an increasing trend of environmental defenders living under the threat of retaliation and in fear for their lives — especially in cases where they speak out against spatial planning and large-scale infrastructure projects.”

UNECE pointed to reports of cases of persecution, penalization and harassment against environmental defenders in 16 of the countries behind the convention, amounting to more than one-third of them

“No one should live in fear for standing up for the environment,” Algayerova said.

The convention, among other things, aims to ensure that the public has a right to information about the environment and the right to participate in decisions about it that could affect their well-being. Countries that have signed the convention include former Soviet republics in the Caucasus or central Asia,

UNECE says the rapid-response mechanism breaks new ground in part by allowing any member of the public to make complaints to a new “special rapporteur” who can convey concerns to governments directly to help stop alleged violations of environmental defenders' rights.

Supporters say the mechanism would also foster quicker action than traditional techniques, like filing court cases or building up political pressure — which can take time. The expert’s purview will be limited to cases involving countries that back the convention.

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