To Protect Them Is to Protect the Planet

All over the world, women and men are fighting against land grabbing, against forced expropriations and expulsions, against ground and water pollution, in other words, against inhuman development.

These women and men are fighting to prevent the annihilation of their lands, their identity, their lifestyle. All too often they endanger their life through their commitments, their denunciations and their attempts to stand up for their rights and those of their communities.

There are thousands of them, they represent millions of others. In Colombia, Cambodia, Russia, Cameroon and elsewhere. They all live with the same fears: threats, arrests, assaults, assassination.

Their aggressors? The police, the military, members of companies' private security service, mercenaries. The order givers? Irresponsible profit-greedy business firms and corrupt governments ready to bypass the law, ready to sacrifice individuals and entire communities to see their projects through. These same governments will be meeting at COP21 in Paris to try, we are told, to protect our planet.

Land rights defenders, for "defending " is truly what they do, often live far from influential stakeholders, and in remote regions where they are especially vulnerable to violence. A violence that is proportionate to the vast amount of money at stake and has increased dramatically over the last several years. Between 2011 and 2014, 43 assassinations were referred to the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (an FIDH and World Organisation Against Torture partnership). In Guatemala, during the first six months of 2015 only, UDEFEGUA, one of our partners, recorded more than 239 attacks against land rights defenders. A 160% increase from 2014.

In addition to violence, many States resort to judicial harassment and arbitrary detention. Using repressive laws in place, some States charge and jail anyone standing in their way. There is no shortage of abusive charges such as "false propaganda", "endangering state security", or "public nuisance" that can carry long prison terms.

And when they are not corrupt, the justice systems in countries where these violations occur often lack independence, resources or expertise. Investigations are seldom carried out and very few assailants are prosecuted. According to the Observatory, 95% of the cases of defender harassment go unpunished. This is a scourge for both the defenders and the planet.

Dialogue can play an important role in preventing and reducing this violence; but that can only happen if the concerned populations are informed and consulted. International mechanisms that can be used to prevent or warn about a situation when national courts are unable to do so exist. Unfortunately their decisions are not legally binding and their scope is limited.

No, what we need, what the defenders need, is not only stronger protection mechanisms but more effective access to justice at the national level, and the introduction of a binding international legal framework that can establish the responsibility of the States, and also of business companies that destroy the planet and violate human rights out of lust for profit.

The rule of law is essential. It is the only solution and must be the product of unfailing political determination. Land rights defenders are on the front line. Their commitments, their testimonies, their activities are indispensable and contribute directly to the preservation of the planet. It is both a necessity and a duty to recognise their legitimacy and ensure their protection. Not to say this loud and clear at COP21 would be a mistake.