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Interview series John Knox: towards system change? (part 3)

15 September 2017

IUCN NL’s Femke Wijdekop invited two internationally renowned human rights lawyers to engage in a conversation on the challenges environmental defenders face and how to tackle them. As the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, John Knox is the leading ambassador for defenders who are fighting for their right to a sustainable environment. Netherlands-based human rights lawyer Jan van de Venis is committed to the same cause, as well as being a passionate advocate for the rights of future generations. In this third story in a series of four, they focus on what is needed to incorporate the care for environmental defenders into the system. (Part 1 and part 2 can be found here.)

Jan: Can you imagine an economic system in which the profit motive no longer is the driving force and in which care for the environment has become internalized by states and companies?

I think we do see shifts like that. I don’t think there is a clear bright line between economic motivations and moral motivations if you work in a company, especially one that depends in large parts on public perception. Coca Cola is a good example. It’s selling, not just a fuzzy sweet drink, it is selling an idea. When you buy Coca Cola, you buy an idea – the image they portray in their commercials and the memories you might have of having a coke with your friends. It is not in that company’s interest to contaminate that idea; that when you see a Coke you think of palm oil destruction or the death of people who are trying to fight against palm oil destruction. 

That is not to say that I think that everyone who works at such a company is simply interested in the bottom line, but it’s easier for a corporation if the bottom line reinforces the moral objectives as well. The difficulty is when they work against one another. Unfortunately, there are many situations in which they do work against one and another. The farther away from the consumer the companies actions are (this is one reason why we see this problem so much with extractive companies) the harder it is to connect the circumstances surrounding the digging up a mineral with the consumer market it arrives at, after being sold several times and processed many times and turned into a car or phone.

When people try to close that connection, such as in the Kimberly initiative which tries to make people aware of conflict diamonds, or the forest certification programs, it can be a little bit tricky because consumers don’t buy wood directly – they buy it shaped into something else. Initiatives like that of Yao Ming in China, asking consumers not to drink shark fin soup, can be surprisingly effective, because efforts like these change what society thinks of as appropriate. That can have a real spillover effect into what corporations do think is appropriate.


What lessons can we draw from successful social and human rights movements, such as the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement and the movement for lesbian and gay rights?

I can think of a couple of lessons. One is the importance of a shared agreement on what is the proper course of conduct. An agreement, in my country, that Afro Americans do have civil rights and that they have the right to equal protection under the law. In the global contexts, that gays have human rights, and that states and other actors have the obligation to protect those human rights.

I think one real achievement of the last 20 years in the environmental context has been to recognize that environmental and human rights are linked; that they do share common principles. Finding that common language is actually important. 

A second point is the importance of cooperation, including cooperation across borders. Often, environmentalists in developing countries, without help, simply don’t have the capacity to combat the forces they are trying to fight. It’s not that they are not intelligent or knowledgeable about the situation, they are – but they are often short on financial and technical resources.

There are ways that help them identify threats, identify vulnerabilities, ways to access emergency funds if they receive threats directly, building these kinds of bridges to make sure people at the front line don’t feel isolated, that they feel support, that does give them more capability to deal with threats than they would have otherwise and I think that’s extremely important. And lawyers are very important in all of this. In most of the countries where environmental defenders are at risk, there is a legal system. These are not countries where the courts are completely ineffective.

Understanding how the legal system works, understanding how to defend the legal rights of the people who are at risk, and realizing that they are at risk because they are fighting for the enforcement of environmental laws, means that lawyers have a role to play in protecting them and helping them achieve whatever their goals are – goals that they think are worthwhile putting their lives at risk for.

Often, environmentalists in developing countries, without help, simply don’t have the capacity to combat the forces they are trying to fight.

Sometimes lawyers are seen as just out to make a buck, as morally bankrupt, but my own experience is that some of the best people I know have been lawyers. And also if you look historically, I think that any profession that has Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi among its members does not have a lot to apologize for. Not that we should live up to those standards, but we do have some powerful models that are calling us into action to fight for justice.

Next week we will publish the final story in this series, zooming into what each individual person can do to support environmental defenders.

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More articles by: Femke Wijdekop