Interview series John Knox: what can we do to protect environmental defenders? (part 4)

22 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 final story in a series of four, they zoom into what each individual person can do to support environmental defenders. Missed the rest of the series? Read them here: part 1, part 2, part 3.

Jan: On a personal level, why did you want to become the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment?

I think this is in a sense what my entire career has been preparing me to do. 

As a lawyer, I practiced in both areas of human rights and environmental protection, both at an international and domestic level. And more recently, before I became Special Rapporteur, I worked at a pro bono-basis for the government of the Maldives, trying to help them to bring a human rights perspective to climate change, and to convince the United Nations to adopt a human rights perspective to climate change. So while climate change was the immediate impetus for my renewed interest for this, it’s important to remember that though climate change is very important, it’s only one aspect of a much bigger picture.

My most recent report for the Human Rights Council, that I just published, is on the topic of biodiversity, conservation and human rights, which again includes the perspective of environmental defenders. So many environmental defenders are under threat because they are trying to protect ecosystems and biological diversity. 

We depend entirely on a healthy environment in order to be able to live lives of freedom, equality and dignity.- John Knox, UN Special Rapporteur

We depend entirely on a healthy environment in order to be able to live lives of freedom, equality and dignity.

I think it’s not realistic to think we will get rid of the profit motive entirely. But I do think the environmental movement in a nutshell is about trying to ensure that we don’t let the profit motive destroy all other basis for human wellbeing on the planet. We depend entirely on a healthy environment in order to be able to live lives of freedom, equality and dignity. And so for me it’s a great honor to be among the people who are fighting to make that happen.

The thing I have been most impressed by in this position is simply the sheer number of people around the world who are working on human rights and environmental issues. It’s really amazing how many people around the world are trying to protect the environment and trying to do that in order to protect human rights as well. 

What can the visitors of our website do to protect environmental defenders?

I think that paying attention to where the products you buy are made, and how the supply chain works, can be quite effective.

I was at a conference several years ago, before I started working as a Special Rapporteur, and there was a representative of Coca Cola and of OXFAM. It turned out that they knew each other quite well. OXFAM was in nearly constant communication with the Coca Cola representative and Coca Cola was quite sensitive to the idea that OXFAM might have concerns about something. It wanted, in other words, firstly to probably just to do the right thing, but also to head off public campaigns against its action in some areas.

Public attention does help to increase the safety of environmental defenders.

For OXFAM and other organizations like that to be able to organize such campaigns credibly, it is important that consumers pay attention. Belonging to organizations that pay attention to these issues, responding to calls for help, and consuming consciously I think makes a big difference. 

Also, none withstanding the horrible murder of the two Goldman prize-winners, in most cases public attention does help to increase the safety of environmental defenders. In most cases, the government, businesses and individuals like the land-owners are less likely to act if they feel the eyes of the world are on them. So supporting campaigns like Defending Environmental Defenders does make a real difference.



 

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