09. March 2023

Environmental activists need better protection – UN Special Rapporteur on Environmental Defenders discusses the situation for environmental activists in Germany and the world with UfU and activists.

Environmental defenders polarize. Anyone who does research on climate protection, protests for change in public, works on a voluntary or full-time basis on climate change, is also voicing criticism of the system we have had up to now. For climate and environmental protection cannot do without debates about fundamental changes in behaviour and systems. However, the people who voice theses issues see themselves exposed to increasing aggression worldwide. In its report “Decade of defiance – Ten years of reporting land and environmental activism worldwide”, the NGO Global Witness reports 200 murders of environmental activists in 2021[1], most of them in Mexico, Colombia and Brazil.

But also in Germany and Europe, environmental activists are facing increasing pressure. From open violence on the streets and tougher police action, comparisons with terrorist organizations in politics, to targeted defamation campaigns against scientists[2] and withdrawal of non-profit status – the tone is getting harsher and civil society is experiencing an increasing restriction of its space. Today, anyone who publicly campaigns for the environment has to reckon with numerous attacks against their own person and family in public and on the internet. Female activists, as shown by the recently won trial of Fridays for Future Germany activist Louisa Neubauer against Akif Pirinçci[3], also experience a lot of sexualized hatred, humiliation and violence.

As polarising as protests and actions by environmental activists may be, it is often ignored that, unless otherwise documented, environmentalists exercise fundamental rights to free research, free expression and assembly in the course of their activities. Those who engage in research or protest for environmental protection and nature conservation should not have to fear hate speech, defamation, violence or murder.

The United Nations, or more precisely the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), also views this in the same way. The parties to the Aarhus Convention have decided to appoint a Special Rapporteur on Environmental Defenders to analyse the situation and provide assistance to environmental defenders under threat in specific cases. Dr. Michel Forst, former UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, was elected in July 2021.

On his inaugural visit to Germany as the first UN Special Rapporteur on environmental protection, Dr. Forst met with various environmental organizations and activists at UfU headquarters on 7 March 2023 to get a first impression of the situation in Germany. Representatives of Letzte Generation, NABU, BUND, Green Legal Impact and UfU reported on civil society engagement in Germany and the current situation.

Dr. Forst emphasized that during his mandate he would strive to improve the network between environmental organizations and human rights organizations and to provide a contact point for threatened environmentalists. This is made possible, among other things, by the fact that people can contact the Special Rapporteur directly online. If environmentalists contact the mandate with concrete allegations of repression, these cases are investigated and, if necessary, diplomatic steps are initiated after appropriate examination. With the help of publicly accessible reports, among other things, pressure is to be exerted on actors such as companies and governments to uphold the rights of environmentalists. If there is a concrete danger to the life and physical well-being of environmentalists, the mandate can also intervene directly in the countries and send delegations.

Civil disobedience will also play a role in Dr. Forst’s future work. The mandate aims to investigate the various new groupings working with civil disobedience and to record what legal implications the protesters in the various treaty countries expect from their forms of protest. Other points of focus for Dr. Forst are mentioned in the UNECE communication: UN Special Rapporteur on Environmental Defenders presents his vision for mandate to ensure protection under the Aarhus Convention.

UfU very much welcomes the appointment of Dr. Forst. Environmentalists must be protected more strongly worldwide. Even if Germany and Europe, with their numerous large and influential environmental associations, will not be the focus of the Special Rapporteur and should not be, in view of other trouble spots, we are also observing an increasing restriction of civil society here. One example of this is the recurring attempt to curtail the participation rights of citizens in new acceleration debates. Germany must set a good example for the world in protecting democratic values and rights and do everything to ensure that people can exercise their right to demonstrate, research, report and protest without being exposed to hatred, defamation and violence.

About the Aarhus Convention

The UNECE is the administrative headquarters of the so-called Aarhus Convention. The Aarhus Convention has been ratified by 47 Parties, including the European Union and all EU Member States, and is the first treaty under international law to give every person rights in environmental protection. The three main pillars of the Aarhus Convention are the right of public access to information on the environment, the right to participate in environmental matters and the right of access to justice in environmental matters. The Convention also obliges Parties to ensure that persons are not punished, persecuted or harassed in any way for exercising their rights under the Convention. The new Special Rapporteur is to monitor this in future and ensure that civil society can exercise these rights without hindrance.

[1] Hine (2022), Decade of Defiance – Ten years of reporting environmental activism worldwide.

[2] Jung & Naiv (2023), Energie-Ökonomin Claudia Kemfert (DIW) über System-Change – Jung und Naiv: Folge 629

[3] Hoppenstedt (2020), Was über mich geschrieben wird, ist schon krass, Spiegel-Interview mit Louisa Neubauer

Report of the UNECE about the nomination of Dr. ForstYou can contact the Special Rapporteur hereMore Information about the Aarhus Convention