ACHPR Side Event on Environmental Rights and Human Rights Defenders in Africa: A Call for Action

By GBENAGNON John, RFLD Senior Human Rights Officer

On the margins of the 77th Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) in Arusha, Tanzania, CIVICUS, Réseau des Femmes Leaders pour le Développement (RFLD), American Bar Association, International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), Alliance for Land, Indigenous and Environmental Defenders (ALIED), and Universal Rights Group convened on October 21st, 2023 a side event on Environmental Rights and Human Rights Defenders in Africa.

The side event at the ACHPR was organized under the auspices of the Consortium for the Promotion of Human Rights, Civil Liberties and Media Development in Sub-Saharan Africa (CHARM Africa). The CIVICUS team was represented by Dr. Paul Mulindwa – CIVICUS Campaign Officer, who coordinated the organization of the side event with the ISHR team represented by Adelaide Etong Kame, the American Bar Association team represented by Fiona Ilif and the RFLD team represented by John GBENAGNON, RFLD Senior Human Rights Officer, and Florence Eniayehou, RFLD MEL Officer.

The side event panelists were composed of:

  • Rémy Ngoy Lumbu – ACHPR Chairperson
  • Dr. Paul Mulindwa – CIVICUS Campaign Officer
  • Joseph Burke – Head of the URG Africa office
  • Alfred Brownell – Lead campaigner Green Advocates
  • Emily Kinama – Litigation and research counsel, Katiba Institute Kenya
  • Miriam Tikoine, Representative Masai Community

The panelists are all experts in their field and have a deep understanding of the challenges facing land, indigenous, and environmental defenders in Africa. Their participation in the side event was invaluable, and their insights will help to inform the work of ERA and other organizations that are working to protect defenders.

The side event was a success, and it generated a lot of interest and engagement from the audience. The panelists answered a wide range of questions, and they provided valuable insights into the situation of defenders in Africa and the potential of ERA to support their work.

The main guest speaker was Hon. Rémy Ngoy Lumbu, Chairperson of the ACHPR, who presented on the Commission’s strategic role in protecting the rights of environmental human rights defenders (EHRDs) and opportunities for collaboration.

The event provided an opportunity for participants to share information on the movement for an environmental rights’ legal framework for Africa, and share lessons learned.

In particular, participants addressed the following topics:

  • The situation of ILEDs and the state of environmental rights in Africa:

Participants highlighted the serious challenges faced by indigenous, land and environmental defenders (ILEDs) in Africa, including harassment, intimidation, violence, and killings. They also noted the lack of legal protections for environmental rights defenders in many African countries.

  • The ACHPR perspective – the role of the Commission, and what it can do to improve the situation of ILEDs and the environment:

Participants emphasized the important role that the ACHPR can play in improving the situation of ILEDs and the environment in Africa. They called on the Commission to adopt a resolution on environmental rights defenders, and to develop a regional legal framework on environmental rights.

The Need for a Just Transition

The event took place at a critical time, as Africa faces the twin challenges of climate change and the need for a just transition. Environmental rights are critical tools for ensuring that African ILEDs are able to safely carry out their work and that communities are not left out of the environmental and development decisions that will transform the continent in the coming decades.

Environmental rights ensure that all people have a voice and play an active role shaping their future and can live and work in a clean and healthy environment. These rights are a counterweight against discriminatory practices and destructive, unsustainable projects that harm vulnerable groups, destroy the environment, and lead to environmental and land conflicts.

Challenges and Opportunities

While there has been an increase in the legal understanding and recognition of the importance of human rights and the environment across the continent, implementation and enforcement has not been as robust. Challenges stem from weak institutions and capacity deficiencies, lack of political incentives, and insufficient public awareness on how to effectively make use of these rights.

Despite the challenges, there are also opportunities to advance environmental rights and protect environmental defenders in Africa. The ACHPR is uniquely positioned to play a leading role in this regard. The Commission has a strong track record of promoting and protecting human rights in Africa, and it has the authority to develop and adopt resolutions and other instruments that can help to strengthen the protection of environmental rights and defenders.

The ACHPR Side Event on Environmental Rights and Human Rights Defenders in Africa was a valuable opportunity to raise awareness of the challenges and opportunities facing environmental rights and defenders in Africa. The event also provided a platform for participants to share their experiences and perspectives, and to call for action from the ACHPR and other stakeholders.

The ACHPR is now at a crossroads. It has the opportunity to show leadership and commitment to environmental rights and defenders by adopting a resolution on environmental rights defenders and developing a regional legal framework on environmental rights. Doing so would send a strong message to African governments and other stakeholders that the protection of environmental rights and defenders is a priority for the continent.

Additional Recommendations

In addition to the recommendations made by participants at the side event, the following are some additional recommendations for the ACHPR and other stakeholders:

  • States should adopt and implement laws and policies that protect environmental rights and defenders.This includes laws that guarantee freedom of expression, assembly, and association, and laws that provide for the effective investigation and prosecution of attacks against environmental defenders.
  • States should create and maintain a safe and enabling environment for environmental defenders to work.This includes providing