World’s first Special Rapporteur on environmental defenders elected under Aarhus Convention

The Meeting of the Parties to the UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention) has elected, by consensus, Mr. Michel Forst as the world’s first Special Rapporteur on environmental defenders.

The Special Rapporteur’s role – which is operational with immediate effect – is to take measures to protect any person experiencing or at imminent threat of penalization, persecution, or harassment for seeking to exercise their rights under the Aarhus Convention.

This is the first such mechanism specifically safeguarding environmental defenders to be established within a legally binding framework either under the United Nations system or other intergovernmental structure. The election of the Special Rapporteur marks an important step in advancing practical measures to uphold the universal right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, which was recognized by the Human Rights Council in October 2021.

Upon his election, Mr. Forst thanked Parties for placing their trust in him as the first Special Rapporteur on environmental defenders and stated that he would ensure that he fulfilled all the responsibilities given to him in his mandate. Mr. Forst said:

“I will be an independent Special Rapporteur, independent of countries, of NGOs and of the secretariat. I will be a Special Rapporteur who will be demanding, demanding of myself and of others, and I will be a Special Rapporteur who will listen to all voices. I will be a Special Rapporteur who will be transparent to all Parties to the Convention. And finally, I hope that I will be a Special Rapporteur who will be able to demonstrate the usefulness of this new mechanism.”

The election of the Special Rapporteur follows the October 2021 decision by the Aarhus Convention’s Meeting of the Parties- which includes 46 countries in the pan-European region plus the European Union itself – to establish a rapid response mechanism to address alleged violations of article 3 (8) of the Aarhus Convention.

Environmental defenders are vital to the preservation of the environment, yet are under threat in many countries around the world. Under article 3 (8) of the Aarhus Convention, Parties shall ensure that persons exercising their rights in conformity with the provisions of the Convention shall not be penalized, persecuted or harassed in any way for their involvement. However, Parties, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and other stakeholders have reported numerous cases in which environmental defenders have experienced surveillance, heavy fines, dismissal from employment, threats and intimidation, criminalization, detention, violence, and even murder.

Any member of the public, Party to the Aarhus Convention, or the secretariat can submit a complaint to the Special Rapporteur. Taking into consideration that time is of the essence when it comes to the safety of environmental defenders, a complaint may be filed even if domestic remedies (lengthy court trials, etc.) have not yet been exhausted. Information submitted to the Special Rapporteur will be kept confidential unless the complainant explicitly waives this right. 

The Special Rapporteur, whose work will be supported by the Aarhus Convention secretariat, has various tools for resolving complaints and protecting environmental defenders quickly and effectively, which include issuing immediate and ongoing protection measures, using diplomatic channels, issuing public statements, or bringing the matter to the attention of other relevant human rights bodies, and of the concerned Governments and Heads of State. Protection measures will be tailored to each situation and could include several actions that the Party concerned is directed to take to ensure that environmental defenders are not subject to further persecution, penalization and harassment.

The Special Rapporteur will also take a proactive role in raising awareness of environmental defenders’ rights under the Aarhus Convention and will cooperate with other relevant human rights bodies and organizations. 

Mr. Forst was formerly UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders (2014-2020) and UN Special Rapporteur on Haiti (2008-2013), under the UN Human Rights Council.

The Special Rapporteur was elected by consensus during an extraordinary session of the Meeting of the Parties to the Aarhus Convention, held this week in Geneva.

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