COP26: Call for protections for environmental human rights defenders

COP26: Call for protections for environmental human rights defenders

Lawyers Against Poverty (LAP) has joined with others in an open letter to the UK government calling for greater protections for environmental human rights defenders

As the climate emergency worsens, we hope that the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties, also known as COP26, is used as an opportunity to make real progress in agreeing to meaningful policy commitments and actions to guarantee their implementation. We the undersigned fully expect actors including the UK government to act decisively after what was described as a ‘wake-up call for the world to take action now’ by the UK Prime Minister. He was referring to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report published in August 2021 that detailed the ‘unprecedented’ and ‘irreversible’ changes being made by human activity to the climate.

We believe it is essential to include at COP26 a specific focus on human rights defenders as key actors in the immediate and long-term responses to the crisis. Activists and communities have played a crucial role as the first line of defence against ecological collapse, as well as being frontrunners in the campaign to prevent it, which must be recognised. The UK government has committed to ‘joining forces with civil society, companies and people on the frontline of climate change to inspire action ahead of COP26.’ We would appreciate greater clarity on what this means for human rights defenders on the ground, and what governments and other actors will commit to doing to facilitate their essential work defending the environment.

The work of environmental human rights defenders is integral to the protection of the planet and the transition to greener economies. All over the world, Indigenous peoples and environmental defenders are campaigning for a more sustainable development approach that puts human rights at the centre of the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss. They do this at the risk of their own lives. According to the latest Global Witness report, 227 land and environmental defenders were killed worldwide in 2020, an increase from 212 in 2019. We believe that respect for environmental rights can only be achieved when environmental defenders are protected against violent attacks and shielded from risks they face protecting local ecosystems and our global climate.

Rights-based approaches are becoming more and more central to the fight against climate change. At the 40th session of the Human Rights Council, the UN passed a resolution recognising the contribution of human rights defenders to sustainable development. As David Boyd, UN special rapporteur on human rights and environment stated this past August, “leaving human rights on the periphery is simply not an option, because rights-based conservation is the most effective, efficient, and equitable path forward to safeguarding the planet”

It is for these urgent reasons that we are asking the UK government to take the lead in partnering with human rights defenders on climate change policy. Governments must:

1. Improve minimum standards of support for environmental human rights defenders across its network of embassies and diplomatic posts;

2. Strengthen protection arrangements for environmental human rights defenders, through measures such as protection grants, amnesties and funding for rapid response emergency mechanisms.

3. Increase access to flexible and core funding for environmental human rights defenders.

4. Facilitate and support access to justice and resilience building, through UK pro bono partnerships and legal clinics.

5. Establish and facilitate access to effective judicial and non-judicial grievance mechanisms to address business-related human rights and environmental abuses committed by UK companies domestically and extraterritorially.

6. Integrate a human rights-based approach in policies, and condition its climate finance on such an approach, in consultation with human rights defenders and civil society

7. Ensure UK business enterprises, including financial institutions, apply and publish human rights due diligence measures to identify, prevent, and mitigate against potential and actual human rights abuse, including the criminalisation of defenders. We hope you consider incorporating these recommendations into COP26 outcomes and commitments and look forward to receiving your response.


  1. Peace Brigades International UK Section
  2. Amnesty International UK
  3. ABColombia
  4. Action4Justice
  5. Bond
  6. Business & Human Rights Resource Centre
  7. CAFOD
  8. Campaign for Human Rights in the Philippines
  9. Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy
  10. Defenders Protection Initative
  11. Environmental Justice Foundation
  12. Hansen Palomares Solicitors
  13. International Service for Human Rights
  14. Lawyers Against Poverty
  15. London Mining Network
  16. Peru Support Group
  17. SCIAF
  18. Stakeholder Democracy Network
  19. West African Human Rights Defenders’ Network

Photo Credit: Patrick Hendry on Unsplash