Land rights defenders appeal to U.N. to end violence by states, corporations

MUMBAI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Dozens of land rights defenders from 29 countries have written to the United Nations to draw attention to the increasing violence they face from states and corporations, and calling for greater vigilance in ensuring governments comply with laws.

The letter to the UN Special Rapporteurs on human rights defenders, indigenous rights and the right to freedom of assembly and association, came as world leaders met in the U.N. this week for the annual general assembly.

“In the current climate where repression is increasingly becoming the norm globally, environmental and land defenders, particularly those of us with indigenous backgrounds, are vulnerable,” said the statement from 39 rights organizations.

“We face violence from state forces, private security groups and state-sponsored vigilante groups ... We need global action to counter the threats we face,” the activists from countries including Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia and the Philippines said.

Last year was the deadliest on record for activists trying to defend their homes and environment, according to watchdog groups including Front Line Defenders (FLD) and Global Witness.

More than 1,000 people in 25 countries were murdered, harassed, imprisoned or intimidated while fighting for their community’s rights, according to FLD. [nL8N1J51YA]

Global Witness said nearly four people were murdered each week last year while defending their homes, land and forests from mining, dams and agricultural projects. [nL8N1K34XC]

This year is on track to be worse, according to activists.

Global Witness said the rising violence was driven by an intensifying fight for land and natural resources, with some mining, logging, hydro-electric and agricultural companies disregarding the environment and the rights of people.

“We have seen an escalation in killings, arrests, threats, harassment and violent action on even peaceful protests in the last few years,” said Mathew Jacob, a program officer at People’s Watch in India, one of the signatories to the letter.

“Rights defenders across the world face similar risks, and this letter is a reflection of our concerns. We are hopeful that our plea is heard.”

The statement calls for U.N. member states to ensure laws related to natural resources comply with global standards; that governments draft laws for the protection of rights defenders, and for the setting up of emergency crisis funds for activists.

“This is not just a struggle for resources, it’s a struggle for justice and social equality, for which we all share responsibility,” said the statement.