Back to top
22 October 2018

Environmental Rights Defenders Critical to Proposed EU Guidelines on Right to Water

By Emma Achilli

The European Union is currently developing Guidelines on the Right to Water. Human rights defenders protecting their communities’ access to water around the world face lethal risks for their work, and their expertise must be central to the EU’s proposed Guidelines.

In May 2017, a group of five men violently attacked environmental rights defender Le My Hanh at her friend’s house in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The men are believed to be government loyalists, and the attack appeared to be in retribution for her reporting. Le My Hanh has reported on peaceful demonstrations by central coast residents eeking compensation for environmental damage caused by a toxic waste spill; the Taiwanese Formosa steel plant in the central coastal waters irreversibly harmed their land and livelihoods. Defending the right to water has become a dangerous activity in Vietnam. In February, defender and blogger Hoang Duc Binh received a 14-year prison sentence for covering the Formosa environmental disaster, its impact on local populations and protests against the company.

Globally, HRDs who document the pollution and misuse of water resources face criminalisation, harassment, smear campaigns, and physical attack, including killing, for defending the rights of their communities to access to clean, safe and accessible water.

One of the most dramatic cases in recent years was the killing of Berta Cáceres in Honduras. On 2 March 2016, unidentified assailants broke into the home of Berta Cáceres and murdered her in her bedroom. Suspects arrested since have proven ties with Desarrollos Energéticos SA (Desa), the Honduran company which was building the Agua Zarca dam on the Gualcarque river, a project Berta and her organisation COPINH had strongly opposed and campaigned against. The local Lenca indigenous people feared that the project would dessicate the river, which irrigates communal farm lands, is an important resource for the community for swimming, washing and fishing, and has important cultural and spiritual value. In an interview in 2017 Berta said: “We see that human rights are violated when there is a fight for the defense of life, for natural resources such as water, forests, and territories; for culture, and against exploitation by mining, against privatization. It is then that people, perhaps not by choice but by necessity, have to choose become human rights defenders in their political and social struggle.” (1)

Women human rights defenders (WHRDs) in particular are being impacted by the increase in violence against those speaking out in opposition to the environmental devastation and social violations being wrought by extractive industries. While women are often the backbone and visionaries of movements to protect the rights of people and planet — they are also challenged with an additional burden of risks and dangers as compared to their male counterparts — as they experience the intersection of ecological destruction and cultural displacement, as well as sexual violence and gender-based persecution (read an interview with Front Line Defenders here).

The right to water was recognized as a human right by the UN General Assembly (Resolution 64/292) in 2010, acknowledging that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realisation of all human rights. The right to water must be accessible to all through policies and practices based on participation, transparency, accountability and non-discrimination.

Both private and public projects (such as urban development, hydroelectric, mining, land ownership, agribusiness, etc.) often violate the right to water and activists rights to peacefully defend it. Harmful practices include:

  • being designed without free prior informed consent (FPIC) of the community (in case of indigenous communities, this is a legal requirement according to ILO Convention n°169),
  • polluting water;
  • diverting water away from the community to the project/private interest;
  • taking away the land where the water source is situated from the community and leaving them without access
  • taking away a necessary input into their livelihood when the water source is used by fishermen, farmers etc in the community;
  • displacing communities from their land to make way for projects linked to water;
  • rendering access to water unaffordable following privatisation, especially to the most marginalised;
  • projects being carried out without minimal sustainable standards, posing threats to their surrounding environment and livelihood as a result of pollution from toxic metals, deviation of water courses...;
  • toxic waste spills into water or that seep into water resources and that have health, environmental and economic consequences;
  • use of military and security companies around the projects are sources of killings and very violent operations against those which oppose them, with the backing of states and operating with impunity;

Even projects that aim to protect water resources can create community problems and introduce threats to HRDs. In January 2018, the European Union suspended funding for a water development project in Kenya after one member of the local Sengwer community was murdered, several others were shot, and HRDs reported ongoing attacks against them. The EU-funded programme, the Water Towers Protection and Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Programme, sought to protect the ground supplies of water, which are known as water towers, in the Mount Elgon and the Cherangani Hills areas of Kenya. The water towers store rainwater, enable regular river flows, recharge ground-water storage, improve soil fertility, reduce erosion and sediment in river water, and host a diverse species of plants and animals. Guards employed by the Kenya Forestry Services, however, started forcibly evicting Sengwer people supposedly in the name of conservation, and setting fire to their homes to stop them from coming back. The EU insists that conservation work on the water towers was never expected to involve any evictions or use of violence.

Demonstration in Kenya
Source: Pakistan Today

The European Union is currently developing Guidelines on the Right to Water for its foreign policy actions, aiming to address ongoing risks associated with the protection of water. As with other EU Guidelines, they will build on international human rights standards and provide political and operational guidance to officials and staff of EU Institutions and EU Member States for their work in third countries and in multilateral fora. Front Line Defenders encourages the EU to include in its Guidelines on the Right to Water, and in its interactions with third countries:

  • a reference to the EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders and their application in conjunction with the Guidelines on the Right to Water, in particular as regards regular consultation, availability for contact in case of duress, outreach to rural/remote areas, diplomatic action on individual cases;
  • a greater focus on preventing violations against indigenous communities by promoting the principle of free prior informed consultation and consent as outlined in the ILO Convention 169 and promotion of the signature, ratification and implementation of the Convention where necessary;
  • measures to ensure that projects funded or supported by the EU do not lead to violations of human rights and of HRDs, including by carrying out ex ante (2) analyses, ensuring careful monitoring, carrying out frequent consultations with the communities affected and defenders, and rapidly addressing any issues; ensuring that redress mechanisms within EU projects are available;
  • facilitating genuine and meaningful dialogue between independent HRDs + representatives of communities and authorities, if HRDs so request, ensure that women are equally included;
  • calling on authorities to adopt national legislation that help protects HRDs such as on: well funded and effective protection mechanisms, prevention strategies, implementation of international human rights conventions;
  • include a range of urgent protection measures for HRDs at risk, with special attention to the specific needs of WHRDs; the continuation of the EU HRD mechanism;
  • carrying out advocacy towards authorities on third party investor agreements, or inclusion in investor, donor, trade and political agreements with EU and Member States, of provisions protecting human rights defenders and rights of communities, and of detailed, accountable, transparent and participative mechanisms to implement such provisions;
  • ensuring that communities and defenders are not put in unbalanced or unwanted direct or facilitated negotiations between themselves and companies, institutions, agencies to find ‘solutions’ to violations; extreme violations such as spoliations, imposed projects, killings should be addressed through the legal system;
  • assisting defenders and communities affected by water disputes to defend themselves through courts, advocate for better access by them to courts and for trials to follow international standards, monitor trials, push for violations to be promptly investigated and for those responsible to be promptly brought to trial; fight against impunity in this area;
  • issuing statements – in consultation with HRDs – that promote the work of defenders and communities around water as positive and contributing to a healthy democracy and society, to help counter smear campaigns; invite them to EU events or other visibility occasions; ensure visibility of EU visits to HRDs and communities; help HRDs and communities fight back on such messages with financial and technical assistance if required;
  • helping HRDs at risk with financial resources, or assisting affected communities and organisations with projects that aim at resolving issues or addressing violations.

(1) Entrevista inédita a Berta Cáceres: "Somos muy vulnerables. No podemos confiar ni en la policía"

(2) The EU, before it implements projects, in the identification phase, has to carry out impact assessments to anticipate possible problems. These should fully include assessments on the likely impact they could have on HR (eg creation of discrimination by helping some communities and not others, reinforcing inequalities etc; and for HRDs, eg have similar projects resulted in violations within the country or in similar circumstances etc).

Emma Achilli is Head of the European Union Office in Brussels, and has 20 years of experience of working with the EU. She joined Front Line Defenders after 10 years of working in human rights in EU institutions, and before that in development cooperation.