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Time to end attacks on Environmental Human Rights Defenders

20 May 2022

Compiled by Cosmas Sunguro-ZIDAWU

Environmental Human Rights Defenders (EHRDs) in mining communities face a plethora of challenges in carrying out their work.  These threats sometimes range from intimidation to loss of life. This was revealed during an Alternative Mining Indaba (AMI) side session on EHRDs in Capetown on 11th May 2022. This session was hosted by Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA). The 2022 AMI ran under the theme: A Just energy transition for sustainable mining Communities in an era of the climate crisis.

Mining by its nature is destructive. ZELA’s Executive Director, Mutuso Dhliwayo  in his opening remarks highlighted that EHRDs have to be more vigilant as more mining means more human rights abuses and environmental degradation along the way. Having witnessed the fall in production due to Covid-19 lockdown and restrictions, mining companies are likely to increase their extraction business. Given this new development, there is need to protect the EHRDs in the just transition. Africa being host to sought after minerals like cobalt, nickel, lithium and platinum there is also a need to come up with mechanisms that ensure there is less or no human rights abuses.

Judging from presentations that were done by EHRDs from Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, and Botswana one would concur that the challenges being faced are more or less the same though laws in mining may vary per country. For instance, in Mozambique, they are facing challenges of enforcement of the law due to political interference. Some government officials are alleged to be shareholders.  Women human rights defenders continue facing gross human rights violations, harassment and the authorities intend to close the civic space. Cases of cyber bullying and abduction are some of the issues presented from Zambia but literally happening to EHRDs across Africa.

Way Forward.

Having noted some of challenges being faced by EHRDs across the continent, there is need to come up with mechanisms that ensure EHRDs are protected from human rights violations.  As highlighted before, there is need to have policies that emphasize on zero tolerance to attacks or threats to EHRDs and implementation of those laws that are already in place.

Respect of human rights is of paramount importance as encapsulated in the United Nations Convention on protection of Human rights. In Africa there is the African Charter on Human rights and locally the Constitution of Zimbabwe provides that, ” Zimbabwe is founded on respect for the following values and principles the rule of law … and fundamental human rights and freedoms“.

There is need to engage mining companies to affirm their positions on issues to do with human rights. In Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe Consolidated Diamonds Company indicated that they have a Human Rights Policy. However, cases of human rights violations are still being recorded. These need to be treated with due diligence. Interestingly, there is the United Nations Guiding Principles that talks of Duty to Respect human rights, the Duty to Protect citizens and the Duty of the state to provide Remedy in case of human rights violations. This must be implemented without fail. The companies must disclose human rights related risks publicly as a way of expressing their commitment towards protection of human and environmental rights.

As communities, they can use their leverage to demand human rights and development related issues when investors approach them for mining ventures. There is also need for companies to do meaningful engagement with the communities on matters of environmental management. Thus, Government must have policies against SLAPP suits from companies. They can come up with a policy that considers a zero tolerance towards loss of life. Of worrying is a case cited of an EHRD killed in Kenya, but no one has been arrested despite having overwhelming evidence about the perpetrators. 

With supporting organizations like ZELA, there is need to continue the issuance of monitoring gadgets and capacity building trainings. This has proved to be a good cause as more human rights violations cases are now being reported to police and other reporting channels available.

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