Today, 9th December, is the International Human Rights Defenders Day and tomorrow we will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
At the UN Conference on Climate Change in Katowice (COP24) we had the great opportunity to interview Joan Carling and Francesco Martone. Joan is a Kankanaey woman from the Philippines committed to human rights since she was very young. The woman, who is currently labelled as terrorist in her own country due to her human rights activism, has worked with indigenous peoples of 13 Asian countries. She has also been awarded with the prestigious UN Environment Champions of the Earth Award for lifetime achievement. Francesco is a human rights defender from Rome, Italy. He worked for Greenpeace International from 1988 to 1995 and was president of Greenpeace Italy for 3 years. Moreover, he has been senator of the Republic of Italy from 2001 to 2008. This interview with them led us to deal with several themes related to human rights and climate change, but not only. This dialogue has been very inspiring and helped us to look at the human rights defenders from a new perspective.
Tomorrow, 10th December, we are celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In honour of this occasion, we would like to ask what prompted you to dedicate your life to defend human rights?
Joan Carling: I started being an activist when I was a student in the Philippines, with lot of excitement about students’ rights. I first went to tribal villages affected by dam projects. It was the Chico dam in the 1970s that encouraged me to deepen on indigenous issues. Then, after college, I went back to the tribal area, which was at that moment already militarized. It was an eye-opener for me since I witnessed the way indigenous peoples were treated, how villages were burnt down and how children and women were completely ignored. And that’s when I started thinking about the reasons why they were being treated like animals. That experience showed me that some people are valued less than others and I couldn’t bear it. What I was left with is that everybody has equal rights and we deserve the same dignity, regardless of where we are born, our culture, race, whether we are rich or poor. Since these communities are disempowered, we need to speak out for them. If none of us speaks out for the powerless, the voiceless, we are all complicit in allowing inequality and violations to just happen.
When I became a victim myself, being arrested and detained, my perspective completely changed. Previously, I was already visiting political prisoners, giving them advices and support, but it’s quite different when you see yourself behind bars. We usually tend to take for granted the freedoms that we have, but we shouldn’t. So, that’s how my commitment for human rights started and eventually became even stronger.
Francesco Martone: I have always been passionate about human rights since a young age. The first time I heard about human rights violations was during the Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile. I started engaging in peace and environmental movements during the 1980s by volunteering for Amnesty International and Greenpeace. Thanks to the latter, I worked at a tropical rainforest campaign when Chico Mendes was killed. He might be considered the first environmental land defender.
I felt an even deeper commitment to human rights issues while being a member of the Italian Parliament. I played the role of Secretary at the Human Rights Committee in the Senate. In that context we worked hard, especially on the topics related to migration and detention. Our idea is that human rights are not an abstract concept, but they are something that can quickly impact on our own life. It’s well known that during the 2001 G8 in Genoa, many cases of repression and police violence occurred – many activists were even beaten up by the police. In that occasion, I remember thinking “this is something that could happen to me as well”.
Which are the current available measures to oppose the threats towards human rights defenders? Are they adequate to achieve the intended goals?
Joan: States and governments have the obligation to respect and protect human rights. This is at the base of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and of the United Nations. There are various human rights charters that introduce great tools, from the Universal Declaration, coming to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. These conventions set the framework on how states should relate to their citizens. Therefore, when states violate rights, there should be a mechanism to make them accountable. That’s what we don’t have at the moment.
Human rights defenders have the right to complain but, since there is no court of appeal, the states’ response is more repression, more restrictions, more prohibitions and even extra judicial killings. It means that there’s no justice anymore, there is no respect in justice anymore. That is, unfortunately, the world we find ourselves in, where we don’t’ know how to make governments accountable for their duties and responsibilities.
When talking about tools, it’s important to state the necessity for a new efficient tool. We are in a limbo, in a human rights crisis because, those who have to protect, are not carrying out their duties. There are anti-terrorist laws which are used against activists and not against potential terrorists: they call us terrorists, so they can use those laws to prevent us from advocating human rights. I find myself in this situation now in the Philippines, where I’m accused to be a terrorist. Thus, I talked to all levels of the UN, including the new established unit where citizens have the chance to report reprisals to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. This office has been very strong in digging up human rights-related issues and in raising them to states.
Nevertheless, nowadays a broad number of international organizations, like for example Global Witness and Front Line Defenders, already came out with data and analyses showing how many people have been killed in the past years, among which 60% are indigenous peoples. If we talk about geographical areas, in Asia the Philippines are the worst, while Latin America is the worst region.
The current situation is that we don’t have an effective accountability mechanism. In my personal case, I can’t even go home safely due to the accusations I’m facing. Unfortunately, the only tool we have, namely the UN is weak at this stage, so the only solution I can find is to claim back our rights as citizens. We need to build solidarity among us, to demand accountability from the decision makers. The citizens across the world, local communities, women, the youth need to come together nationally and globally to disempower those that are abusing authority and using it for their interests. Since the mechanism now in place is just not working correctly, people have to exploit the power of the community to ensure justice for everyone.
Francesco: I have to say that I share Joan’s point of view. This year we celebrate also the 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. In the past 20 years, we assisted to a multiplication of events, talks and campaigns on and for human rights defenders. But, at the same time, the number of the people being killed is increasing. For example, in Colombia more than 200 indigenous leaders have been killed only this year. The driver for all these deaths is the need to control more and more the land with the aim of extracting natural resources.
My analysis is that we are now witnessing a period of crisis of the international multilateral system. It’s a political, economic and cultural crisis, of regaining control of the national state, of securitization of the public space. There are very strict connections between development and repression. On this regard, I met a Polish human rights activist who, while protesting two weeks ago against right-wing groups in Warsaw, was attacked together with her organization by fascists supporters. In that occasion, as in many others, the police had not intervened. There are various instruments to oppose the threats to human rights defenders, but I think we lack spaces of convergence for social movements and citizens and communities that want to protect some values for the next generations. Personally, I am very active, as a jurat, in the Permanent Peoples Tribunal, especially on migration.
This institution intervenes when human and peoples’ rights are violated, and the individuals don’t find other spaces to reclaim those rights. With my committee we had a session in Palermo on violations of migrants’ rights. In that occasion, we came up with the conclusion that there is no international legal instrument that recognizes migrants as human beings having, thus, the right to move and to self-determination.
At the Permanent Peoples Tribunal, we also had a long session on the impacts of the European transnational companies on human rights in Latin America.
The issue generated a series of initiatives by the European and Latin American transnational movements such as a campaign to dismantle corporate power. Moreover, we built an external process to create a people’s treaty on transnational companies. In addition, inside the UN, some countries such as Ecuador, are pushing for a binding treaty on human rights and transnational companies. We now hope to be able, next year, to do something similar about environmental defenders and human rights.
Moreover, quite recently we created the network directed at human rights activists from all over the world that is called “In difesa di”. As a defence measure, we are creating a people-to-people mechanism between different communities. The city of Trento in Italy is active on the issue and does a lot of work in the Balkans through projects promoted, for example, by the Association “Trentino con i Balcani”. The associations in Trento run projects also in other countries, such as Colombia, where they accompany communities and make sure that the locals are not forced to run away from their land. This is a very important work because when you send an indigenous person away from his or her land, you kill him or her twice. Accompanying is not only a chance to protect, but also to learn: we have to protect indigenous communities, and at the same time, we should let them live in their own environment with their own traditions.
To what extent is the UN support useful for your advocacy activities and to what extent is it not?
Joan: The UN itself is in a crisis because of the lack of accountability, but at the same time, at least, it continues to recognize that human rights are important. In my case, what helped me was when the UN Environment gave me the award “Champions of the Earth”, the highest level in the UN awards on the environment. They know that I’m an activist, and they know my work in the Philippines, so they are sending a clear message that activists and environmental defenders are not terrorists. In a way, that’s also useful because other activists are feeling vindicated and they share my awards.
The Human Rights Council continues to put additional instruments, such as the work which has been done on a legally binding instrument for transnational companies. This is critical because many of the violations are related to the private sector or to the businesses’ interests. The problem is that the current instruments are not enough. Therefore, citizens should claim and defend their rights. They themselves have to act by taking photos and doing media campaigns: today, we have to use the media in order to raise the awareness of the public because, on the other side, states themselves are using the media to justify their wrong doing. The UN needs to wake up and take on its obligations and responsibilities.
What can we do as university students to raise awareness on human rights issues?
Joan: You can start discussions, groups and, of course, you can use the media. These are small things that generate attention on human rights issues because they ignite the interest of students. The good thing with young people is that they are creative and they have an open mind. Thus, they only have to exploit their potential.
I started as a student too and I can say that’s where I gained lots of experience. You can also start to build relationships with communities that, for instance, have their land rights under threat. Nowadays, you can connect with anyone and anywhere in the world and this facilitates links with other people. It means that there is much you can do. The first thing to do is to raise awareness, to educate people about topics related to human rights. People, but most of all new generations, need to understand that what happens to one of us, has an impact on other people as well. We must build solidarity-based connections and collective actions.
Do you think that nowadays the world is crueller and discouraged than when you were a student?
Joan: I think the situation changed because there are so many options for the young people unlike before. In my time, there was martial law in the Philippines and that political atmosphere gave me a sense of purpose. The youngsters now don’t have this sense of purpose because they can do anything without restrictions. Moreover, their world is becoming more and more digital and they don’t see the reality of the other people. Without realizing that you’re hidden in your own world, you might lose hope. Though, if you see injustice everywhere, helping people brings hope in your life because you are not thinking only about yourself anymore. And, thus, you realize that there are more people who need help, who need a voice. Once you get that realization, your life becomes meaningful. When you raise your voice for the most vulnerable, you start to have a purpose. We need to bring that to the young people: they need to have a purpose and they need to search for meaning.
There’s not so much activism now comparing to my generation. There’s a change now because there are so many privileges and distractions. Young people have now more choices on what to do because their environment is just circled around them. But, if you broaden your environment, your view, an avenue opens up, where you can be active and have a sense a meaning and purpose.
Francesco: The issue about hope is something on which all of us reflect. For instance, I read an interview of an American feminist activist, Wendy Brown. When she was asked for an opinion about the current political situation in the US and about the climate crisis, she answered that we’d better to talk about responsibility rather than hope, which is a too mystic concept. I’m 57 years old and I feel the responsibility of trying to do something in order to deliver a better world to the future generations There’s a very effective phrase of Wendy Brown: “We have to be where the fires are. We have to extinguish fires when they are destructive, but we have to relight them when the flame is too weak”.
Reflecting about hope has not to do with pessimism or optimism because they’re relative concepts. I remember I was scolded by a blogger from Tahuman square. When I asked him whether he was pessimist or optimist, he answered: “How do you think I can afford to be pessimist if I have to put my life at risk for the respect of human rights?” Our responsibility is huge: we are delivering a world full of war, hate, over-consumption, destruction of the bases on which a healthy life needs to be grounded.
Even though the right to a healthy environment – mentioned for the first time in the Stockholm and Rio Declarations, has not been transposed in the main international charters, can we say that it is recognized worldwide?
Francesco: We might say it’s recognized in terms of instruments. For instance, the precautionary principle and the polluter pays principle are used to assure, at least, a healthy environment. The problem stands with the lack of transnational actions, such as the creation of an international tribunal for the environment, which has been claimed since the Rio Declaration.
There’s a huge discussion about human rights and climate change. The UN Conventions concern participation and information rights as well as the necessity to avoid that the adaptation and mitigation activities have a negative impact on human rights. The problem is that the following step on the access to justice has never been done. It’s a work in progress: there are many litigations about violations of the right to a healthy environment. We need to create a political demand in order to have the rules applied.
Given that the effects of climate change are mainly considered as global issues, would the recognition of the right to a healthy environment be an effective instrument to fight climate change at the local level?
Francesco: The discussion about the justiciability of climate crimes has been diminishing because it’s quite difficult to elaborate the cause-effect nexus. Indeed, it is not easy to hold a greenhouse gases emitter accountable for the several different effects of climate change. In other words, it is difficult to prove that a company located in the US produces negative environmental impacts on a community based in Bangladesh. The goal now is to elaborate a join liability, regardless of the cause-effect nexus.
Another aspect regards the so-called “loss and damage” theme, which consists in calculating the losses and in imagining restitution processes such as the redevelopment of the ecosystems or financial payments. Unfortunately, this issue is a bit put aside. For instance, the COP24 has been sponsored by the carbon industry. There’s also less space for civil society: a directive from the Polish government narrows the possibility for NGOs, social movements and human rights defenders to be consistently active during the negotiations. This situation can be noted everyday if observing the massive presence of the law enforcement that could have been put in place not just for security reasons, but also for “intimidatory” purposes.