Ireland to help provide ‘rapid response mechanism’ for ‘environmental defenders’

Move will help those persecuted for raising concerns on environmental damage

Ireland is to lead a global effort to put in place a "rapid response mechanism" to safeguard "environmental defenders" – people who are persecuted for raising concerns about damage to the environment where they live.

The human rights body Global Witness recorded 1,539 environmental defenders being killed between 2012 and last year worldwide, a tally widely regarded as a gross underestimate due to under-reporting.

The Government is to provide 50 per cent of the funding – about $100,000 (€85,000) per year for the next four years in partnership with Austria – to support the establishment and operation of the mechanism.

It will operate under the auspices of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and the Aarhus Convention. The announcement coincided with a meeting of the parties to the convention in Geneva.


Incidents of persecution, penalisation and harassment of environmental defenders have been reported in 16 countries who are parties to the convention since January 2017.

Minister for Environment Eamon Ryan said Ireland's commitment was "an expression of solidarity with environmental defenders across Europe and neighbouring regions ... we hope it may serve as a model of best practice in other regions as well".

“It will ensure people exercising their rights, in conformity with the provisions of the convention, are not penalised, persecuted or harassed in any way,” he said.

The mechanism, Mr Ryan added, “will shine a light of justice into dark corners. It will call upon the authorities of the party to uphold the rule of law. It will be a voice for the women and men who are often the last line of defence for our land, air, forests, waters and wetlands”.

‘Deeply concerned’

Attracta Uí Bhroin, vice president of the European Environmental Bureau, said she wished to "warmly applaud this commitment by Ireland and Austria, which speaks volumes of a renewed and practical commitment to the convention – and the right to be able to exercise the rights under the convention without fear of persecution or harassment".

It also sends a strong message for environmental defenders across the world, she believed. While it applies within the UNECE region, “the hope is it will influence the establishment of similar mechanisms in other regions, where they are also needed in an increasingly desperate collective fight to defend an environment without borders”.

Ms Uí Bhroin she had often criticised the Government on environmental issues but on this occasion she wanted to commend its action.

Addressing this week’s meeting, UN secretary-general António Guterres said he remained “deeply concerned by the targeting of environmental activists” and that he welcomed efforts to protect them.

“Twenty years ago, the Aarhus Convention entered into force, bridging the gap between human and environmental rights,” he said.

“Today, as the devastating effects of climate change continue to ravage the world, the Convention’s core purpose – of allowing people to protect their wellbeing and that of future generations – has never been more critical.”

Mr Ryan also confirmed Ireland’s support for the Geneva Declaration on Environmental Democracy for Sustainable, Inclusive and Resilient Development.

“As we face into the next decade of challenges in delivering on our sustainable developmental goals, allowing our citizens to actively participate in spatial planning and large-scale infrastructure development processes is more important now than ever before. It is timely for the Geneva Declaration to re-state the human rights and environmental principles of the Aarhus Convention.”

Meanwhile, the Government is to co-sponsor a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council which recognises “a right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment”. The resolution, which for the first time makes the right explicit was adopted by the council recently.

“Co-sponsoring this resolution...demonstrates Ireland’s support for climate mitigation and adaptation around the world,” Mr Ryan said. “It also reinforces climate mitigation and adaptation here in Ireland. Implicit in our own programme for government is ensuring the quality of our environment.”

Recognising this fundamental right is especially important now, he added. “The world’s attention is rightly focused on climate action, as we’ll see during COP26 in Glasgow. Closer to home, we will launch Climate Action Plan 2021 over coming weeks. It will set out the practical measures we need to take to meet our own climate targets.”

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney noted this important statement of rights “adds impetus to our international effort to address urgent environmental and climate issues”.

It helps to strengthen conditions for the effective investment of Ireland’s climate and environmental finance contributions, he said. “These contributions support and drive critical adaptation work in the countries most affected today by the climate and biodiversity crisis.”

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times