'Without human rights defenders, there are no human rights'

31 Mar 2022

The following framing input was given by End Water Poverty coordinator Alana Potter during our session on expanding civic space at the Alternative World Water Forum in Dakar.

Monday 21 March commemorates the day 69 protestors were gunned down by the police for protesting apartheid pass laws in Sharpeville, South Africa. Without human rights defenders, there are no human rights.

The space for people to act, to express dissent, to hold accountability from public or private actors, is too often met with brutality, with the misuse of force. Activists across the world are criminalised, detained, subjected to surveillance, intimidated, threatened, assassinated, and subjected to strategic lawsuits. As we monitor and track incidents and make the information public, we become more aware of the scale of this repression.

Activists are brutalised by public order police and by the military, by their own governments, for participating in invented or invited ways and holding the state accountable for their lack of access to public services, like water and health care.

They are also brutalised and assassinated by corporate power, by extractive industries that prioritise profit over human rights and the environment, by the same agencies that are destroying our planet.

An average of four environmental rights defenders were killed every week in 2020, according to Global Witness. The worst year on record since 2012.

They say in “Defending Tomorrow, Last line of defence”: “as the climate crisis intensifies, violence against those protecting their land and our planet also increases. It has become clear that the unaccountable exploitation and greed driving the climate crisis is also driving violence against land and environmental defenders.”

When they repress participation, governments and corporates are acting against their own and international laws and treaties – whether that participation is invited or invented, whether it’s in local government offices or in the streets. 

Governments are failing to protect defenders. In many cases they directly perpetrate violence against defenders, and in others they are complicit. The policing of protests frequently employs the excessive use of force, often carried out with impunity.

States around the world, from the US and Brazil to Colombia, South Africa, eSwatini and the Philippines, used the COVID pandemic to justify draconian measures to control citizens and close civic space.

It is clear there are three crucial links:

  • between the struggle for dignified, affordable water and sanitation and other essential services, and the struggle for land and environmental rights
  • between the availability of civic space and attacks against defenders – the most open and tolerant societies see very few attacks, whereas in restricted societies, attacks are much more frequent. BUT we’re seeing an increase as we surface government inaction and challenge entrenched economic interests, we’re seeing countries that have more open civic space also crack down, e.g. Germany, Albania, NL, Denmark, North Macedonia, Norway etc.
  • Between the struggle for water justice and the struggle for environmental justice. Water justice is as deeply embedded in the struggle for environmental justice as water is embedded in the ground, in rivers, and in streams. And like air quality, water quality is determined by the actions or inactions of regulators, providers, authorities, and polluters, by public and private actors endorsed and contracted by our governments. And water and air quality is defended by people. People who act the defend both their access and the health of the resource.

Protestors defending water rights are met with disproportionate force by the police and the military all over the world. In Bolivia’s fight against privatisation, in Venezuela’s water and electricity protests, in India where farmers protested poor water supply, in Dakota protesting against the oil pipeline that threatens water supplies, in Morocco in 2017, in Somaliland, in Mexico and throughout the LA region, in Khuzestan in Iran just last year.

As water sources around the world are threatened, more groups and communities will be forced to protest to defend their human right to water.

But state repression of protest is only one from of repression. It is also repression when activists get no response from government officials. It is also repression when they can't participate because they haven’t got the right documentation or information is published in a different language. It is also repression when wealthy consumers are prioritised over poor consumers, when throttling starts in poor areas during times of water scarcity, when democratic participation is made impossible for marginalised people, when government officials and mechanisms are inaccessible and unresponsive, when affordable services are made difficult to access because of onerous registration requirements. 

We need to expose and tackle all forms of repression, because water rights claimers and environmental defenders are the frontline and the last line of defence against climate breakdown. Even after decades of violence, people continue to stand up for their land and for our planet. In every story of defiance against corporate theft and land grabbing, against deadly pollution and against environmental disaster.

And without human rights defenders, there are no human rights.