Whistleblowers and Environmental Defenders: Motion 39 To Be Debated At IUCN World Conservation Congress


As the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress prepares to begin September 3-11 in Marseilles, France, there has been an increase in attention to “environmental defenders.” Environmental defenders are defined by the United Nations (UN) as “individuals and groups who, in their personal or professional capacity and in a peaceful manner, strive to protect and promote human rights relating to the environment, including water, air, land, flora and fauna.” The Congress will discuss motion 39, on environmental defenders and whistleblowers with the view to adoption, and with the goal of empowering and supporting them.

The new four year IUCN Programme 2021–2024 Overview addresses environmental defenders and whistleblowers in the section of enhancing the realization and enforcement of the environmental rule of law. The new motion would reinforce that within IUCN foster linkages.

Whistleblowers often make disclosures from inside of an organization, while environmental defenders usually start their journeys from the outside, working to create grassroots environmental protection movements. Because of this, there is scope for synergies.

Are Whistleblowers Also Environmental Defenders?

Although they may start from different places, could some whistleblowers also be considered environmental defenders?

Consider the case of whistleblower Johánnes Stefánsson. Stefánsson blew the whistle on the payment of bribes from an Icelandic fishing company, Samherji, to government officials in exchange for Namibian fishing rights. The subsequent uproar, known as the Fishrot scandal, revealed that the former Minister of Fisheries and Marine Resources, and his colleagues, including the former Minister of Justice, had been facilitating the taking of over $10 million worth of bribes since 2012.

But Stefánsson’s revelations didn’t just affect those involved in the bribery scheme. Because the selling of these fishing rights to the highest bidder already broke international regulations, there was no incentive to not vastly overfish the areas in question. This spirit of exploitation also extended to the citizens of Namibia and its other natural resources, with Namibian officials cutting Namibian workers out of utilizing their own natural resources. In another sense, schemes like this support neo-colonialist corporate exploitation of the country’s resources. This kind of exploitation happens all over the world and it takes whistleblowers like Stefánsson to bring schemes to light.

Stefánsson may also share an all-to-common experience with many environmental defenders: an attempt on his life. Stefánsson believes he was poisoned in Namibia in 2017 as retaliation for his disclosures, possibly by the entities that he blew the whistle on. The long lasting effects of what he believes to be the poison have greatly impacted his quality of life.

In 2018 alone, 164 environmental defenders were killed while protecting their homes or environment, with over half the murders taking place in South America. Stefánsson’s experience is unfortunately more common than we might like to believe.

Motion 39 and the 2021 IUCN World Conservation Congress

Motion 39, titled “Protecting environmental human and peoples’ rights defenders and whistleblowers,” deals directly with these issues. IUCN members at the upcoming Congress will debate the motion in just a few days with a view to adoption. Motion 39 links environmental defenders and whistleblowers, and encourages world governments to further support environmental defenders and whistleblowers.

Motion 39 would do a number of things for environmental defenders and whistleblowers, including “develop[ing] an IUCN policy and action plan on environmental human rights defenders and whistleblowers,” requesting the Commission on Education and Communications (CEC), the World Commission on Environmental Law (CEL) and the Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy (CEESP) to “initiate a campaign to promote and support the work of environmental human rights defenders and whistleblowers as a way of protecting them from threats and attacks and showing the importance of their work,” and urging states to adopt laws that would defend whistleblowers and environmental defenders.

While motion 39 does other things as well, these are the primary solutions that it focuses on to keep environmental defenders and whistleblowers safe and supported. If the motion is adopted by the Congress, it may be able to serve as a roadmap to countries looking to protect both groups of people.

Whether or not these terms of environmental defender and whistleblower overlap or even carry some redundancy in their current usage, they are two sides of the same important coin. Both types of people assume massive personal risks and make huge sacrifices to protect human rights and the environment. The very least we can do is find further ways to honor and protect them.

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