Defending Environmental Defenders
Human Rights Dialogue: "Environmental Rights" (Spring 2004)
April 27, 2004
In 1990, Ken Saro-Wiwa, an internationally acclaimed poet, author, and activist from the Niger Delta, began mobilizing his people, the indigenous Ogonis, for nonviolent protest against the Shell Oil Corporation. For more than 20 years oil spills and gas flares from the multinational’s oil explorations had destroyed the environment and the health of the indigenous Ogonis, causing thousands of lost lives. Five years after the start of his campaign, Saro-Wiwa and eight other indigenous Ogoni activists were brutally hanged for their peaceful protest on the orders of General Sani Abacha, then military dictator of Nigeria.
The tragic death of Saro-Wiwa shocked the world. It drew international attention to the human rights of indigenous peoples and the need to hold corporations accountable for complicity in environmental and human rights abuses. It also set the stage for a unique collaborative campaign between Amnesty International and the Sierra Club to protect the human rights of environmentalists and communities-at-risk.
The roots of the campaign go back to early 1994, when Amnesty International and the Sierra Club were part of a broad coalition of human, environmental, and labor rights groups that organized a global grassroots campaign on behalf of the Nigerian activists, who were then on trial before a quasi-military tribunal on trumped up charges of treason. In October 1995, Amnesty International USA, Sierra Club, and another U.S.-based NGO, TransAfrica, issued their first joint letters to President Bill Clinton, British Prime Minister John Major, and Phillip Carroll, CEO of Shell USA, expressing their deep concerns about the deteriorating human rights situation in Nigeria. The three organizations urged world leaders as well as other NGOs to join the campaign to pressure the Nigerian government to respect the human and environmental rights of the Nigerian people. While the effort failed to prevent the tragic executions, the cooperative campaign taught the organizations some important lessons.
A key lesson was the need to take pro-active measures in defending the rights of environmentalists and to hold multinational corporations accountable for complicity in human rights abuses. Oil provides nearly 80 percent of Nigeria’s national revenues. Shell, which still operates in the Niger Delta today, is the largest producer of Nigerian oil, accounting for more than 50 percent of the country’s oil output. Thus, the company’s claim that it could not interfere in the internal politics of the country to prevent the killings rang hollow to many NGOs and activists in both the human rights and the environmental movements. Rather than address legitimate issues raised by the Ogoni people, Shell sought protection from the Nigerian military government -- notorious for human rights abuses. The company was also implicated in arming the Nigerian security forces from 1993 to 1995, which later engaged in a vicious campaign of terror in Ogoniland. Amnesty International USA and the Sierra Club concluded that the most effective way to end Shell’s acquiescence in the armed repression in Ogoniland was to enlist the support of the American public -- Shell’s largest export market.
While both organizations have an impressive history of holding governments accountable, they recognized that economic globalization is increasingly shifting power from governments to a handful of global corporations and financial institutions. Shell’s total annual revenue, for example, is far greater than that of many African countries combined. What this means from the standpoint of grassroots campaigning is that to be effective in social justice activism it is also necessary to develop strategies around corporate social responsibility and accountability.
These lessons informed the strategic partnership between Amnesty and the Sierra Club -- the United States’ largest grassroots human rights and environment advocacy organizations. Known as “Defending the Defenders,” this three-year collaboration (December 1999 to October 2002) sought to raise public awareness within the United States of the link between human rights and the environment, and to generate grassroots actions in defense of environmental defenders around the world.
With a combined U.S. membership of more than 1.2 million, the Sierra Club and Amnesty International USA effectively mobilized their activist networks to respond to reports of abuses against environmental activists throughout the world. Responses took a variety of forms, including public demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns, shareholder activism, and -- for the Sierra Club -- advocating a boycott of Shell Oil. Throughout the campaign, both organizations educated their respective memberships about the nexus of human rights and the environment. Members quickly came to see that environmental protection is a precondition for the enjoyment of human rights, and that the human rights framework can be a useful tool for environmental defenders advocating their cause.
Defending human rights was not entirely new territory for the Sierra Club. Since its founding, the Club has been organizing its members to speak out, to engage the public in community organizing, and to participate in democratic decision-making. Sierra Club members therefore embraced the campaign to defend the human rights of environmentalists as the promotion of the same fundamental civil liberties that had allowed the organization to flourish in the United States. As former Sierra Club Chairman Mike McCloskey explained to Club leaders at the inception of the program,
Foreign environmentalists cannot rally public opinion in their countries if there is no freedom of speech or of assembly. Public opinion matters less if people cannot vote. Their protests will be muffled if they are jailed or put under house arrest. They cannot continue to resist if they are assassinated or executed. And it is hard to be effective if you are living under threats for your life.
For Amnesty’s part, campaigning on the nexus of human rights and the environment allowed the organization to actively campaign for the first time on the social and economic roots of human rights violations. The campaign also gave Amnesty the new opportunity to work with powerful coalition partners in the fields of human, environmental, and labor rights as well as with faith-based groups while piloting new and exciting organizing strategies at the grassroots level, particularly among youth activists. Speaking in an education video developed for the campaign, Bill Schulz, Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, underscored the scope of the problem:
Environmental problems are global problems. In order to defend those who give the earth a voice, it is critically important that those global problems be met with global standards, global standards of protection for human rights.
Broadening their campaigning in this way, the Defending the Defenders program had a significant influence on Amnesty’s work.
Jointly the two organizations helped secure the release of four jailed environmental defenders -- Aleksandr Nikitin, a retired Russian nuclear submarine engineer arrested for writing a report on the problems of radioactive pollution from mothballed nuclear submarines in Russia’s Northern Fleet; Grigory Pasko, a Russian journalist jailed for reporting on illegal radioactive waste dumping by the Russian Navy; and Rodolfo Montiel Flores and Teodoro Cabrera Garcia, two Mexican campesinos arrested, tortured, and imprisoned on false charges for protesting the illegal clear-cut logging of old-growth forest in Mexico. Beyond these accomplishments, the two groups published a joint report entitled “Environmentalists Under Fire: Ten Urgent Cases of Human Rights Abuses,” [PDF: 32 pages] documenting human rights abuses against environmental advocates by their own governments and, in some cases, by multinational corporations. They are also working with a broad coalition to develop the International Right to Know Initiative to press the U.S. Congress and the Bush administration for disclosure mechanisms to ensure greater corporate accountability.
Finally, the two organizations jointly played a leading role in pushing multinational corporations and international financial institutions to acknowledge the need to consult with local communities regarding project plans, to consider the potential impact on the local environment, and to mitigate any adverse effects. Multinational corporations now devote much more attention to these issues on their web sites and in paid advertising. Since the launch of this collaborative campaign, for instance, Shell has incorporated both environmental protection and respect for human rights into the company’s business operating principles -- albeit not into its on-the-ground activities.
The power of corporations in the world economy means that NGOs need to rethink their strategies for addressing sustainable development, economic disparity, and the related security issues of our time. This requires that organizations combine resources and play to their strengths in order to build the capacity necessary to rein in the excesses of corporate globalization.