Identifying the issue

Environmental crime, in almost all its forms, has, in recent years, been recognized as an issue that is worthy of considerably greater political attention and law enforcement priority than it has attracted historically. For instance, there have been repeated calls in a number of resolutions[1] and declarations that the illegal harvesting of, and trade in, endangered fauna and fauna species be designated as ‘serious crime’.

As a growing awareness of the chain of criminality involved in such activities, and other theft of natural resources, has spread, together with the realization that links in the chain include: violence; corruption; organized criminal groups and networks; sophisticated counterfeiting, forgery and smuggling; exploitation of persons living at or below the poverty line, particularly in rural areas of the developing world; and money-laundering (to name just a few), it is undoubtedly reasonable and relevant that the international community should do more, much more, to combat this.

It is also appropriate and important that responses are not limited purely to combating crime and criminals, i.e. traditional law enforcement. Demand-reduction[2], identifying alternative livelihoods and greater involvement of the private sector[3] are just three fields where action must be taken and where there are already examples of success.

It seems, however, that whilst a welcome acknowledgment has emerged of the range of crimes associated with what amounts to a pillage in some areas of the planet of animals, plants, and minerals, one aspect that appears to have gained too scant attention is that of ‘human rights’. Yet, every day, the rights of very significant numbers of humans are being abused in an abhorrent manner and solely because those members of the Homo sapiens species are engaged in defending the environment and what it sustains.

These ‘environmental defenders’ take various forms. Investigative journalists, non-governmental organizations’ researchers and lobbyists, activists operating individually or as part of a group, and those engaged in a range of protest or disruptive actions are all readily-identifiable. Perhaps less immediately-recognized, though, are the hundreds, if not thousands, of government departments’ or other agencies’ employees whose task it is to protect habitats and species from criminal exploitation. Regardless of to which group these persons belong, or may be associated with, many will, day to day, be exposed to: harassment; intimidation; attempts to bribe, corrupt or compromise them; and threats of violence or actual violence, resulting in injury or death. It is not at all uncommon for the families and friends of some of these persons to be similarly exposed.

The scale and scope of the problem

The magnitude of this issue is difficult to assess and efforts to date seem relatively limited, particularly as what might be viewed as low-level abuses may well go unreported or certainly under-reported. There have, though, been attempts to collate some statistics in relation to defender deaths and much of the best work here has been undertaken by the NGO Global Witness.

In its reports – ‘A Hidden Crisis?’ of 2012[4], ‘Deadly Environment’ of 2014[5], and ‘How Many More?’ of 2015[6] – Global Witness acknowledged that it had only been able to capture limited data but, even so, identified some horrendous figures. Between 2002 and 2013, 908 people in 35 countries were killed as a result of their activities relating to environmental and land issues. By comparison, over the same period, 913 journalists were killed in connection with their work which, of course, referred to a much wider range of subject matters.

In 2012, three times as many environmental defenders were killed, 147, then ten years before. The research on 2014 showed that about 40% of the dead were persons from indigenous communities, with most dying as a result of hydropower, mining and agri-business disputes. Nearly 75% of those killings occurred in Central and South America.

Since the confrontations leading to fatalities will often happen in remote locations, far from centres of population and regularly with limited or no mobile or landline phone communications, it is likely that some deaths will go undiscovered or will only come to notice some (perhaps significant) time after their occurrence.

Shocking as these numbers were, Global Witness discovered an even more appalling statistic; between 2002 and 2013 only 10 persons were tried, convicted and punished with regard to the deaths. In other words, if an environmental defender is killed, there is only a slightly greater than one per cent chance that his or her killer will be brought to justice. This is utterly dreadful. By way of contrast, and even though the percentage has dropped considerably in the past 50 years (from around 90% in the mid-1960s), the homicide clearance rate in the United States in 2012 was 64%[7].  In 2014-2015, Police Scotland had a murder detection rate of 109%[8] – explained by the fact that several ‘cold cases’ were solved during that time period.

It should be obvious that the human rights of those killed, and also those who have been exposed to other threats, etc., have been abused. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[9], proclaimed in 1948, states plainly and clearly that, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”  Article 20’s reference to “freedom of peaceful assembly” is likely to be relevant in many instances too. Interestingly, however, the Declaration makes no specific mention of the environment per se, although some regard a safe and satisfactory environment as being essential if Article 15’s obligations relating to “health and well-being” are to be achieved.

To date, the UN’s Human Rights Council has given this issue somewhat limited attention, although it has appointed[10] a Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. That individual, operating alone and on a fixed- and relatively short-term basis, has had a massive range of matters to address and it appears that much time has, understandably, been devoted to simply identifying relevant issues and collating examples of good practice[11][12].

Not surprisingly, therefore, even less time has been available for the Special Rapporteur or the Council to focus on the rights of environmental defenders and abuses of those rights. Encouragingly, however, there is general precedent for such a focus, since the UN General Assembly adopted a ‘Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups, and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms’[13] in 1998 and its provisions are of very considerable relevance to those seeking to defend the environment. It does, though, have what might be regarded as shortcomings. Primarily, although adopted by consensus, it is not legally binding and its provisions would require to be adopted into domestic law, something which it is said[14] an increasing number of UN Member States are considering.

Regardless of what the UN system may or may not be doing, one should not overlook the simple and stark fact that threats, violence, intimidation and plain murder are already crimes in every nation. This, however, does not appear to be reflected in the environmental defender homicide clearance rate of 1%.

The current situation

On 21 June 2017, representatives of intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, academics, activists, relevant experts and frontline environmental defenders (about 100 participants in total) came together in a one-day conference[15]. Organized by the Not One More NGO (N1M)[16] in one of the University of Oxford’s colleges, it sought to raise the profile of abuse of environmental defenders’ human rights and the disgracefully low level of effective responses that occur at present.

A number of defenders spoke of the threats, intimidation, and violence that they have personally experienced. One, herself now an activist, described the murder of her defender mother in the recent past. The courage displayed by such individuals is commendable. Several of the personal stories corroborated Global Witness’ findings that perpetrators continue to operate with apparent impunity. That they are able to do so is perhaps not surprising, given that those responsible were said, often, to be government officials, again confirming Global Witness’ previous observations that culprits were regularly reported to be military or police personnel.

However, major companies and industries, national and multi-national, were also accused of employing assassins and intimidators. The involvement of corrupt local or national politicians appears commonplace too. Developed world countries and well-known donor agencies were identified as regularly ‘being behind’ many of the projects which defenders are challenging and, yet, those bodies appear to do little, if anything when informed of the intimidation and violence that is taking place.

Conference participants heard that complaints to national government authorities, police or prosecutors often went ignored, declined or not pursued. Several defenders said they viewed attempting to lodge a complaint, register a crime or report corruption as being utterly pointless. A few defenders described their experience of approaching national offices of the United Nations, with mixed results. One person, for instance, had received assistance to flee the country, such was the apparent risk to his life from military forces as a result of him exposing corruption linked to illegal logging. But several activists, whilst they were listened to sympathetically, were told that the UN could, basically, “do nothing”.

The UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur, a keynote speaker at the event, emphasized that he, other Special Rapporteurs, and the Council itself, can receive ‘complaints’ directly from persons whose rights have been abused but acknowledged that that are considerable limits to what UN system can achieve thereafter, although it is possible for inadequate responses on the part of national governments to be ‘denounced’ publicly.

A spokesperson for Global Witness intimated that it will, in the near future, be issuing another report on this subject. Although unwilling to go into any detail, it was indicated that the update was unlikely to contain much good news nor contain any reduction in depressing data.

There was, thankfully and encouragingly, however, positive input. Websites, such as, offer access to relevant networks and a range of guidance. Frontline defenders said how important it was for them to know that others ‘care about them’ and that they are ‘not alone’. Technology, such as the Natalia Project[17] where defenders are provided with personal alarms to activate if they are threatened or attacked, was described. The importance of defenders receiving relevant personal safety training and guidance was emphasized and it was stressed how much they value and appreciate such capacity-building, alongside any relevant technology.

Perhaps one of the most significant outcomes of the conference was that it highlighted the scale of human rights abuses in the field of protection of the environment, the current limitations of existing human rights law (nationally and internationally) and the significant challenges that are faced, both by those on the frontline and those who seek to support them.

Human rights abuses and wildlife crime responders

Since the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime has given and is giving, regular attention to wildlife crime and trafficking, it is perhaps appropriate to try and place human rights into this context, especially as the subject is very seldom addressed by most commentators or current initiatives. For the moment, it is intended to focus solely on those who, rather than operating as some form of activist, have a specific mandate to defend fauna, flora or their habitats, i.e. the rangers, game scouts, wardens and forest guards of the world or other law enforcement officials who might be described as ‘wildlife crime responders’.

The relevance and purpose of focussing on this particular group will become apparent in due course.

The scale and scope of the problem

As with environmental defenders in general, it appears that reliable statistics are not being collated with regard to the numbers of responders whose human rights are abused each year. One attempt to gather data on fatalities suggests that 1,000 park rangers have been killed in the past decade. The same source[18] claims that 80% died as a result of actions by “commercial poachers” and armed militia groups. It is not clear what methodology was used to gather such data.

It can be difficult to even access statistics on a country-by-country basis, although there have been suggestions that the role of game warden in the United States is one of the most dangerous in its law enforcement community[19][20]. It seems generally agreed that the Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the most hazardous places in the world for wildlife crime responders, with over 150 ranger deaths in the past decade[21].

Whilst it is probably more common for anti-poaching personnel to die during exchanges of gunfire with poachers they come across, either by chance or as a result of intelligence-led patrolling, it is not unknown for wardens and game scouts to be deliberately ambushed. Patrols have also been targeted using landmines, rocket-propelled grenades and wells and pools where they obtain freshwater have been known to be intentionally poisoned.

It is difficult to find any reports or information indicating that police agencies actively investigate the deaths on duty of, for example, anti-poaching personnel. It is not clear whether scenes-of-crime examinations are routinely conducted or if relevant ballistic and other forensic science-related evidence is collected. These deaths are, after all, murders, yet do not seem to necessarily be treated as such. Whilst the poachers responsible may, themselves, be killed during exchanges of gunfire for example, it appears that a not insignificant number flee the scene and subsequently escape justice. On the other hand, it appears that the clearance rate in relation to homicides of police officers is, globally, close to 100%. There seems to be a lack of a level playing field here, apparently because many frontline wildlife crime responders are not regarded as members of the law enforcement community.

It may be tempting to view what is being suffered by wildlife crime responders as being ‘part of the job’, inherent and almost unavoidable risks associated with such duties. It might, to a degree, be understandable to believe that this does not bear comparison against, particularly, those individuals who voluntarily decide to engage in activism, campaigning, investigation and exposure of wrongdoing, i.e. those termed as environmental defenders. But this warrants more detailed scrutiny and examination.

Failures in the defence of wildlife crime responders

The considerations described above, that responders do not equate with defenders, might be reasonable were they each operating on a level playing field. It would be perfectly reasonable to suppose that responders would be better equipped than defenders. But are they?

In 2016, the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) published two reports[22] [23]detailing research it had conducted among rangers operating in Africa and Asia. Among rangers based in Central, Eastern and Southern Africa, 75% said they had been threatened by community members because of their work and 82% reported having experienced a life-threatening situation. Only 42% felt adequately trained, whilst 59% responded ‘No’ when asked if they were provided with proper equipment and amenities to ensure their safety.

When WWF examined the issue of insurance provision for rangers on both continents, no health insurance was provided in 20% of countries surveyed. No life insurance was available in 35% of the countries and in 45% no long-term disability cover existed. This situation is, arguably, contrary to Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In many parts of the world, anti-poaching personnel do not have adequate clothing, decent tents, GPS technology and binoculars or night vision equipment; in other words, what even the layman is likely to regard as the essential ‘kit’ necessary to do the job.

In terms of self-defense, several agencies do not supply their staff with even the most basic of gear, such as batons, handcuffs, Mace or other sprays, or even deliver training in unarmed combat and arrest techniques. Non-lethal weaponry, such as Tasers, appears to be completely absent among wildlife crime responders.

Instead, the majority of anti-poaching staff carry firearms, a scenario leaving them no option but to kill (since no one can guarantee to shoot to wound) or be killed/injured and almost inevitably motivating poachers they encounter to ‘fire first’. However, it is not at all uncommon for patrol officers to be outgunned. In both Africa and Asia, one can find personnel equipped with Lee Enfield .303 rifles; the very same model of firearm carried by the ‘British Tommy’ during World War One[24]. Not surprisingly, personnel using such rifles regularly find that the ammunition issued to them is so old it does not discharge when they pull the trigger.

Such shortcomings must surely violate Article 23 of the Universal Declaration’s provisions with regard to “just and favourable conditions of work”? They might also be viewed as failing to comply with the requirements in Article 2 of the 1998 Declaration. In the developing world, these shortfalls, together with several others relating to such matters as inadequate patrol accommodation, poor transport and communications, excessive hours of duty, exposure to risks of disease and the requirement to operate in hazardous terrain and weather conditions, would almost inevitably contravene health and safety legislation.

Despite all of the above, one might still be inclined to regard responders as being better-placed than their counterpart defenders. On the other hand, the self-motivated activists, researchers, protesters and NGO or investigative journalists are under no obligation (other than self-imposed) to be on the frontline or at risk. Each defender has the option to choose to retreat from or postpone their endeavours in a manner not open to the vast majority of responders.

This is not to disparage or devalue what defenders do. They regularly display levels of courage and commitment that equal or exceed those of the responders. Each is worthy of our admiration but it may be only natural that the role of defender perhaps attracts higher levels of veneration. Impressively, when asked by WWF if they would wish their children to become rangers, 39% of responders answered ‘Yes’. The dedication of defenders and responders is one of the few matters in this field that cannot be called into question.

Supporting the defenders and responders

Many of the significant challenges facing environmental defenders, and this includes responders, relate to issues such as poor governance, inadequate political will, corruption, lack of capacity, deficiencies in legislation, and socio-economic circumstances, all of which cannot be addressed effectively in the short-term.

However, what arguably can be addressed is to simply raise the profile of human rights in relation to the environment and, especially, environmental crime. It is an issue that needs to feature, not only prominently but also much more regularly, in the research and campaign documentation that abounds at present. The words ‘human rights’ seldom, if ever, appear in the plethora of existing governmental, NGO or academic fauna and flora-focussed reports. The issue deserves to appear more frequently on the agendas of meetings convened by relevant IGOs and treaty bodies, such as UN Environment, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the UN Development Programme, the World Bank, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora and the Convention on Biological Diversity.

There is undoubtedly scope for human rights to be taken more account of in the activities of initiatives such as the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime and for it to be incorporated into ongoing and future operations coordinated, for example, by INTERPOL and the World Customs Organization.

In a similar vein, regional and international law enforcement bodies, such as INTERPOL, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Europol and ASEANAPOL, should ensure that adequate awareness of human rights and the environment exists among their members. They should also commit to investigating complaints and allegations regarding human rights abuses of environmental defenders and responders.

Bodies and donors delivering capacity-building must not shy away from pointing out shortcomings in national agencies’ current provisions to employees with regard to their health and safety and human rights.

Donors should, prior to providing support, assess whether intended recipients have adequate human rights provisions and policies in place.

Where appropriate, consideration might be given to actively aiding or funding litigation on behalf of, for example, the families of responders whose deaths have resulted from inadequate provision by their employers in relation to their human rights or where poor health and safety provisions may have contributed to injury or death. The regrettable reality is that many governments and agencies will maintain the status quo until forced into adopting good practice.

The UN Human Rights Council should continue to appoint Special Rapporteurs to address human rights and the environment and additional resources should be devoted to issues relating to abuses of environmental defenders’ rights.

In conclusion, there seems little cause for optimism, at least in the short-term. However, the fact that the issue is increasingly on the radar of more relevant bodies must be a positive step in the right (no pun intended) direction.

























[24], page 141