Opening remarks at the 21st EU-NGO Forum 2019

21st EU-NGO Forum 2019

Human Rights: Building a Fair Environmental Future

EU Special Representative for Human Rights, Eamon Gilmore

Opening Remarks

“The interdependence of Human Rights and the Environment”

3 December 2019



Good morning everyone. It is a great pleasure to be with you today to open this 21st Forum, which is my first Forum as EU Special Representative for Human Rights.

I am delighted to welcome many of you to Brussels for the first time and I look forward to our continued work together. My role is to contribute to the effectiveness, presence and visibility of the EU’s work on human rights, to work with all of the institutions including the European Parliament, and with the Member States. The purpose of my mandate is essentially to add value to the human rights efforts of the Union.

Long before I was privileged to become EU Special Representative for Human Rights in March of this year, I had seen the incredible work of civil society and human rights defenders in empowering others, often far from the spotlight. It has continually inspired me, as a student leader, as a representative in my country’s parliament for 27 years, as Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Ireland and as EU Special Envoy for the peace process in Colombia. Your work in your respective countries is invaluable. You see things happening sometimes before we do and sometimes before violation or abuses happen.

In the last year, we have seen the clear interdependence between human rights and the environment. There is a new urgency in the discussion, largely driven by a young girl standing outside the Swedish Parliament to call for stronger action on climate change, instead of going to school. The environment has become the human rights issue of our time. The time is well past to stop saying that climate change is not happening or is not human induced.

Professions of disbelief will not stop it. We are in the middle of an unprecedented environmental crisis. And that has serious implications for human rights.

The COP25 Climate Change Conference in Madrid, which looks at how to make the Paris Agreement work in practice, is starting today and will continue for the next 2 weeks. Just last Thursday, the EU Parliament approved a resolution declaring a climate and environmental emergency in Europe and globally. It is clear the new Commission will have a strong green agenda. Following the approval of the new Commission by the European Parliament last Wednesday, President Von der Leyen said: “This is an existential issue for Europe – and for the world. How can it not be existential when 85% of people in extreme poverty live in the 20 countries most vulnerable to climate change? How can it not be existential when we see Venice under water, Portugal’s forests on fire or Lithuania’s harvests cut by half because of droughts? This has happened before but never with the same frequency or intensity.”

Every State has a clear human rights obligation to ensure a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.   Why? Because a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is critical for highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, to an adequate standard of living, to adequate food, to safe drinking water and sanitation, to housing, to participation in cultural life and to development. In turn, the exercise of human rights, including freedom of expression and association, the rights to education, access to information, participation and effective remedies, is vital to the protection of the environment.

Former UN Special Rapporteur John Knox put it simply, saying “States should ensure a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment in order to respect, protect and fulfil human rights. And States should respect, protect and fulfil human rights in order to ensure a safe, clean and healthy environment”.

Human rights and the environment are woven together – environmental harm interferes with the enjoyment of human rights and the exercise of human rights helps to protect the environment and to promote sustainable development. The achievement of most, if not all of the Sustainable Development Goals are connected to the right to a safe, clean and healthy environment.

Most people in this room will be familiar with the rights based approach of the Aarhus Convention – the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters. Last year we were pleased to see the signature of the Escazú Agreement Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean. That agreement includes specific recognition and pledges of protection of environmental human rights defenders.

These Agreements are not just about the environment. They go to the heart of the relationship between people and governments. They deal with accountability, transparency and meaningful participation in decision making. Such Agreements are critical to ensuring the rights of everyone which addressing climate change, biodiversity loss, environmental pollution and poverty eradication. It is essential that in addressing or mitigating the adverse impact of climate change or in developing environmental policy, that States should not undermine human rights.

The issues before this 21st Forum go to the heart of the interdependence of human rights and the environment – advocacy, justice and a safe and enabling environment for those who defend the right of everyone to a safe, clean and healthy environment.


The EU Firmly believes that free, prior and informed consent must be secured in relation to all actions in the context of land or environmental issues which affect the rights of local communities, in particular indigenous peoples. That is why the EU fully supported the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as well as the Outcome of the 2014 World Conference on Indigenous Peoples.

We fully support enhancing the capacity of indigenous peoples to control their own social, economic and cultural development, while enhancing territorial rights as well as capabilities for sustainable management of resources.

Advocacy for environmental and human rights protection will never work on isolation. That is why the EU takes a rights based approach to the environment. We see an example of this in the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade Voluntary Partnership Agreements which address land and resource rights at national level. These agreements aim at ensuring that only legally harvested timber is licensed and imported into the EU from timber producing countries.

For example, the EU Voluntary Partnership Agreement with Honduras promotes the participation of and consultations with indigenous and Afro-Honduran peoples at both local and national level. In the Republic of Congo, indigenous peoples’ rights legislation was approved as a result of the EU Voluntary Partnership Agreement and the Agreement with Liberia helps the government and civil society to strengthen community rights to forests and implement land rights.

In my work as EU Special Envoy for the Peace Process in Colombia, I have seen first-hand the impact of the interdependence of human rights and the environment. Thanks to EU’s support in Colombia, 280,000 hectares were awarded through collective titling, benefiting some 8,000 indigenous and Afro-Colombian families living in the neighbourhood of protected areas or national parks. Land and resource control have been a root cause of the conflict in Colombia and it is important to address these issues in a meaningful and inclusive way to ensure the country consolidates the gains of the peace agreement.


The EU is committed to addressing abuses of human rights by companies and corporate entities, enforcing the State duty to protect such rights, and ensuring access to remedy to citizens whose rights have been abused.

We strongly support the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The Guiding Principles are the first global standard for preventing and addressing the risk of adverse impacts on human rights linked to business activity, and they continue to provide the internationally-accepted framework for enhancing standards and practices with regard to business and human rights.

Since I began my work as EU Special Representative for Human Rights, I have seen the need for deepening engagement and discussion with many sectors important for human rights, including the business community. If we are to ensure the freedom to live in dignity for every individual, we must devise effective solutions to inequality, corruption and accountability.

We need business actors along with governments to step up, embrace their responsibilities and participate.

An enabling environment

Many of you have become human rights defenders by taking a stand against injustice, discrimination, impunity or corruption. Many of you here today could not be joined by your colleagues or friends because they have lost their freedom or even their lives through the work they were doing to protect the environment.

The European Union will always be with you. Human rights defenders addressing environmental issues are suffering unprecedented attacks. According to Front Line Defenders, 77% of defenders killed in 2018 were defending land, environmental or indigenous peoples’ rights, often in the context of extractive industries and state-sponsored mega-projects.

Empowerment and protection of human rights defenders is part of ensuring a fair environmental future. The EU uses all the tools at its disposals to ensure the protection of human rights defenders, including specific protection measures and mechanisms. It is a central priority of our Action Plan on Human Rights and will continue to be a central priority in the next Action Plan from 2020 to 2024.

Support to human rights defenders in situations where they are most at risk is the first objective of the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights for the period 2014 to 2020. A global call for proposals under that instrument with a total value of €5 million, focusing on land rights and the environment was launched in September 2017.

No country is perfect; we all have our challenges, but it is not hopeless. I believe in the power of contagion, that inspiration and hope can spread from progress and good practice. That is why good human rights stories are so important.

We can all learn from one another, encourage one another and provide ideas and hope to others. This is why the my predecessor started the Good Human Rights Story Initiative and I am continuing this important work to build stronger political will and more practical action on progress to promote and protect human rights. With strong focus, even small actions can make a big difference.

No World Power, no regional organisation, no individual country does more to promote and protect human rights than does the EU and its member States collectively.

But we need to more; we must try to do it even better; and we should do it together. I would love to say that your work one day will be done, but the reality is that human rights defenders will always be needed because human rights are a process, a continual living action. We must concentrate together on being more effective, drawing on all resources and our collective resolve.

Where there is a human rights issue and the EU should do something, we will try to do something. And we count on your help and support to ensure whatever we do is effective and makes a difference.

You will be joined later today by the new High Representative, Josep Borrell in his first public speaking engagement as High Representative. This is a mark of the importance of these discussions and the importance of human rights in everything the EU does.

There is an Australian Aboriginal proverb which says: “We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love…..and then we return home”. Without human rights we cannot reach the full potential of humanity. Again, I am delighted to have the opportunity to welcome you here today, I thank you all for your work, your commitment and your time and I wish you well your discussions over the next two days.