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September 29, 2023

ABA Human Rights and Rule of Law Summit: Securing Human Dignity through a Lens of Environmental Justice

On September 6, 2023, the American Bar Association (ABA) Center for Global Programs hosted the first-annual Human Rights and Rule of Law Summit: Advocating Human Rights as Law at the New York City Bar. In coordination with the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) opening meetings, the Summit aimed to promote dialogues on multi-sectoral strategies to improve global human rights and rule-of-law advocacy. The American Bar Association’s Rule of Law Initiative’s (ABA ROLI) Regional Supporting Environmental Defenders in Latin America and Enhancing Protection of Environmental Defenders in Africa programs were presented during the final panel of the summit, focusing on the Environment, Social, and Governance (ESG) and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to secure human dignity globally. 

The panel was moderated by Lee DeHihns from the ABA’s Center for Human Rights (CHR), Dignity Rights Initiative, with the participation of keynote speaker Gayle Smith from the ONE Campaign and panel members Erin Daly and James May from the Widener University Delaware School of Law, Barret Holmes Pitner from the Sustainable Culture Lab, as well as two ABA ROLI staff members, Mauricio Diaz and Olivier Ndoole. Based in Colombia, Mr. Diaz is the Program Coordinator for ABA ROLI’s Supporting Environmental Defenders in Latin America program, and Mr. Ndoole, based in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), represented ABA ROLI’s Regional Enhancing Protection of Environmental Defenders in Africa program.

During the opening remarks of the panel, important questions were posed regarding the role of the government, non-governmental organizations, and private citizens towards achieving the SGDs—despite climate, political, and social perils faced worldwide. Specifically, the panel turned to ABA ROLI’s Mr. Ndoole and Mr. Diaz to speak about the effectiveness of ABA ROLI’s Environmental Defenders programs in Africa and Latin America.

Mr. Ndoole noted that access to energy is critically important to human rights and development in rural areas in Africa. Based on his observations, he commented that the African people view the environment as an extension of their way of life, which is why the DRC needs solidarity from other state actors to support the country's fight to preserve their natural environment. Mr. Diaz added that the Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) region is experiencing human-induced environmental hardships due to its abundance in natural resources, including mining projects and the exploitation of oil and gas in various countries bordering the Amazon. These economic and societal pressures significantly affect environmental rights defenders, resulting in threats to their personal integrity and safety. Due to the long history of violence against environmental defenders in the LAC region, Mr. Diaz noted that civil society organizations and government institutions have made strides in prioritizing the personal safety of environmental leaders with heightened security measures, such as armored vehicles and bullet vests. Additionally, there has been a greater focus on the psychological care necessary to counter the effects of these threats against environmental leaders. 

When asked whether UN resolutions make a difference in Latin America, Mr. Diaz responded that the UN’s recognition of a healthy environment as a universal right is a significant step forward in guaranteeing this right across the region. Mr. Diaz notes that these types of resolutions can empower private citizens and communities to defend their environment, motivate judges to take on or move forward with cases related to the environment and environmental leaders, and strengthen strategic litigation efforts in Latin America. Furthermore, this resolution could help bridge legal gaps that exist in countries that have not constitutionalized a healthy environment as a human right, such as Venezuela, Uruguay, Nicaragua, and Panama. Mr. Ndoole added that ABA ROLI’s program links their cases with UN resolutions and other international resolutions the DRC supports to increase the legitimacy of their cases. He commented that UN resolutions support ABA ROLI’s programmatic efforts and help build a bridge between environmental defenders and local and national authorities, which will strengthen strategic litigation efforts and foster the development of legal reforms to certain regulations related to the environment and human rights.

During this panel, it was made clear that LAC and African communities are extremely tied to the environment, and invested in enhancing their clear definition of what a healthy environment means to them and their communities. Communities in Latin America and Africa tend to see the environment as an extension of themselves, which contributes to why environmental leaders in these areas are willing to risk their lives for the protection of their natural environment.

Learn more about the inaugural Human Rights and Rule of Law Summit: Advocating Human Rights as Law, an annual dynamic gathering of government officials and UN, NGO, business, philanthropy, and media representatives addressing human rights and rule of law advocacy from multiple perspectives, with a view to increasing its emphasis among governments at the annual UN General Assembly and beyond.

Watch the 2023 Ceremony for the Eleanor Roosevelt Prize for Global Human Rights Advancement, which took place after the summit.