Three reasons why rights and climate activists should fight populists together

The road to sustainability is paved with human rights.

Israel Butler Eefje deKroon
7 January 2020, 8.21pm
Environmental and human rights activists protest PepsiCo on Conflict Palm Oil, New York, April 9 2018.
. Flickr/Rainforest Action Network. CC BY-NC 2.0.

Without a habitable planet there are no humans and, consequently, no human rights. And to make the planet habitable, we need the tools human rights offer us. Those promoting human rights and environmental protection face a shared problem: the destruction of our home, with all its accompanying injustices.

Those who have contributed the least to the climate crisis are the ones that will be hit hardest and hit first by the detrimental impacts of climate change. These are disproportionately groups and communities that have been historically marginalised, vulnerable and exploited. And they have the fewest resources at their disposal to protect themselves.

So we need a shared solution: creating a fair and sustainable future. But to date, environmental and human rights organisations in Europe and those who fund them tend to work in silos. The fight ahead is too big and important to lose, so if we are to create a free and fair society in which all can live sustainably on a healthy planet, then the two sectors need to work together much more closely. Here are three reasons why.

We are fighting a common enemy.

A couple of years ago, Poland’s former foreign Minister in the Law and Justice Party’s government said his country needed to deal with an ‘illness’ characterised by those promoting a ‘new mixture of cultures and races, a world made up of cyclists and vegetarians, who only use renewable energy and who battle all signs of religion’. This typifies how populist authoritarian political movements and their allies in the media attack both human rights and environmental protection as goals, as well as the organisations that promote them.

It is no coincidence that populist authoritarians line up on both issues. Research from the field of social psychology shows that voters who are drawn to populist authoritarian parties are likely to share a coherent matrix of political attitudes. These attitudes include opposition to human rights and environmental protection, and to activism in support of these causes. The same research shows that populist authoritarian politicians across different countries also use the same carefully crafted fear-based narratives to mobilise their base.

Populist authoritarian movements in different countries are also using the same tactics to silence those organisations - namely smear campaigns, restrictions on their access to funding, limits on the right to peaceful assembly, harassment through bogus lawsuits and sham investigations, and burying them in bureaucratic procedures.

It’s a no brainer that we should work together to face the same enemy using the same weapons against us. We need to coordinate on the narratives we develop and use. And we need to work together to fight the common restrictions and smear campaigns we’re facing.

We complement each other.

Many environmental groups are experienced campaigners. Their staff is trained in campaign planning and implementation methodologies and they’re experienced in organising public protests; they know how to mobilise and direct public pressure to get things done. Because of this, environmental organisations have managed to get their issues into everyday public debate in the media and on TV and radio, and they have moved public opinion. Thirty years ago you’d get branded a hippy for recycling. Now Starbucks gives you a discount for bringing your own reusable cup.

This experience and skill set is a lot less common among human rights organisations - at least, among organisations working on human rights inside Europe. Human rights groups have difficulty even explaining their issues to the general public. This is not because a concept like the rule of law or a phenomenon like institutional racism is more complicated than explaining how extreme weather works. It’s because rights groups have never developed the language to talk to the public and explain how rights are tools for making a fairer society or explaining what people and interests lie behind social injustices.

The focus of rights groups has traditionally been on making legal arguments in the court-room and advocating towards politicians. Most human rights groups tend not to have big public followings. Sure, there’s Amnesty International, but most of their European work is directed at human rights in other countries, not at home. And this is a problem when your own house is on fire. So environmental organisations can teach their human rights cousins how to get their message out and mobilise people.

Human rights groups also have much to offer environmental organisations. Many human rights organisations are mostly staffed by lawyers who use litigation as a tool to work for a fairer society. There are examples of human rights law being used in the court-room to protect the environment. But this practice is not common because the instinct in an environmental organisation is to turn to environmental law to protect the environment - so human rights organisations can lend their expertise to their environmental cousins to help them sue companies and governments for environmental damage that harms public health, damages property, and degrades our habitat.

We can’t save our habitat without a new social contract.

We know that we need fewer cars and planes; more trains, trams and busses; lower industrial energy consumption; less drilling and mining; a shift to renewable energy, and an end to fossil fuel use. But these things require systematically changing the way our societies work, including the redistribution of wealth and power between rich and poor, an end to consumerism, an end to capitalism, and genuine democratic participation with politicians beholden to voters rather than corporate interests.

The rules and guidelines that would get us there have already been written into human rights laws and guidelines - they’re just very poorly implemented. Environmental and human rights activists need to sit down and work out how to use their governments’ existing commitments to promote fair trade and technology transfers, invest in the well-being of their populations and create more equitable societies.

The road to sustainability is paved with human rights. But it’s not just up to environmental and human rights groups to join forces. Funders working on these issues also need to start making resources available for them to work together. United we can create fair, free and sustainable societies.


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