Seminar on Human Rights and the Environment – Environmental Defenders on the Frontline

A young girl and a boy watching down the valley on a cliff. Dark clouds above them. In the background hills and a bright sky.

Photo: Timo Kuronen/Siemenpuu.

Welcome to the international seminar organised by KIOS and the Siemenpuu Foundation on Tuesday 31.5.2022 in Helsinki and online.

When: Tuesday 31.5.2022, 9-13:00 (programme 9:30-12:30)

Venue: SOSTE, Jungman-sali, Yliopistonkatu 5 (6th floor, “Heimolan talo”), Helsinki. The seminar will be streamed and recorded. 

Aim of the seminar: To raise awareness of the link between human rights and the environment and of importance of land rights to the realisation of numerous human rights. To raise awareness of the important work of environmental defenders, the victories and the challenges. To encourage further discussion among Finnish foreign and development policymakers about the possibility to exercise the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment and about removing obstacles to the fulfillment of human rights.

Target group: Practitioners and stakeholders in the Finnish foreign and development policy. Human rights,  environmental and indigenous movements.


There is an inseparable link between human rights and the environment.

States should ensure a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment in order to respect, protect and fulfill human rights. States should similarly respect, protect and fulfill human rights in order to ensure a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

In recent years, the recognition of the links between human rights and the environment has been made clearer by the United Nations (UN) human rights bodies and regional human rights treaty bodies and other institutions. The number and scope of international and domestic laws, judicial decisions, and academic studies of the relationship between human rights and the environment are growing rapidly. This includes the recognition of the need for resolute protection of indigenous peoples and environmental human rights defenders. 

In October 2021, the UN Human Rights Council recognised for the first time the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right and that the environment is important for the enjoyment of other human rights (resolution 48/13). The Council called the UN General Assembly to adopt the resolution. Civil society movements have welcomed this recognition

What does this landmark decision mean? How can and does the human rights movement use the recognition of the right to a healthy environment as a tool to protect human rights? And what does this right and the mechanisms of the human rights system mean for the work of environmental and indigenous human rights defenders, who are often persecuted for their activism?

How can we make sure that we respect the human rights of all, especially the people in the most vulnerable situations, while we strive for environmental well-being? How can we avoid the pitfalls of “green colonialism” and ensure the respect for the rights of indigenous peoples and marginalised communities?


  • Coffee 9:00-9:30
  • Introduction: Hanna Matinpuro, Siemenpuu Foundation
  • Opening remarks: Johanna Sumuvuori, State Secretary to the Minister for Foreign Affairs
  • Keynote: Dorothée Cambou, University of Helsinki
  • Discussion 1: Right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment
    Phyllis Omido, Center for Justice Governance and Environmental Action (CJGEA), Kenya
    Matti Kattainen, Finnish Association for Nature Conservation (FANC)
    Moderator: Heta-Elena Heiskanen, Ministry of the Environment
  • Discussion 2: Indigenous peoples and land rights: Challenges and opportunities
    Shankar Limbu, Lawyers’ Association for Human Rights of Nepalese Indigenous Peoples (LAHURNIP), Nepal
    Oula-Antti Labba, Saami Council
    Päivi Michael, Finnfund
    Moderator: Dorothée Cambou
  • Discussion 3: Protection and support for environmental defenders: security issues , challenges and opportunities
    Tom Bicko Ooko, Center for Justice Governance and Environmental Action (CJGEA), Kenya
    Shankar Limbu, LAHURNIP, Nepal
    Matti Kattainen, FANC
    Iiris Laisi, Extiction Rebellion Finland
    Moderator: Anu Tuukkanen, Amnesty Finland
  • Comment: Rauno Merisaari, Ambassador for Human Rights and Democracy, Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland
  • Closing remarks: Kim Remitz, KIOS Foundation

Speakers and panelists

Dr Dorothee Cambou is Assistant Professor of Sustainability Science at the Faculty of Law at the University of Helsinki. Her research focus lies in international law and human rights.  Her expertise is in the field of indigenous peoples’ rights, land and resource governance, self-determination, environmental and social justice as well as Arctic studies. At the moment, she also leads a network project about “the implementation of the rights of the Indigenous Sámi people as a means to achieve inclusive and sustainable development in the Nordic countries”, financed by the Nordic Research Council. She is the current chair of the Nordic Network for Sámi and Indigenous Peoples Law (NORSIL) and a steering member of the Thematic Network on Arctic Sustainable Resources and Social Responsibility. She is an expert member of a research project on the Status of human rights performance of Finnish companies (SIHTI project) commissioned by the Finnish Prime Ministry’ s Office. She is also a member in Siemenpuu Foundation’s voluntary working group on biocultural rights.

Phyllis Omido is a Kenyan environmental and human rights activist who forced the closure of a lead smelting plant that was poisoning the inhabitants of a nearby community and won a landmark EUR 10.2 million settlement to the victims. During her career as an activist, Omido has experienced harassment and intimidation and even faced death threats. Featured on the 100 Most Influential People of 2021 list of the Time magazine, Phyllis Omido is the founder and Executive Director of the Kenyan Center for Justice Governance and Environmental Action (CJGEA).

Matti Kattainen is an environmental lawyer at the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation (FANC), which is Finland’s largest nationwide nature conservation organization with more than 150 member associations and more than 30,000 members.

Shankar Limbu is a human rights lawyer and serves as Secretary of the Lawyers’ Association for Human Rights of Nepalese Indigenous Peoples (LAHURNIP). He has worked to protect, promote and defend the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities in Nepal since 2000. As a lawyer he has been involved in several court cases concerning direct and meaningful representation, protection against evictions, protection of property rights, right to housing, cultural autonomy etc. and has contributed to establishing court precedents to secure the rights of indigenous peoples through Public Interest Litigations. He has also engaged with independent accountability mechanisms on behalf of communities affected by aggressive development projects funded by international financial institutions. He has prepared complaints to the UN human rights mechanisms in cases of non-compliance of international human rights. He has also done several studies and legal research on indigenous peoples’ rights and published a number of articles and journals related to the rights of indigenous peoples.

Oula-Antti Labba is a Sámi from Eanodat in the Finnish part of Sápmi (Saamiland). Labba is a lawyer specialised in human rights issues. He currently works as a lawyer in the Human Rights Unit of the Saami Council. He has previously worked at the Saami Parliament in Finland and at Minority Rights Group International in London, UK.

Päivi Michael is an environmental and social adviser at Finnfund, a Finnish Development Finance Institution. She has lived and worked in Africa for 15 years advising governments and the private sector in environmental and social matters.

Tom Bicko Ooko is a Kenyan environmental and human rights activist, who started understanding the impacts of climate change in his hometown when the weather patterns started becoming inconsistent. This brought challenges to local crops that used to grow well. Bicko has a BSc. degree in Environmental Planning and Management from Pwani University. He has worked with the Center for Justice Governance and Environmental Action (CJGEA) for the past years. Together they support and empower Kenyan communities to address their environmental and human rights issues.

Iiris Laisi is an activist, writer and performing artist rebelling against power structures. She is involved in Extinction Rebellion and Helsinki Student Theatre and studies dance at Uniarts Helsinki’s Theatre Academy.

Rauno Merisaari is an Ambassador for Human Rights and Democracy at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland.

Heta-Elena Heiskanen is a Senior Specialist in the Ministry of the Environment. Her work is connected with the Finnish Climate Change Panel and climate policy. As a researcher she has specialized in international human rights law and environmental matters such as climate change. In her freetime Heiskanen is an Editor in Chief for Oikeus, a scientific legal journal.

Anu Tuukkanen works at Amnesty International Finnish section in the advocacy team as an expert on human rights defenders and civic space.


Please register to the seminar by 29 May 2022.

The seminar will be streamed and recorded. You can follow the seminar online below. Questions can be presented to the Facebook-event: https://www.facebook.com/events/386268476577322/?active_tab=discussion

The venue is accessible by wheelchair and there is an induction loop in the seminar room.

Please use the hashtag #RightToAHealthyEnvironment when posting about the seminar on social media.