How do we treat the environment as a human right?

KIOS and Siemenpuu’s seminar Human Rights and the Environment – Environmental Defenders on the Frontline was held on Tuesday, May 31st. In Helsinki and online. You will find the video list of the discussion at the end of this text.

First of all, Hanna Matinpuro, the Executive Director of the Siemenpuu Foundation, welcomed everyone and emphasized that a clean and healthy environment belongs to everyone and should be considered as part of human rights.

The Secretary of State highlighted those in a vulnerable position

The actual opening speech was given by thw Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Johanna Sumuvuori, who emphasized that Finland’s foreign policy is based on human rights and that the environment must be understood as part of human rights. In her speech, Sumuvuori also highlighted that those who are most vulnerable are usually the ones most affected by climate change.

The historic UN Human Rights Council resolution recognizes the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right and recognizes that environmental degradation, climate change and unsustainable development are among the greatest and most serious threats to the realization of human rights for present and future generations.

“While the statement does not bind countries to anything, it nonetheless guides legislative work, for example,” the secretary of state emphasized.

Finland is currently reforming its climate law and aims to be carbon neutral by 2035.

While environmentalists are at the forefront of defending the right to a clean environment, they are being persecuted around the world.

“More than 200 environmentalists were killed in 2020 alone,” Sumuvuori said.

The most powerful states do not recognize the right to a clean environment

Dorothée Cambou, Assistant Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Helsinki, paid attention to the need for international mechanisms to safeguard the right to a clean environment as a human right.

More than a hundred countries already recognize the right to a clean environment as part of their human rights in their constitutions. On the other hand, some of the world’s most populous and powerful countries, such as China or the US, do not yet recognize this right.

“However, this right is not a panacea for conserving biodiversity or halting climate change,” Cambou said.

She stressed that as conservationists are increasingly seen as human rights defenders, the right to a clean environment is one of the mechanisms by which conservationists can be protected.

“This allows them, for example, to challenge states on environmental law issues without endangering their lives.”

Cambou cited Indigenous strikes in Argentina, who appealed to the Inter-American Court on the grounds that the state had failed to protect their right to a clean environment.

“Because it is difficult to get companies to take the necessary action to defend the environment, the right to a clean environment and its neglect can be used as a mechanism to hold states and companies accountable,” Cambou said.

However, Cambou emphasized the importance of the right to a clean environment also benefiting those who are the most vulnerable in society. In many cases, the so-called green transition can lead to green colonialism, where the disadvantages of the transition accumulate for certain groups of people. It is therefore important that the rights of indigenous peoples, for example, are also identified.

“In Norway, for example, it was decided that the wind mills built in the Sámi areas had to be dismantled, as they were detrimental to reindeer husbandry.”

The first panel discussion focused on changes to the law

In the first section of the panel, entitled Right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, Kenyan environmentalist Phyllis Omido from CJGEA (Center for Justice Governance and Environmental Action) and lawyer Matti Kattainen from the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation discussed the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. The discussion was moderated by Heta-Elena Heiskanen from the Ministry of the Environment.

The panel discussion highlighted that half of the world’s population lives in areas that are particularly vulnerable to environmental change. Climate change is not just a climate problem, it is strongly linked to human rights, because it affects especially those who are already vulnerable in societies, such as indigenous people.

In her speech, Phyllis Omido said that in Kenya, the 2010 revised constitution recognizes environmental rights. Yet the state and businesses have been slow to respond in accordance with the law. In Kenya, environmentalists have been and continue to be persecuted for their work and therefore need protection.

Matti Kattainen, for his part, said that since 1995, the Finnish Nature Conservation Act has also been based on, among other things, the directives of the Council of the European Union.

There is also a certain amount of suspicion in Finland, for example, between civil society and business, for example the mining industry. Discussors were of the opinion that changes to the law are needed to build trust. In Finland, the state also has the opportunity to influence companies, as it owns at least some of the large companies in the metal industry, for example.

The panel also noted that the European Commission’s proposal for a new corporate responsibility directive is not complete, but it is a good start for more sustainable and human rights-based business.

The second panel discussed the rights of the indigenous people

The second part of the panel discussion discussed the title Indigenous peoples and land rights: Challenges and opportunities. Shankar Limbu from the LAHURNIP organisation, which promotes the rights of indigenous peoples in Nepal, Oula-Antti Labba from the Sámi Council and Päivi Michael from Finnfund took part in the discussion. The discussion was moderated by Dorothée Cambou.

The panel discussed the rights of indigenous peoples’ to the land and how indigenous people can contribute to environmental protection. Shankar Limbu stressed that land rights are at the heart of indigenous peoples’rights. The identity of many indigenous peoples is that they have a strong connection to nature and the land they inhabit. There are as many as 59 officially recognized indigenous peoples in Nepal. Limbu also referred to ILO Convention 169, which guarantees equal treatment for indigenous peoples. According to Limbu, the agreement is one of the best ways to promote the rights of indigenous peoples.

Oula-Antti Labba, for his part, said that since 1956, the Sámi Council has advocated for Sámi rights both internationally and nationally. The Council participates in various processes at the UN and at the national level, it helps Sámi right-holders and seeks to influence legislation on Sámi matters, such as the Mining Act. Oula-Antti Labba emphasized that Finland and Sweden have not ratified ILO 169, although in April 2021 the UN Human Rights Committee recommended that Finland consider implementing ILO 169. Norway has ratified the agreement, but its implementation is still pending in Norway.

As a curiosity, Labba also pointed out that the sparsely populated areas in Finland are called wilderness, ie land that is uninhabited and does not belong to anyone, even though the land is an important part of Sámi culture.

Päivi Michael from Finnfund, a Finnish development financier, comments that Finnfund aims to conduct environmental and social rights impact assessments. Finnfund offers long-term investment loans and venture capital for private company projects in developing countries. According to Michael, Finnfund has standards, one of which concerns the rights of indigenous peoples in particular. Finnfund also conducts an additional human rights risk assessment before making an investment decision. According to Michael, much of this work is aimed at prevention, but follow-up is also done afterwards.

The third discussion focused on the safety of activists

The third panel discussed the role of environmental defenders under the title Protection and support for environmental defenders: security issues, challenges and opportunities. Kenyan environmentalist Tom Bicko Ooko from the CJGEA, Shankar Limbu from LAHURNIP, Matti Kattainen from the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation and activist Iiris Laisi from Elokapina (Extinction Rebellion Finland) took part in the discussion. The discussion was moderated by Anu Tuukkanen from the human rights organisation Amnesty.

For example, environmentalists as well as indigenous rights defenders face retaliation as they fight big business. The world has also been marked by the shrinking state of civil society. Because there were many environmentalists on the panel, they discussed their own experiences of limiting the space for activists and good practices to safeguard activism and activists.

In Nepal, for example, activists can be imprisoned on the pretext that they are a threat to peace and security. Environmentalists have also been beaten in extreme cases in Nepal. Shankar Limbu mentioned that international cooperation as well as international organizations are the best security for environmental and human rights defenders.

Kenya, for example, is one of the most dangerous for land and environmental rights defenders. Fraudulent charges may be brought against environmentalists and it will be difficult to defend oneself against the charges.

Iiris Laisi from Elokapina reflected on the fact that environmentalists in Finland have a privileged position compared to several of their foreign colleagues. The big problem in Finland is cyberbullying and silencing people there. According to Lais, one of the great threats in Finland is the rise of the far right and the fact that the police also listen with the ears of the far right. Both Matti Kattainen and Iiris Laisi were of the opinion that a lot is happening beneath the surface in Finland.

The Frontline Defenders organisation was mentioned as a good tool for safeguarding human rights and environmentalists, for example, being able to place human rights defenders elsewhere than at home on a fast schedule and thus ensure their safety. Another way mentioned was to strengthen rights and ensure that everyone gets justice, even in Finland.

After the panels, we moved on to the comments section and the closing remarks, of which Rauno Merisaari, Ambassador for Human Rights from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, gave the comments section. Merisaari emphasized the importance of the participation and involvement of local people and communities in various projects as well as at the level of legislation.

“Only in cooperation with indigenous communities will sustainable solutions be achieved, for example in terms of biodiversity,” Merisaari said.

In his closing remarks, Kim Remitz, Executive Director of KIOS, emphasized that the challenges are international and that Finland must also prepare for the shrinking state of civil society. Remitz also called for closer cooperation between environmentalists and human rights defenders.

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