The geopolitically fragile Middle East and North Africa region is challenged by particularly severe and continuously escalating impacts from climate change. At the same time, eco-activist oppression is on the rise.
Rabat – Some environmental human rights defenders have risked everything to communicate the impact of climate change, and now a UN Special Rapporteur report supports their claim that human rights are threatened by an escalating “climate apartheid.”
In a presentation to the UN Human Rights Council, Philip Alston, the report’s author, explained that climate threats go beyond endangering rights to food, health, and housing; they threaten good governance and fuel xenophobic, nationalist agendas. It is not only an environmental challenge, but also a social, economic, and governance challenge.
Alston’s report emphasized the disproportionate effects climate change will have on the world’s poor, where the “wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger, and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer.”
The climate crisis already infringes on rights, and even the world’s well-off polluters are starting to heed the warning cries. But those fighting the climate apartheid also risk their rights. From Russia to South Africa and Honduras to Vietnam, environmental activists have come under increasing pressure and sometimes violence from strong-arm governments.
The geopolitically fragile Middle East and North Africa region is challenged by particularly severe and continuously escalating impacts from climate change. At the same time, oppression of eco-activists is on the rise.
“I am extremely worried and appalled by the growing number of attacks and murders of environmental defenders, but also by the continuous resistance of States to act in front of egregious human rights violations,” UN special rapporteur Michel Forst said in a 2016 report.
Deaths in Iran
The UN Environment Programme reported that 197 environmental activists were murdered in 2017 alone, already a dramatic increase.
Iran has gained notoriety for cracking down on environmental activists. According to Amnesty International, Iranian authorities arrested at least 63 eco-activists during 2018. The targeted activists were often accused of posing as environmentalists and scientists to gather strategic information. According to the same report, “at least five were charged with ‘corruption on earth’, which carries the death penalty.”
Reports of torture, abuse, and suspicious deaths are rampant from some Iranian prisons and environmental defenders are not exempt.
In January 2018, Iran arrested nine members of the Persian Wildlife Heritage without legitimate charges. Managing Director Dr. Kavous Seyed-Emami reportedly committed suicide in prison in grossly suspicious circumstances. The international rights community pushed for a fair investigation into his death without avail. Family members noticed fellow detainees sported signs of physical abuse during long-delayed visits.
The prosecutor-general found the surviving eight guilty during a March trial, which “contradicts the findings of three major state agencies in Iran, including the country’s highest security body, the Ministry of Intelligence, who have stated that the accused are all innocent of the spying charges filed against them,” according to Iran’s Radio Farda.
The Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF) tracks (or, more accurately, tracked) native flora and fauna and is known for championing the endangered Asiatic cheetah.
Kaveh Madani, a senior fellow at Yale University, explained the eco movement’s threatening face to national governments at a March Atlantic Council conference. He pointed out that the social power and collaborative nature of environmental issues “creates paranoia. [Security services] think that every NGO which is in touch with outsiders has an … agenda.”
Madani formerly served as deputy head of the Islamic republic’s Department of the Environment. The scientist abandoned his government post and fled the country following an arrest last February.
Spying or watching birds?
In the post Arab Spring internet age, governments across MENA are keenly aware of popular dissent’s power. These same countries are facing especially harsh challenges from the climate crisis. Regional instability and the fragilility of its nature are a combination to be reckoned with.
In the short term, it is arguably easier to silence climate activists than to address the climate crisis.
The cross-border nature of this nature-based movement also fuels government paranoia. Climate change does not recognize anthropogenic boundaries, and international data cooperation is an essential activity for climate scientists and activists.
Some MENA states afraid of data sharing have reportedly intimidated researchers giving international conference reports and greatly restricted access to national scientific data for domestic research use.
On top of that, environmentalists and researchers often use surveillance equipment that raises red flags for wary governments. Across a tense border with Iran, Iraqi activists and researchers are keenly aware of this paradox in their work.
“No one believes that these are for bird-watching,” Laith Al-Obdeiei of Nature Iraq, and no newcomer to government harassment, told the Atlantic. He spoke of binoculars, not even approaching classes of typical conservationist tools such as drones. The PWHF arrests regarded camera-trap technology used to track endangered cheetahs.
Water as a political tool
Iraq’s frequent crackdowns on environmental defenders often come over water rights, at Iraq’s environmental threat forefront. “Water is used as a political instrument against Kurds, Syrians and Iraqis by Iran and Turkey,” said Salman Kharillah, also of Nature Iraq. “The water belongs to everyone. It needs to become a tool for sustainable peace rather than political hegemony, which would only cause more war and conflict.”
But there lies a glimmer of hope.
“You can like the government or hate the government. You can be religious or not,” Madani, the now Yale scientist, told the Atlantic. The planet, on the other hand, “unites people. It’s different to other kinds of political activism.”
Just as climate crisis permeates the region, so does the need for coordinated action. The environmental defense movement ignites government paranoia for its cross-border collaborative nature. This culture of collaboration and a movement unified against a non-discriminatory natural threat may prove a source of increased cooperation in a conflict-ridden region.
Urgency moves EcoPeace Middle East to transcend a conflict paradigm and focus on securing water for residents in the Jordan River Basin, to protect human life. Gidon Bromberg, the organization’s Israeli co-founder, spoke on behalf of the Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian cooperative.
“Water scarcity is the most critical environmental issue that our region faces. Managing our shared water resources … presents the opportunity to forge solutions that advance peacemaking in the region. Even in the most intractable of situations and conflicts, when we work together on a common objective that serves mutual interest, we can … build trust and give good reasons for hope for a better future.”