In order to inform about the new protection mechanism for Environmental Defenders, Michel Forst, UN Special Rapporteur for environmental defenders under the Aarhus Convention, visited Cyprus this week and had good meetings with various Ministers, organizations and more and ordinary citizens interested in environmental protection.
Mr. Forst was on the island at the invitation of the Minister of Agriculture, Rural Development and Environment, Maria Panagiotou. "A lot of people in Cyprus don't know the convention, Mr. Forst said, “and they don't know how to approach the mandate, they don't know how to approach the compliance committee, so there's an issue of trust between the Government of Cyprus and me and a goal is to do our best to protect the defenders”, he said in an interview with KYPE.
Mr. Forst spoke about his mission, noting that the Aurus Convention has been adopted by 46 states plus the EU and concerns three pillars. The first is access to information, i.e. the state's obligation to provide information about projects it develops, the second is public participation, which means that when a project concerns the public it should be asked and have the right to say no and the third pillar is access to justice. When the first two pillars are not respected, then citizens should have access to justice and compensation, he said.
Asked what kind of action his office was taking to protect environmental defenders, Mr Forst said it was a new position created in 2021 with appointments in 2022 and the mandate was to “protect environmental defenders”. Because in many countries they are at risk, facing many forms of reprisals from the media, sometimes from the Government, security forces or companies, my role is to take immediate action to protect them where I can,'' he said.
Mr Forst explained that when a complaint is sent in defenders explain "why they feel unsafe and then my team will investigate the complaint and send a letter to the Government asking them to address the situation.
< p data-block-key="a9qs7">He then meets with the Government to discuss the actions that can be taken. "My action is confidential, it is not public, and the victim does not even know that action has been taken. After 60 days, my letter and the response of the states or the company are posted on the Government's website,” he added.
He noted that the complaint "publicizes and raises public awareness, and since the convention is a legally binding instrument, the state is only obligated to implement the recommendations.
When asked if the recommendations were contested, he said no, adding that "actually my role is to work with the Government and find a solution and not just send letters,"but to discuss with the Government or the company and to find a solution".
"If they don't want to comply, then contacts can be made which will be handled by another committee. If states do not comply, then they will face diplomatic sanctions,” he said, adding that it would not be pleasant for a country to appear to others as not meeting the requirements of the convention.
It has already received some complaints from various countries, including EU countries, he said. Mr Forst noted that his order applies where a company is based in one of the countries that are parties to the convention. In that case, environmentalists can ask for protection, he said.
He has also visited many countries and non-EU countries such as Switzerland and Norway . “The idea was to try to explain the mandate, to seek political support, government support,” he said.
Regarding his visit to Cyprus, he said he was officially invited by the Minister of Agriculture, "to discuss with the Government and as many defenders as possible and come back on how best to deal with the situation.
< p data-block-key="b8119">Asked if he considers Cyprus as a country that needs help from his office, Mr. Forst replied: "Of course, Cyprus will need the support and help of the defenders.
The UN rapporteur stated that he met with many organizations in Cyprus as well as with individuals, even families, as he said, they visited him, "explaining to him the situation, what they are doing to protect areas, which sometimes face difficult situations". Public participation, he said, is also an issue in Cyprus, which he needs to discuss with the Government to see what can be done to improve the situation of defenders in Cyprus.
Asked to say what is the message he is getting from Cyprus after his contacts, Mr Forst said he had "very good meetings with various Ministers and they all told me they want to improve their performance".
< p data-block-key="etpc5">A lot of people in Cyprus don't know about the convention, Mr. Forst said, “and they don't know how to approach the mandate, they don't know how to approach the compliance committee, so there's an issue of trust between the Government of Cyprus and me and the goal is to we are doing our best to protect the defenders.
Together with my team, he added, "I will try to see how we can provide a safe and enabling environment for the defenders without facing oppression from anyone”.
He said he was very impressed by “the vibrant civil society in Cyprus. Many young people have decided to fight for the protection of the environment and for the protection of biodiversity as well, and it's very impressive what they are doing,'' he said.
"So my goal is also to listen to their testimonies and respond to any claim or complaint they have”, he pointed out, adding that “if after my visit some of them decide to send me a complaint then I will work with the Government to deal with the status”.