Incidents of harassment, surveillance, threats and intimidation create a climate of fear at UN events, including the recent Cop28 climate conference in Dubaiexperts said.
Indigenous campaigners, human rights defenders and environmental activists say they are increasingly afraid to speak out on pressing issues because of concerns about retaliation from governments or fossil fuel industries.
“In the last few years, we have seen indigenous representatives being filmed by people connected to government institutions while giving statements on human rights at UN events, or being photographed just for being present at a UN event,” says Lola García-Alix, the global management senior advisor for the International Working Group on Indigenous Affairs.
“We have seen people working closely with governments physically surrounding and surrounding indigenous representatives in UN meetings. Such acts of intimidation have drastic consequences at home, where indigenous people sometimes face reprisals, including being questioned, harassed or detained.
“While many of these incidents have occurred during UN human rights events, such as the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Affairs, this alarming trend is expanding,” said García-Alix. “We recently saw intimidation tactics at Cop in Dubai, where several indigenous people from one country were intimidated by people working closely with that country’s government.
“The brutality of governments spreads to international spaces to suppress any voice that contradicts their narratives. Over the past decade, there has been increasing concern about the severity and frequency of such acts. Governments now feel that they can act without suffering consequences.”
Other indigenous activists have also reported an atmosphere of intimidation in Dubai. “There was a heavy presence of surveillance and harassment at Cop28,” said Mesiah Burciaga-Hameed, an Afro-indigenous activist with Native Land Digital. “On numerous occasions we have been prevented from participating in gatherings, without any explanation. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) prides itself on being a peaceful space for self-expression when in reality it silences many people.”
Activists, indigenous and otherwise, have reported being filmed and photographed by people connected to governments or fossil fuel industries as an intimidation tactic.
“Many individuals who made speeches during actions for Palestine or West Papua had representatives from Israel and Indonesia take close-up photos of them,” said Neeka Jun of the Climate Alliance for Palestine. “This intimidation causes extreme fear. There are many people who simply will not speak their truth in public for fear of being targeted later.”
Marta Schaaf, amnesty international‘s program director of climate, economic and social justice and corporate accountability, was at Cop28. Her delegation’s plans to highlight the link between human rights and climate action in Cop host countries, including the UAE and Egypt, have led to demands for changes from the UNFCCC and UN security, including for text and photos to be removed.
“We were told that our safety cannot be guaranteed if we do not comply with the requests,” Schaaf said. “We are concerned about freedom of expression and the right to protest against Cop, including the UNFCCC’s commitment to ensure safeguards are in place to protect participants.”
Other attendees were afraid to use SIM cards or WhatsApp Police 28in case phones or messages are monitored, or to speak openly in public areas because of the thousands of cameras installed, or to openly discuss or protest about wider issues, such as Russia and Ukraine or Israel and Gaza.
“I was stopped by a security guard for a watermelon pin [a sign of solidarity with Palestine] I carried,” said Krishna, a climate campaigner from the Philippines. “He said I could be denied.”
Official processes are in place for people to report incidents of harassment or intimidation to the UN, but these are seen by many as toothless.
Activists fear a similarly oppressive atmosphere at next year’s Cop29 in Azerbaijan, a petrostate with strong ties to Russia and where “violations of international humanitarian law” has been reported.
“The last two police officers and the next police officer on climate are in countries where freedom of speech and the right to protest is not maintained, so the UN has targeted more and more activists,” says Big Wind Carpenter of the Northern Arapaho- tribe, part of the Wisdom Keepers delegation at Cop28. “This is a growing problem. Many indigenous activists are threatened and punished by their own governments and cannot speak out against them or corporations. Instead, the UN would rather punish us for telling the truth.
“But in the hottest year in human history, where we watch fossil fuel corporations lead backdoor deals at the UN climate conference, where leaders can refute climate science as ‘false’ or ‘side benefits’, you have to ask why is this happening? repression with the industry responsible for climate change?”
Campaigners are calling for change. “The agreement between the UNFCCC and each Cop host country’s government must be made public,” Schaaf said. “There is a lack of transparency. There must be stronger conflict of interest rules to minimize the influence of the fossil fuel industry, and stronger safeguards for all civil society participants. Activists, researchers and journalists need their rights to free expression to be respected.”
Activists also hope the UN will commit to protecting Indigenous peoples and other activists at events and afterwards, including taking action against states or organizations that intimidate campaigners.
“The reprisals facing indigenous leaders and defenders of human rights in United Nations mechanisms is alarming – it is at pandemic levels,” said Anexa Alfred Cunningham, a native Miskitu lawyer from Nicaraguawho was blocked from returning home after participating in an Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP) event in Switzerland in 2022. She now lives in Geneva, separated from family, friends and colleagues.
“The UN must take effective measures to ensure that no one is subject to retaliation for their participation. The UN should operate free spaces where you can express yourself without fear.”
Activists say the crackdown on free speech at Cops and other UN events is hindering progress on climate action and human rights. “If people, indigenous or otherwise, know that they will be intimidated, threatened, harassed or worse because they bring their situation to the attention of the UN and the international community, we all face a serious problem,” García said. -Alix said.
“If this continues to be allowed, it will delegitimize the entire UN system, important voices will be lost, and environmental degradation and gross human rights violations will continue.”