During the Cop28 event, environmental activists were recorded, intimidated, and bothered.
Experts have stated that there is a growing sense of fear at UN gatherings, such as the recent Cop28 climate conference in Dubai, due to occurrences of harassment, surveillance, threats, and intimidation.
Indigenous advocates, defenders of human rights, and activists for the environment state that they are becoming more fearful of voicing their concerns on pressing matters due to potential retaliation from governments or companies involved in the fossil fuel industry.
Lola García-Alix, the senior adviser for global governance at the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, has observed a trend in recent years of Indigenous representatives being recorded or photographed at UN events by individuals connected to government institutions. This often occurs while they are making statements about human rights.
“We have observed individuals collaborating with governments to physically trap and surround Indigenous delegates during UN meetings. These intimidating actions have serious consequences in their home countries, where Indigenous individuals may be subject to retaliation such as questioning, harassment, or imprisonment.”
García-Alix expressed concern about the increasing occurrence of these incidents at UN human rights events, specifically referencing a recent case at Cop in Dubai where members of one Indigenous group were intimidated by individuals associated with their own government.
Governments are becoming more bold in their attempts to silence any dissenting voices in the international arena. This trend has caused concern over the past ten years, as the severity and frequency of these actions have risen. Governments now seem to believe they can act with impunity.
Indigenous activists in Dubai shared concerns about feeling intimidated during the Cop28 event. According to Mesiah Burciaga-Hameed, an afro-Indigenous activist with Native Land Digital, there was a significant amount of surveillance and harassment present. She also mentioned being denied entry to certain events without any explanation. Despite the United Nations framework convention on climate change (UNFCCC) claiming to be a peaceful platform for self-expression, it appears that it has silenced many individuals.
Individuals advocating for various causes, including Indigenous groups, have disclosed instances of being recorded and pictured by individuals affiliated with governmental bodies or the fossil fuel sector, in an attempt to intimidate them.
“According to Neeka Jun of the Climate Alliance for Palestine, numerous individuals giving speeches in support of Palestine or West Papua have had representatives from Israel and Indonesia take close-up photographs of them. This type of intimidation instills great fear, leading many people to refrain from speaking their truth publicly out of concern for future repercussions.”
Marta Schaaf, the programme director for climate, economic and social justice and corporate accountability at Amnesty International, attended Cop28. Her team’s goal was to draw attention to the connection between human rights and climate action in the host countries of the Cop, such as the UAE and Egypt. This resulted in requests for alterations from both the UNFCCC and UN security, including the removal of text and images.
Schaaf stated that they were informed their safety could not be ensured unless they followed the requests. They have concerns regarding the right to freedom of speech and the ability to protest at Cop, including the UNFCCC’s promise to implement measures to safeguard participants.
Some attendees at Cop28 were hesitant to use sim cards or WhatsApp due to concerns about surveillance of their phones and messages. They also avoided speaking freely in public spaces due to the extensive camera system in place. Similarly, they were afraid to openly address topics like Russia and Ukraine or Israel and Gaza.
Krishna, a climate activist from the Philippines, shared that they were approached by a security guard who took issue with their watermelon pin, which is a symbol of support for Palestine. The guard reportedly threatened to remove their badge.
The UN has established official procedures for individuals to report cases of harassment or intimidation, but these measures are often deemed ineffective.
Some people who are working towards change are worried that the upcoming Cop29 event in Azerbaijan, a country known for its oil industry and close relationship with Russia, will have a similar oppressive environment. There have been reports of “breaches of international humanitarian law” in this location.
Big Wind Carpenter, a member of the Wisdom Keepers delegation at Cop28 and part of the Northern Arapaho tribe, expressed concern about the lack of freedom of speech and right to protest in the last two and upcoming countries hosting the Cop on climate. This has led to increased targeting of activists by the UN. According to Carpenter, this is a growing issue as many Indigenous activists are facing threats and punishment from their own governments. As a result, they are unable to speak out against these governments or corporations. Instead, the UN chooses to punish them for speaking the truth.
During a year that has been declared the hottest in recorded human history, we are witnessing fossil fuel companies engaging in secretive negotiations at the UN climate conference. Despite overwhelming evidence, some leaders still deny the validity of climate science and dismiss it as a minority viewpoint. This begs the question: why isn’t the industry accountable for causing climate change facing consequences for their actions?
Advocates are demanding a shift. Schaaf urged, “The UNFCCC and Cop host countries’ governments must release the agreement to the public.” He noted a lack of transparency and called for stricter regulations on conflicts of interest to reduce the impact of the fossil fuel industry. Additionally, he stressed the importance of protecting the rights of civil society participants, including activists, researchers, and journalists, to freely express themselves.
Advocates are also seeking for the UN to make a commitment to safeguarding Indigenous communities and other activists during and after events, which may involve holding accountable any states or organizations that attempt to intimidate campaigners.
Anexa Alfred Cunningham, a Miskitu lawyer from Nicaragua, expressed concern over the reprisals experienced by Indigenous leaders and human rights defenders within the United Nations’ systems. She was unable to return home after attending an Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples event in Switzerland in 2022. As a result, she currently resides in Geneva, away from her loved ones and colleagues.
The United Nations should implement effective measures to guarantee that no one faces reprisals for their involvement. The UN ought to establish safe environments where individuals can freely express themselves without fear.
According to activists, the restriction of freedom of expression at events such as Cops and other United Nations gatherings is impeding efforts towards addressing climate change and upholding human rights. García-Alix expressed concern that individuals, particularly Indigenous individuals, may face intimidation, threats, harassment, or even worse consequences if they bring attention to their situations at the UN and among the international community. This poses a significant issue for all of us.
If this trend is permitted to continue, it will undermine the credibility of the entire United Nations system, leading to the silencing of crucial perspectives and perpetuating both environmental harm and severe breaches of human rights.