Costa Rica must defend its citizens and protected lands, says U.N. expert

The Costa Rican government must protect those who work to defend the environment, said a United Nations human rights expert on Thursday afternoon. 

U.N. independent expert on human rights and the environment John Knox presented his initial findings on the state of Costa Rica’s environmental human rights at a press conference, where he lauded the country for its strong history of environmental protection but urged it to aggressively address growing threats against civil society groups who work to protect the environment.

“It’s not the task of social organizations, civil society or citizens to put their own lives at risk to protect the environment. These are police functions that have to be adequately carried out by the government,” Knox said.

“It’s one thing to protect turtle eggs from tourists, it’s another to protect them from poachers” or drug traffickers, the U.N. human rights expert added.  

The expert’s comments, which wove in and out around the case of the slaying of Jairo Mora, came just one day after the Judicial Investigative Police arrested eight suspects for the 26-year-old environmentalist’s killing two months ago.

Knox declined to comment on specific cases but acknowledged that Mora came up frequently in his conversations with academics, civil society groups, government agencies and the U.N.’s local office.

“Criminal threats to that process strike at the heart of one of Costa Rica’s traditional strengths,” Knox said, referring to civil-society participation in environmental protection.

The lawyer celebrated the proposed commission currently in the Legislative Assembly on past and current crimes against human rights defenders working to protect the environment. 

Crimes against environmentalists are often “treated as a series of isolated incidents, so that each incident is treated as perhaps a threat because they were at the wrong place at the wrong time, or perhaps that they just wanted to steal a cellphone,” Knox observed. “But from the environmentalists’ perspective, they see it as part of a broader pattern that includes threats to a wide range of people working to protect the environment.”

The lawyer also urged the legislature to quickly overhaul the country’s aging water law, including a provision to establish water as a human right, based in part on the previous recommendations from a U.N. rapporteur on water who visited Costa Rica in March 2009. 

Knox, however, remained bully on Costa Rica’s ability to address these challenges.

“Costa has a history of not waiting until problems become particularly bad in the environment before trying to do something about them,” he said.

Knox also lauded Costa Rica’s sustainable tourism certification and the country’s long history of civil society involvement in environmental lobbying and protection. He also acknowledged the country’s pioneering decision to grant its citizens the constitutional right to a healthy environment.

“Costa Rica is considered to be a leader in human rights, but like all leaders there is the challenge to be better than you have before,” the lawyer concluded.

The U.N. expert plans to release a formal report on his findings to the public and the Human Rights Commission sometime in early 2014.

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