Environmental human rights defenders under pressure in the Albanian Alps

2/7/19 - Sally Hurt, Independent consultant & Zamira Djabarova, American Bar Association's Center for Human Rights

We should pay attention to low level harassment of environmental human rights defenders in the Balkans, as hydro power projects soar in the region, write Sally Hurt and Zamira Djabarova.

The increasing pressure and serious harassment, such as attacks on the rule of law and civic freedoms, that environmental human rights defenders (HRDs) face has been the subject of numerous reports. However, there has been less of a focus on the impacts of prolonged and low-level harassment and pressure on these activists - particularly when such pressure is exerted on close-knit communities. 

In June 2019, the American Bar Association Center for Human Rights’s Justice Defender’s Program  ("the Center") released a report titled 'Communities under Pressure: Findings from Valbona, Albania'. 

It was the outcome of a fact-finding mission into harassment and pressure faced by opponents of a plans for fourteen Hydro Power Projects (HPPs) along the Valbona River, which runs through Valbona Valley National Park in the Albanian Alps. There is a need for further research into and awareness of this type harassment, and its long-term impact on environmental HRDs and communities.

The Center's report provides context for this type of harassment, and its cumulative impact upon individuals and their livelihoods, safety, and security. The findings illustrate disturbing cases of harassment of local community members, as well as threats and pressure exerted upon or aimed at vocal opponents of HPPs.

Activists and community members have sought to defend their land, livelihoods, and the river that the villages in Valbona rely on for farming, livestock, crops and tourism-related income. For this, they report receiving active pressure against them, ranging from threats, disproportionate use of formal processes such as inspections, criminal charges and administrative fines, plus defamation lawsuits filed by the company.

These types of threat are echoed in a 2017 report on water-related conflicts linked to hydropower projects in Albania, published by Albanian NGO Milieu Kontakt. The report said that while “each of these reported incidents of harassment and pressure is serious on its own, cumulatively they represent a society where citizens are under constant pressure for wanting to be informed about their environment, a right guaranteed by the Albanian Constitution”.

The Center also hoped to gain a broader understanding of the degree to which the Albanian government and private companies (in this case Gener 2, Valbona Project Company, Dragobi Energy and Brecani Security) involve local communities in decision-making on proposed HPPs.

Such public participation is a requirement under both Albanian domestic law and international law. Yet the findings show that many community members were not consulted on the plans, and some indicated that they first heard about the HPP construction only after the companies began moving equipment into the area.  

It illustrates the chilling effect that this type of harassment can have on a community and activists. Tactics and threats used to silence or place pressure on community participation is cause for particular concern in the Balkans, given the trend towards ‘hydropowerization of the Balkans’ – where many hydropower projects across Southeast Europe have caused damage to pristine rivers and protected areas

This reality contradicts Albania’s commitments on the protection of human rights defenders. In March 2019, Albania co-sponsored a UN Human Rights Council Resolution on Environmental Human Rights Defenders, recognizing protection of environmental HRDs as part of national efforts under the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

The UN resolution highlights the responsibility of business to respect human rights, and calls upon governments to ensure effective protection measures are in place for environmental HRDs, who are one of the most at-risk groups of human rights defenders worldwide.

The support shown by Albania for this resolution is praiseworthy, but only makes it more crucial that the Albanian government investigate the reported incidents of harassment and intimidation against environmental HRDs in Valbona Valley.

The Amerian Bar report also comes at a time when Albania is engaged in ongoing negotiations to join the European Union and has been granted candidate status. Preconditions for its accession into the EU include environmental issues and concerns, as well as justice, human rights and the rule of law.

The Valbona case might therefore be a litmus test for whether Albania is meeting targets associated with the EU’s preconditions. The Albanian government should recognise the accountability and environmental stewardship demanded by residents of Valbona Valley, and its responsibility to ensure environmental HRDs like those in Valbona are safe from harassment and intimidation. 

Sally Hurt is independent consultant and primary researcher of the 'Communities under pressure' report.

Zamira Djabarova is senior staff attorney for Europe and Central Asia at the American Bar Association's Center for Human Rights.

For the full 'Communities under Pressure: Findings from Valbona, Albania' report and the company responses and non-responses, click here.