Commentary: Mining companies using nuisance lawsuits to frustrate human rights defenders in So. Africa
“Green activists are fighting the great fight—but are being dragged down by petty lawsuits | opinion” 7 May 2019
Despite the global environmental crisis confronting our planet, environmental activism has become a dangerous activity. In many countries, environmental defenders are harassed, attacked or even killed for speaking out and mobilizing against projects that threaten the health and livelihood of communities…The South Africa report documents the targeting of community rights defenders in KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Northwest, and Eastern Cape provinces between 2013-2018 for expressing opposition to mining projects. Activists reported intimidation, violence, damage to property, use of excessive force during peaceful protests, and arbitrary arrest, but also frivolous lawsuits and social media campaigns to curb their opposition to the mining projects. The companies have often sought court orders to halt or ban protests. The report was a collaborative effort between Human Rights Watch, Centre for Environmental Rights, groundWork, and Earthjustice.
In 2017, for example, the mining company Mineral Sand Resources brought a defamation suit against two attorneys from the Centre for Environmental Rights and a local activist for statements they made during a lecture at the University of Cape Town’s Summer School concerning the company’s Tormin mineral sands mine, on the west coast of South Africa. The ongoing lawsuit seeks R1,250,000 ($89,936) in damages… In South Africa, the Centre for Environmental Rights also opened an anti-SLAPP campaign in 2019 to coordinate resistance among activists against corporate bullying and to deter companies operating in the country from using litigation to silence activists and critics.
In March, the UN’s Human Rights Council affirmed “the positive, important and legitimate role” played by environmental defenders and condemned violence against them by both state and non-state actors. The United Nations expert on freedom of assembly warned in 2017 that SLAPPs pose significant threats to the rights of activists to freedom of expression, assembly, and association. All countries, including South Africa, should adopt legislation to protect non-governmental organizations and activists from frivolous lawsuits. Environmental defenders should be able to speak out against environmentally harmful activities and participate in environmental decision-making without risking baseless legal action from companies and other powerful interests.