Lowenstein Clinic Calls on UN to Prevent Censorship and Protect Speech of Environmental Defenders at Annual COP Conference

the opening of the COP 28 conference in Dubai in 2023
The formal opening of COP28 during the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Dubai on November 30, 2023. (Photo by COP28 / Christopher Pike)

Green Advocates International and the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School have called for stronger protection of environmental defenders’ free speech at the world’s largest forum for international climate negotiations, the Conference of the Parties (COP). 

The organizations have jointly submitted an input report to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) to call for changes within the U.N. framework to protect climate defenders’ full and free participation at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)’s annual COP meetings. 

The submission seeks to inform OHCHR’s 2024 report on intimidation and reprisals. It details ongoing issues facing environmental defenders attending the annual COP meeting, including intimidation and repression of their speech while at COP, and reprisal upon return to their home country. COP meetings are currently the preeminent forum for international climate negotiations and involve discussion on climate change and other related environmental issues. The most recent COP meeting was held in early December 2023 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

The submission evaluates how the U.N. and host country treat environmental defenders, many of whom face extreme threats at home. 

“We thought it was important to highlight the special risks that environmental defenders take on when coming to COP,” explained Lowenstein Clinic member Chloe Miller ’25. “Defenders represent the communities hardest hit by the climate crisis, and yet they are afforded the least visibility and protection at the most significant site for climate negotiations.” 

Even so, as the climate crisis worsens, attendance by civil society and environmental defenders has increased. 

“Defender presence at COP is undeniably important and must be a priority for the UNFCCC,” said Peter Quaqua, Coordinator of the Mano River Union Civil Society Natural Resources Rights and Governance Platform and Head of the Secretariat of the Environmental Rights Legal Framework Coalition for Africa.

“Through meetings and demonstrations at COP, we can elevate issues uniquely faced by our communities that otherwise go undiscussed,” said Radiatu Haja Sheriff Kahnplaye, Policy Advisor for the Natural Resources Women Platform, a women’s social movement across West Africa.

The team’s research finds critical gaps in protections for environmental defenders. Most notably, State parties and the UNFCCC itself do not appear to recognize the speech rights of attendees at COP, as reflected in the UNFCCC’s own guidelines. 

“The failure to affirm basic rights had knock-on effects across COP28,” said clinic member Shehla Chowdhury ’25. “We were struck by the widespread chilling of defenders as well as overt censorship at COP28.” 

The submission notes that defenders are placed in a double bind when COP occurs in a host country that does not respect freedom of speech and association more generally. As a result, attendees feel they must confine their actions to the U.N.-run space, even though that means abiding by restrictive UNFCCC rules on speech. A particular sticking point was the UNFCCC’s bar on criticism of specific countries and companies. 

“The UNFCCC tells us we are welcome — but only if we give up our rights to tell the truth,” said Atuheire Brian, Executive Director of the African Initiative on Food Security and Environment. 

“With so many rules around what we could and could not say and cameras placed across the venue, it was hard to feel like you could really speak freely at any point,” added Ina-Maria Shikongo, a climate activist and active member of Fridays For Future.

To protect the critical voices of environmental defenders in climate negotiations, the submission urges the UNFCCC to take several immediate measures. “One easy starting point is to make public the U.N.’s agreement with the host country,” said Ding Yuan ’25. “It is simply unfair to ask environmental defenders to take on the real risks of repression without at least knowing whether the host country has agreed to observe the most basic protections of free speech.” 

The submission also urges the UNFCCC Secretariat to incorporate clearer protections for speech and assembly into COP guidelines and to make space for defenders in the negotiations themselves.

“To safeguard the critical voices of activists in climate negotiations, I implore the UNFCCC to strengthen host country agreements, incorporate substantive speech protections into COP guidelines that have impeded the full participation of climate activists, and increase the participation of environmental defenders in negotiations,” said Alfred Lahai Gbabai Brownell Sr., Founding President of the Global Climate Legal Defense Network and Founder of Green Advocates International. “International law, including the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, affirm a human right to free speech. The U.N. must ensure these rights are honored within the spaces they manage.”

The clinic team, comprising Shehla Chowdhury ’25, Chloe Miller ’25, Sonya Schoenberger ’24, and Ding Yuan ’25, worked on a yearlong project that evaluated risks facing global climate defenders under the supervision of Hope Metcalf, Executive Director for Schell Center for International Human Rights at Yale and Alfred Brownell, Tom and Andi Bernstein Visiting Human Rights Fellow at Yale Law School. 

Seven environmental activist coalitions co-signed on the submission, including the African Climate Platform, the Alliance for Rural Democracy, the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedom, the Egyptian Organization for Environmental Rights, the Environmental Rights Legal Framework Coalition for Africa, the Mano River Union Civil Society Natural Resource Rights and Governance Platform, and the Natural Resource Women Platform.