Activists protest construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, Washington D.C., 2017.

© 2017 Vlad Tchompalov via Unsplash

Today in the United States, 18 human rights and environmental groups – including Human Rights Watch – launched a new coalition to confront corporations that file baseless lawsuits in order to punish, intimidate, and silence their critics.

These meritless lawsuits – known as “Strategic lawsuits against public participation,” or SLAPPs – are an abusive legal tactic intended to muzzle a plaintiff’s critics – often activists who speak against destructive corporate practices. The intent is often to entangle civil society organizations in expensive litigation that diverts their resources and attention away from campaigns and mobilization.

Environmental groups in the United States, South Africa, and elsewhere are increasingly denouncing SLAPPs filed against them.

With events taking place in New York, Dallas, and San Francisco, the Protect the Protest task force launches with this promise of solidarity: an attack on one is an attack on all. Its members commit to forcefully contest SLAPPs intended to silence and intimidate those who speak out in defense of the environment.

In a 2017 report on SLAPPs, the former United Nations expert on freedom of assembly wrote that SLAPPs pose significant threats to the rights of activists to freedom of expression, of assembly, and of association.  Respect for these rights is also key to a sustainable development process defined by participatory and informed decision-making.

People the world over are mobilizing to protect the environment against deepening ecological crisis: rampant toxic pollution, climate change, deforestation, biodiversity loss, land degradation, freshwater shortages. At this time more than ever, voices that stand up in defense of the right to a healthy environment and challenge corporate misconduct need to be amplified and defended.