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"UN mechanisms are an effective way for civil society to make its voice heard"

The Law, Nature and Society Foundation is an organization that uses UN mechanisms, particularly on climate and environmental issues, and responds to calls from the United Nations Special Rapporteurs to participate in the drafting of the report. We spoke with Law, Nature and Society Foundation founder and board chair, attorney Ozlem Altıparmak, about her experience participating in both the foundation and UN mechanisms.

In the UN Charter, the founding document of the United Nations, there are many mechanisms to protect human rights, and one of these mechanisms is the UN mechanisms of the Convention on Human Rights. While these mechanisms consist of committees of independent experts that monitor the implementation of human rights treaties, they also include many tools such as reporting, participation in meetings, individual requests... While these tools are crucial for CSOs, international procedures - such as the United Nations mechanisms - are used only to a limited extent in the fight against rights violations in Turkey.

The recently established Law, Nature and Society Foundation is an organization that uses the mechanisms of UN, especially on climate and environmental issues, and responds to calls from the United Nations Special Rapporteurs to participate in the preparation of the report. We spoke with Law, Nature and Society Foundation founder and board chair, lawyer Ozlem Altıparmak, about her experiences with both the foundation and the UN processes.

Özlem, you are a long-time lawyer working on human rights, gender equality, climate change, and environmental protection. Again, you have combined the work you have done in your law firm with CSOs into a foundation. First, we would like to talk about the necessity of the process of creating a foundation. Why was the Law, Nature and Society Foundation established? What needs led you to create a foundation?

As you mentioned, we have been working in the fields of human rights, gender equality, environmental law, and nature advocacy for a long time. In fact, advocacy is not something we learn and practice professionally; it is an area in which we have existed and defined ourselves since our college years. Our advocacy activities have also evolved by considering and prioritizing this area. In addition to our professional work, we have contributed in many projects and studies to improve the capacity of civil society organizations, we have provided pro bono (law for the benefit of society) services, and we have always been closely associated with civil society organizations. When we filed a strategic lawsuit, we published the petition we were working on as a publication so that other lawyers and rights holders could benefit from it. For the first time in Turkey, we launched a thematic internship program for lawyers specializing in environmental law. Also for the first time, we opened a climate clinic at Ankara University Law Clinics, and we attracted students who wanted to work in this field to the law school. Although you conduct public and pro bono activities under the umbrella of a law firm, you are perceived as a private company. That could be an obstacle when we wanted to expand our work or form partnerships. As our work evolved, we wanted to diversify and develop our activities through a different formation and increase the impact of our work. We decided to institutionalize ourselves and create a foundation to make our experience and our will to work in this field permanent. We completed the process of creating a foundation, which we started in 2022, in November 2022 and established HUDOTO.

Can you tell us a little about HUDOTO? In which fields are you active?

At HUDOTO, we work in the areas of human rights, gender equality, conservation, and climate change with a rights-based and intersectional perspective. We follow not only national policies and legislation, but also international publications and developments, regularly do translations, prepare information notes, write articles and contributions. We have accumulated considerable knowledge, expertise and experience in these areas. Before the end of the first year, we had translated dozens of fact sheets, policy documents, UN reports, and calls for contributions from the UN Special Rapporteur. We represented our foundation at the Sendai Disaster Risk Reduction Framework High Level Meeting in UN New York with support from Etkiniz EU programme.

We try to work with rights in mind in every field in which we operate and to link them to developments in the international arena. Law is one of the most important tools of advocacy and it is not just about national legislation, laws and regulations. Law and justice should not be limited to just a case we file. International policy documents and strategic frameworks outside of written laws and treaties are flexible legal documents that we call soft law. Indeed, it is these texts and agreements that shape policy, negotiation processes, and human rights development. For this reason, we understand and study law more broadly.

Last week, we launched a new initiative in this regard. We released the reader-friendly summary of the UN expert report on sexual orientation, gender identity and religious freedom, which we had previously translated, in four parts as a podcast. We figured those who do not have time to read might benefit from listening and wanted to give it a try. You can listen to the podcast here.

It is very important for us to be interdisciplinary and understandable. For example, if all goes well, we will organise a workshop at the end of September or in October, with the support of UNDP, called "Agroecology for Climate, Food Security and Human Rights." We hear about agroecology only as an agricultural method, we think it is a farmers' issue, but that is not the case with the climate change we live in. The food crisis will be where drought, climate change, and biodiversity loss will catch up with us quickly, and we will be talking about the right to food, food sovereignty, and food security a lot in the coming period. For this reason, we want to discuss agroecology at the intersection of climate change, right to food, biodiversity, and human rights, again based on rights. Multidisciplinary studies of climate change and climate justice are very important because they eliminate the incomprehensible, abstract, and technical working situation called "climate isolationism" in the literature, which is carried out with a technocratic perspective. This makes the problem and the solution understandable to rights holders.

We see that you, as HUDOTO, are following closely the calls for participation in the reports that are being produced by the United Nations on various areas of work. Can you talk a little bit about that? How does the process work for you? Have you contributed reports?

We follow the calls of the UN Special Rapporteurs to submit reports on thematic areas of concern. We try to publicize these calls, especially to civil society organizations, and explain that it is possible to submit.

The Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council are actually composed of independent human rights experts. The Special Procedures prepare regular reports on their field and submit them to the UN Human Rights Council. In the course of preparing this report, the Special Rapporteur solicits input from States, beneficiaries and stakeholders on the thematic report he is preparing and therefore issues a call for contributions. He announces to the public not only the framework of his thematic report, but also specifies the timeframe and methods by which the contribution will be made.

We regularly follow up with the UN human rights system, its meetings, and these calls. This follow-up also improves our work. Even if the calls are not followed, just reading the framework and the questions asked can be progress. Last year, for example, the common theme among all rapporteurs was climate change. There were calls on that topic, in almost every field from migration to violence against women, from sustainable development to the right to assemble and demonstrate. We responded to those calls and tried to publish not only the call, but also the reports that came out as a result of the call. In our work over the past year, we have focused on climate change as a human rights issue. In doing so, we presented our own contributions and opinions as well as answered questions from civil society organizations that wanted to contribute. I should mention that we also received positive feedback from academics on this topic. Some said that they had benefited greatly from the calls. As I said at the outset, understanding the framework of the calls and thinking about the questions and writing responses to the calls can be quite developmental.

International procedures, such as the United Nations mechanisms, are used only to a limited extent in the fight against rights violations. The same is true for conservationists. How do you interpret this? How can CSOs use the mechanisms of UN more effectively?

As you said, we do not know and use the UN system as a method for rights violations. One reason is the language barrier, but even if you know the language, the UN system itself is quite complex, I think. Even understanding which committee is in UN, which rapporteur does what, and how the system works takes a lot of work.

Also, in fact if there is a violation of rights, we want to do something that we can get a result. We do not see UN as a place where we can get results as a justice mechanism because there is never a court decision there as we know it. Let me note here that lawyers also know and use the European Court of Human Rights as an international mechanism, but they do not turn to the UN Human Rights Committees.

An effective way for civil society to make its voice heard

Access to justice, however, does not always mean access to a judicial mechanism. Sometimes it is also about access to information, sometimes it is about changing the law, and sometimes it is about having a say in the decisions to be made. The UN system provides this access to justice not through laws and regulations, but through the use of human rights frameworks, resolutions, and negotiation processes. I think this is an effective way for civil society to make its voice heard.

A human rights perspective is already missing from studies in the field of nature advocacy and climate change. This is true not only for civil society organizations, but also internationally. However, what we call climate justice is based on addressing inequality in the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation. This creates a very open space for development, discussion and collaboration for civil society. I think when civil society organizations working in other issue areas like women's rights, children's rights, or disability rights start to care about nature, climate change, and environmental degradation, and when they recognize that impacts of those lead to direct rights violations, intersectional studies in this area are strengthened. UN Mechanisms and resolutions open up a lot of space and opportunities for these intersections.

What would you recommend to CSOs that want to use international procedures, based on their experience with UN mechanisms?

First of all, I suggest that they follow the calls, reports, and resolutions from UN that relate to their field of work. Even if no application is made, it is very helpful to be aware of the process and discussions on the international stage. It is also necessary to look at advocacy in a broader context. In the context of advocacy processes, which we often see as a campaign or action, it is possible to change the decision that is made in our own habitat and prevent rights violations with a simple petition to obtain information.

Understanding the UN framework is also important to improve the view of rights.

We can think of requesting UN mechanisms like the right to write a petition. There is a system where online application is possible, and this system is accessible to civil society organizations. As long as we overcome the foreign language barrier, the system will allow us to enter our own word and will as a petition. We will convey our own experience and scope of work. We do not risk losing money, as we would if we were sued. The system also allows civil society organizations to apply together, not alone. I think such applications will strengthen civil society. Understanding the UN framework is also important to improve the view of rights.

To give an example, earlier this year the UN Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment issued a call for contributions entitled “Promoting Environmental Democracy: Procedural Elements of the Right to a Clean, Healthy and Sustainable Environment as a Human Right”. The thematic report to be prepared by the Special Rapporteur addresses the procedural dimensions of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment and the issue of participation. When it comes to procedures related to environmental issues, we understand this to mean access to information, participation in decision-making, and access to justice. In other words, in this call for conribution, if a mining project is going to be approved near us, we are expected to share our knowledge and experience about whether we have the right to get information about the project, whether we can actually participate in the decisions about that project, and whether we can afford the legal costs if we want to file a lawsuit against it. This report will also address issues such as environmental education, the right to freedom of expression and association, and safe spaces for environmental human rights defenders. It is possible to contribute to the report until October 2, 2023. We would like to take this opportunity to publish this call for contributions:

The United Nations system can also be used for violations

We can contribute to and provide comments on reports, legislative changes, and country visits, as well as use the United Nations system for violations. For ongoing violations, an online request can be made through the emergency application method at the Special Procedures UN. Requests may be made in the form of letters of complaint about past violations. However, in all cases, the violation must be serious, reliable, and supported by specific data. You cannot submit a request based on a press release. In these cases, the focus is on collecting reliable data. There are many violations around us, but we have problems documenting them, keeping data, and analyzing them. I see that even informations such as how many legal support applications are filed to a civil society organization in a year and the thematic distinction is not kept. Everyone knows about the violation, but if you go to the area in question, who exactly was affected by this violation; how many of those affected were women, how many were children; if you ask how many people migrated because of this, you will not get an answer. In cases where the administration does not fulfill its obligation to collect data, civil society organizations, researchers and academics have a lot of work to do.

We call it air pollution or we talk about trash and rubble spilled into the riverbed, but unfortunately there are serious problems documenting this and turning it into data. We also experienced this during the earthquake period. We need to strengthen our capacity especially in terms of the importance of data, keeping and analyzing disaggregated data.

As HUDOTO, we value working with civil society organizations on all of these issues and learning together by sharing our areas of expertise. Thank you for giving us this opportunity!

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