As we progress steadily forward in implementing the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed on 16 August 2019 by our two organizations, we hope this Bulletin will be a collective expression of our concrete work together, illustrating how our shared goals and objectives are having impact on human rights and the environment, including efforts to address climate change.
At the seminal OHCHR-UNEP consultation held in Nairobi in November 2019, we decided on priority areas of collaboration and developed a joint work plan to implement the OHCHR-UNEP MOU in both headquarters and our field operations. The following three priority action areas were identified:
- enhancing protection of environmental human rights defenders and expanding civic space;
- Integrating human rights, including the right to a healthy environment, into UN processes;
- Enhancing states’ and other actors' abilities to promote and protect the human right to a healthy environment through, inter alia, capacity building, advisory services, and development of tools.
This first edition of our Bulletin covers news from the field as well as the global arena. We are honoured to also feature a piece from David Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and environment about paying far more attention to the warnings being issued by the world’s preeminent climate scientists, ecologists, and doctors and employing a rights-based approach to protecting nature.
As our Community of Practice grows in numbers, strength and impact, we hope this Bulletin will be an effective bridge between our two organisations maximizing our impact toward the common fulfilment of our mandates. As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has said, "Our planet is being recklessly destroyed, and we urgently need stronger global partnerships to take action to save it." UNEP Executive Director, Inger Andersen, has also said that "UNEP and the UN Human Rights Office are committed to bringing environmental protection closer to the people by assisting state and non-state actors to promote, protect and respect environmental and human rights. In doing so, we will move towards a more sustainable and just planet."
Towards universal recognition of the right to a healthy environment?
On 6 February 2020, the UN Human Rights Council core group supporting the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, comprising of Costa Rica, Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland, convened an expert seminar to inform discussions at the UN about the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. The seminar was convened with the support of the Universal Rights Group (URG), the Commonwealth Small States Office in Geneva, the Geneva Academy, UNICEF, UNEP, and OHCHR, to consider the growing recognition of the ‘right to environment’ around the world, to understand the value of this right for individual rights-holders and for the environment, and to answer the question: should the right be recognised at UN-level (by the Council and then by the General Assembly)?
- Video message: Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP
- Video message: Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
In September 2020, civil society organisations came together to issue a Global Call to States for the recognition of the right to healthy environment. The Global Call was shared with all Permanent Missions of UN Member States in Geneva and has amassed more than 850 sign-ons, including from most major environmental and human rights organizations, representing over 100 countries. This campaign, advocacy and mobilization work has already gained unprecedented convergence and momentum. As the civil society organisations that initiated this campaign have said, "Now, there is no going back and only one way for this to end!"
Responding to the needs of environmental defenders and civil society
United Nations programmes, environmental defenders, NGOs and academic institutions came together in Geneva, Switzerland, from 25 to 28 February 2020, to discuss how to mobilise the international community towards supporting environmental defenders. All around the world, environmental defenders are fighting for healthy environments - not just for their communities but for everyone. Despite, their valiant and valuable work, environmental human rights defenders (EHRDs) remain highly vulnerable and under increasing attack across the globe. Yves Lador of Earthjustice notes that, although the protection of the environment is becoming increasingly essential and predominant, there is a shrinking space for the defense of environmental rights.
Recognizing these issues, diverse organizations have implemented different projects to protect environmental defenders and strengthen the usage of environmental rights. However, whilst necessary, some of these initiatives are fragmented.
Incorporating human rights into the world's biodiversity agenda
In February 2020, UNEP and OHCHR joined efforts during a forum at which different options were suggested on how, where and why to include and integrate human rights for achieving conservation, sustainable use and benefit sharing of biodiversity in the post-2020 global biodiversity framework. These outputs contributed to deliberations in the second meeting of the Open-ended Working Group on the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework which was held in Rome from 24 to 29 February, and will further inform processes leading up to the COP 15.
Human rights and a healthy planet are mutually dependent. We will only achieve our goals for 2020 and beyond through transformative changes in economic, social, political and technological systems. Our reciprocal relationships with the rest of the planet should be our guide, rather than a utilitarian approach that views nature only in terms of “services” and “benefits”. In order to bend the curve of biodiversity loss, we need to bend the curve of inequality.
Ultimately, the post- 2020 global biodiversity framework can assist as we build back better in the post-COVID world; healthy, functioning ecosystems are central to a post-COVID world. However, to build back better, the post- 2020 global biodiversity framework must deal effectively with governance, human rights and equitable sharing of benefits and costs.
Building Back Better: Why we must think of the next generation
Building back from COVID-19 will be an inter-generational effort. Decisions being taken now about what sectors of our economy to prioritize and what opportunities to seize in the recovery effort may impact the lives of children and youth disproportionately. Securing a healthy, safe future that is more resilient to global threats is fundamental, as this emerging generation of voters and consumers are increasingly aware.
School programmes moved online. Schedules changed. Routines thrown into turmoil. It is difficult to know what long-term changes COVID-19 will have on the children who are enduring the current pandemic, but something surely is coming. Whether it is shifts in attitude toward society, work or education, the youngest generation will not come out of this the same.
One area where attitudes may shift most is on the environment.
Annual day on the rights of the child at the Human Rights Council’s 44th session
During its 44th session, the Human Rights Council convened on July 1 the annual day on the rights of the child, which focused on realizing the rights of the child through a healthy environment. The High Commissioner for Human Rights delivered an opening statement and highlighted that the survival, health, well-being and development of children depends on a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. She noted that many of the effects of environmental degradation on children and their rights are completely preventable and they are being compounded by COVID-19, which is a powerful example of the threat to human well-being that results from environmental damage.
The morning panel set the scene for the discussion by framing a healthy environment as a child rights concern. Mr. Clarence Nelson of the Committee on the Rights of the Child provided an overview of the legal framework and of a recent consultation in Samoa with children about the threat of climate change, noting the importance of consulting children, and Dr. Maria Neira of the World Health Organization explained the impact of environmental degradation on children’s rights. Junior, a child environmental human rights defender from Cote d’Ivoire, reported on his experiences in his community of exposure to environmental degradation and called on states and businesses to take action.
Persons with disabilities disproportionately affected by climate change
A Human Rights Council panel discussion on the rights of persons with disabilities in the context of climate change took place on 8 July 2020. The panel brought together experts and Member States to discuss ways to improve climate action to protect the human rights of persons with disabilities
The Human Rights Council adopts a new resolution on human rights and climate change
South-East Asia: Promoting and protecting children’s right to a healthy environment
The joint work plan of the UNEP and OHCHR Regional Offices for South-East Asia incorporates elements including advocacy, policy development, and protection of environmental human rights defenders. From 16 - 23 July, OHCHR, UNEP and UNICEF Asia Pacific organised an expert group meeting series to develop policy guidance for promoting and protecting children’s right to a healthy environment in South-East Asia. The meeting series further aimed at building a common understanding of the issue between experts in ASEAN Member States and UN entities in the region and to assist Governments as well as civil society advocacy efforts. The meeting included youth leaders from the region, external experts, the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment and a member of the Committee on the Rights of the Child.
Kenya: Court ruling called a milestone in environmental justice
In what is being called a positive milestone for environmental justice, a settlement in Kenya has won the equivalent of USD$13 million in compensation for damage to the environment and health of a community blighted by deadly lead poisoning. The court in Mombasa awarded the compensation to residents of Owino Uhuru settlement for deaths and health impacts caused by lead poisoning from an adjacent smelter for recycling batteries. The ruling, delivered by a judge of the Land and Environment Court on 16 July 2020, declared that the community’s rights to a healthy environment, highest attainable standard of health, clean and safe water, and life had been contravened, and ordered the Kenyan government and two companies to pay compensation.
Uganda: Supporting the National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights
OHCHR Uganda is supporting the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development and partners in the preparation of a National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights, where environment and land issues have been identified as priority areas. The draft is being finalized and is expected to be submitted shortly to the Ministry’s senior leadership. The National Action Plan comes at a crucial time, as Uganda is embarking on its third National Development Plan, which focuses on economic growth through industrialisation.
The Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples and the Karen peoples in the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex
In Thailand, the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples has repeatedly raised concerns over the continuing impact of the violations of the rights of the indigenous Karen peoples in the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex (KKFC), ongoing since 2011, by officials of the National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department. The concerns include failure to ensure accountability for these violations, including the enforced disappearance and murder of the indigenous human rights defender Mr. Pholachi Rakchongcharoen, known as Billy. The Thai Government nominated the KKFC to be designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2011 and reactivated its nomination of the KKFC in February 2019. The same month, the Special Rapporteur sent a communication to the Thai Government, the UNESCO Heritage Committee and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, raising concerns over the alleged violations against the Karen, the lack of consultation and the failure to seek their free, prior and informed consent. The communication also raised concerns over how UNESCO heritage status, if awarded, might impact the Karen communities’ land rights and livelihoods.
At its 43rd session in July 2019, the UNESCO Heritage Committee decided not to award the KKFC heritage status and referred the nomination back to the Thai Government to ‘demonstrate that all concerns have been resolved, in full consultation with the local communities’. The suspected National Park Officials were charged for ‘Billy’s’ murder by the Department of Special Investigation on 23 December 2019. However, on 23 January 2020, the Attorney-General’s Office dropped the murder charges, citing insufficient evidence. The outcome of the investigation remains uncertain. The story is available in the “Human Rights Council report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples.”
Colombia – Case Study on the environmental and HRD consequences of mining in Antioquia and Chocó
OHCHR Colombia will be preparing a case study of the impact of mining in the departments of Antioquia and Chocó on terrestrial ecosystems and HR defenders. The case study will help identify possible lines of action contributing to Sustainable Development Goal 15. SDG 15 calls for the protection, restoration, promotion and sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems and for sustainable management of forests, combating of desertification, halting and reversal of land degradation and cessation of biodiversity loss.
Somalia - Baseline study on the impacts of climate change on the vulnerable
The need to heed scientists’ warnings - By David R. Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and environment
Human damage to nature is having major impacts on health, livelihoods and rights. The most striking example imaginable is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). COVID-19 has already caused approximately 600,000 deaths, millions of illnesses, and massive social and economic disruption. The pandemic is a powerful illustration of the interconnectedness of healthy ecosystems and human rights—to life, health, food, water, an adequate standard of living and a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
New infectious diseases are emerging more frequently, and more than seventy percent of them are zoonotic diseases like COVID-19, including HIV/AIDS, Ebola, SARS, avian influenza, Nipah, Marberg, Zika, and West Nile. The growing risk of emerging infectious diseases is caused by a “perfect storm” of human actions that damage ecosystems and biodiversity, such as deforestation, land clearing and conversion for agriculture, the wildlife trade, expanding human population, settlements and infrastructure, intensified livestock production, and climate change. These activities elevate the risk of pathogens spilling over from wild and domestic animals into humans. Unprecedented levels of international air travel and trade accelerate the spread of these diseases.
Governments must pay much closer attention to the warnings of scientists, in order to take effective and equitable action to protect nature and prevent catastrophic impacts on human rights. In this regard, COVID-19 offers valuable lessons. In scientific articles and reports, epidemiologists highlighted the dangers posed by coronaviruses at least as early as 1998. In 2008, scientists urged governments to prioritize emerging infectious diseases, emphasizing zoonoses. In 2013, scientists warned that “accelerated transmission of bat and animal coronaviruses to humans can be expected to continue and possibly escalate.”
In 2015, experts convened by the World Health Organization identified seven emerging zoonoses demanding urgent research because of their potential to cause public health emergencies, including “highly pathogenic coronaviruses”. In 2018, scientists published a paper titled “Bats, coronaviruses and deforestation.” Governments failed to respond to these warnings.
Similarly, scientists have warned society about the downwards spiral of ecosystems and biodiversity for more than fifty years, since Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring in 1962. In 1992, more than 1,700 scientists warned that “Human activities … put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know.” In 2005, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment concluded that humans were having potentially irreversible impacts on ecosystems and biodiversity, on a scale unprecedented in human history. In 2017, more than 15,000 scientists from 184 States observed that “humanity has failed to make sufficient progress in generally solving these foreseen environmental challenges, and alarmingly, most of them are getting far worse.”
Special Rapporteur releases user friendly version “Right to a healthy environment: good practices”
In May 2020, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, Dr. David Boyd, with the support of UNEP, released a user-friendly version of his report “The right to a healthy environment: Good Practices.” This publication describes good practices of States in recognizing the right to live in a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, as well as in implementing the procedural and substantive elements of this right.
Joint OHCHR-ECLAC report on “Climate Change and Human Rights in Latin America and the Caribbean”
In December 2019, the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC) and OHCHR jointly launched the report Climate Change and Human Rights: Contributions from Latin America and the Caribbean in the context of the 25th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP25). The publication outlines a wealth of human rights laws, policies and recommendations that are relevant to ensuring that action to address climate change in Latin America and the Caribbean places human rights at its core. It highlights the region’s contribution to the link between human rights and climate change, in particular the Escazú Agreement, which is the region’s first treaty on environmental matters and the world’s first treaty to include provisions on environmental human rights defenders.
UN Environment Management Group Nexus Dialogues on Human Rights and Environment
Together with the UN Environmental Management Group (EMG), OHCHR and UNEP organized a Nexus Dialogues on Human Rights and Environment on Friday 24 July, focusing on the human right to a healthy environment. The Dialogue was the first in a series of events to be organized by OHCHR and the EMG on human rights and environment. It will be followed by a second webinar, Examining the Elements of the Right to a Healthy Environment, which will focus on what the UN can do to advance rights-based environmental action with respect to biodiversity, climate change, and toxics. Finally, Supporting Rights-Based Environmental Action: A Workshop will be a discussion of concrete and actionable ways forward to promote and coordinate interagency and UN system work on human rights and the environment. The main objectives of the Nexus Dialogues are to mobilize the UN system behind rights-based environmental action, consider protection gaps and opportunities to strengthen the protection of human rights and environmental defenders, and discuss the potential establishment and scope of an Issue Management Group on human rights and the environment.