Dear friends and colleagues
The year 2020 was supposed to be a super year for Nature, but a microscopic virus derailed that aspiration and wrought havoc upon humanity. We can only hope for the rapid approval, production and dissemination of an effective and affordable vaccine in 2021, as well as an unprecedented commitment by all States to implement measures to prevent future pandemics
While COVID-19 has understandably captured the majority of headlines in 2020, the global environmental crisis remains unresolved. There are some inspiring beacons of hope, including the incredible domination of renewable electricity, much greater ambition to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (from the EU, China, Japan, South Korea and others), and commitments to accelerate the protection of nature (e.g. the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People led by Costa Rica and France).
We are now hoping that 2021 will be a big year for progress on climate change, biodiversity, pollution, pandemics, and UN recognition of the right to a healthy environment!
In September, almost 1,000 civil society organizations from all over the world sent a compelling letter to the Human Rights Council and all UN member states, urging recognition of the right to a healthy environment as soon as possible. Then the core group supporting the mandate on human rights and the environment (Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia, and Switzerland) issued a statement endorsing the need for a resolution on this right. And finally, the HRC adopted a resolution on children and the environment that included a call for all States to consider recognizing the right to a healthy environment in their national laws
On 27 October, I held my annual interactive dialogue with the General Assembly in New York, presenting (virtually) a report called Human Rights Depend on a Healthy Biosphere. This was the third in a series of reports clarifying the substantive elements of the right to a healthy environment, following clean air and a safe climate. Lots of great questions from States.
We also hosted a side event on the linkage between human rights, ecosystems, and biodiversity, with the generous support of Slovenia, Costa Rica, Switzerland and UNEP. Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP provided opening messages along with two Indigenous youth from Latin America. Astrid Puentes moderated a vibrant discussion with panelists Ambassador Rodrigo Carazo Zeledon (Costa Rica), Dr. Musonda Mumba (Chief of the Terrestrial Ecosystems Unit, UNEP), Carole Excell (Director of World Resources Institute's Environmental Democracy Practice), Milka Chepkorir (Environmental Justice Fellow, Natural Justice and ICCA Consortium) and myself.
Friend of the Court
Work is underway on a number of amicus briefs in important lawsuits around the world which involve human rights, climate change, and air pollution. The mandate is well positioned to make contributions regarding international human rights law and comparative constitutional law related to the right to a healthy environment. A brief summary of each case is provided below.
Groundworks Trust et al. v. Minister for Environmental Affairs et al
High Court of South Africa, Gauteng Division
In 2019, two civil society organizations filed a lawsuit alleging that chronically poor air quality in the Highveld region violates the right to a healthy environment in Article 24 of South Africa’s Constitution. In August 2019 I filed an application to submit an amicus brief addressing international human rights law and comparative constitutional law. The application was scheduled to be heard in 2020 but was postponed to 2021 due to the pandemic.
C.S. et al. v. Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany and Turkey
United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child
Sixteen young people from across the world filed this case in 2019 arguing that the failure of the five Respondent States to take adequate action to address the global climate emergency violates their rights to health, life, culture, participation and to have their best interests advanced in decision-making, pursuant to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Prof. John Knox, the previous Special Rapporteur, and I filed an amicus brief on issues related to admissibility with on human rights and the environment. We are currently finalizing a second amicus brief on the merits of the case.
Torres Strait Islanders v Australia
United Nations Human Rights Committee
The Torres Strait Islanders, an Indigenous people, filed this case in 2019 arguing that Australia’s dismal track record on climate mitigation and adaptation violates their rights to life, health and culture under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Prof. John Knox, the previous Special Rapporteur, and I filed an amicus brief on issues related to admissibility and the merits.
Greenpeace and Nordic Nature and Youth. v. Norway
Supreme Court of Norway
This case challenges the approval of offshore oil and gas exploration in a new area of the Barents Sea (in the southern Arctic Ocean), claiming that such approvals violate the right to a healthy environment found in Article 112 of Norway’s Constitution. The trial court and the Court of Appeal both ruled against Greenpeace despite finding that Article 112 provides an enforceable right.
I filed an amicus brief in September, co-authored with the new UN Special Rapporteur on toxics, Dr. Marcos Orellana. Norway’s Attorney General opposed the admissibility of our brief but the Supreme Court decided to accept it. The case was heard by the full Supreme Court of Norway in November, and a decision is pending.
Climate Fund case
Supreme Court of Brazil (Superior Tribunal Federal)
Earlier this year, four political parties filed a lawsuit asserting that the Brazilian government’s failure to spend funds allocated by a previous administration for climate mitigation and adaptation violates the right to a healthy environment in Article 225 of Brazil’s Constitution. In June, the Supreme Court judge handling the case issued an interim ruling indicating a desire to take a more comprehensive look at Brazil’s climate change policies. To this end, the Court held public hearings with experts from around the world on 22-23 September 2020.
In September, I made an oral submission to the Supreme Court and filed an amicus brief on international human rights law, international environmental law and comparative constitutional law. The Court’s decision in the case is pending.
Melanie Subono et al. v President of the Republic of Indonesia et al
Central Jakarta District Court
A group of citizens filed a lawsuit in 2019 alleging that the failure of all levels of government in Indonesia to improve air quality in Jakarta violates their right to a healthy environment under Article 28 of the Indonesian Constitution. In October I filed an amicus brief on international human rights law, international environmental law and comparative constitutional law. The presiding judge contracted COVID-19 but has recovered and the case is expected to be heard soon
We recently received a grant from the Open Society Foundations to support the work on these cases, for which we are extremely grateful.
We continue to invite communications that allege violations of human rights related to environmental damage, degradation, hazards, or the fundamental rights of environmental and activists. We do our best to confirm the facts, identify the relevant principles and obligations of international human rights law, and ask States, and in some cases businesses, to respond to the allegations. Often a group of special procedure mandate-holders will coordinate a joint communication. In some cases, pressure from the UN can result in positive changes, protecting both human rights and the environment. Additional information regarding submitting information is available on the mandate’s website
Recent communications that the environment mandate has joined or led include:
USA 21/2020, Colombia (COL 7/2020), India (IND 13/2020), Lao People's Democratic Republic (LAO 3/2020), Kenya (KEN 3/2020), Chile (CHL 5/2020), Papua New Guinea, (PNG 1/2020) and Mongolia (MNG 1/2020).
I also publicly addressed the following issues in recent months through press releases, often issued in collaboration with colleagues:
A situation in Yemen involving a potential oil spill: OHCHR | UN experts: technical team must be allowed to avert oil spill disaster threatening Yemen.
Phasing out coal-fired electricity at the global level: OHCHR | Climate crisis: States must stay the course on coal cuts - UN expert.
Human rights impacts of coal mining in Colombia: OHCHR | UN expert calls for halt to mining at controversial Colombia site
The need to avoid weakening environmental rules during the pandemic: OHCHR | The Americas: Governments should strengthen, not weaken, environmental protection during COVID-19 pandemic
Because of the travel restrictions caused by the pandemic, there has been an incredible proliferation of online meetings, panels, and events. The mandate has participated in far too many to list here, but highlights included:
- a video message to the UN Leader’s Summit on Biodiversity;
- a panel on Building Back Better for People and Nature at the UN High Level Political Forum;
- a panel on Loss and Damage at London Climate Action Week;
- a panel on ensuring that Chile’s new Constitution has strong environmental and human rights provisions;
- a UNEP event on the importance of protecting environmental defenders;
- a Cambridge University event on rights-based recovery from the pandemic;a panel on climate change and youth at the Global Child Forum;
- the Global Gathering for Mother Earth Laws;
- a workshop on human rights and biodiversity as part of the China Dialogue series;
- the launch of the World Future Council’s new initiative called Youth:Present;
- a seminar with UNITAR on the right to a healthy environment;
- a webinar on human rights and water security with Leo Heller, the Special Rapporteur on the rights to water and sanitation (hosted by the Stockholm International Water Institute);
- a presentation on human rights and climate change to France’s Commission nationale consultative des droits de l'homme;
- participation in several panels at UNDP’s Nature for Life project;
- a panelist for the World Youth for Climate Justice side event at the UNGA; and
- a World Concert for Good Stories, hosted by famed Filipino lawyer and storyteller Tony Oposa.
Thanks to all of the organizations and individuals who work so hard to organize these events, contributing to the key objective of educating, inspiring, and empowering people about human rights and the environment. We also recorded a couple dozen videos for various events, including a Tedx talk on human rights as a catalyst for accelerating climate action.
Other Publications of Interest
A Community Action Toolkit: A Roadmap for Using Environmental Rights to Fight Pollution (World Resources Institute)
An op-ed in The Conversation called “Why all human rights depend on a healthy environment”
An op-ed on “The right to breathe clean air”, published in Indi
An interview with Birdlife International on the right to a healthy environment
Superb series of articles on “Litigating the Climate Emergency” published at OpenGlobalRights
Recent IPBES report on preventing future pandemics
Claudia Ituarte-Lima, ed. Prosperous and Green in the Anthropocene: The human right to a healthy environment in Southeast Asia (Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law)
In 2021, we will be championing a rights-based approach to all aspects of environmental protection at the Human Rights Council, the General Assembly, the World Conservation Congress, in ongoing negotiations about the post-2020 global biodiversity framework, at the 15th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biodiversity (China), and at the 26th Climate COP (in Glasgow, November). Hopefully COVID-19 will be brought under control, travel restrictions will lift and we can resume doing country visits, a key element of the mandate.
Our small team continues to experience high turnover. I enjoyed working with Bashar Jamal, but he has moved on. Fortunately, Frederique Bourque has joined Viktoria and me and we are delighted to have her enthusiasm and expertise. We continue to welcome your ideas, suggestions, and feedback on the mandate! You can reach us through the official UN email address email@example.com and follow us on Twitter @SREnvironment
I would also like to acknowledge the extraordinary contributions of a number of special rapporteurs with whom I worked whose terms recently concluded, including Baskut Tuncak (toxics), Leo Heller (water), Leilani Farha (housing), Vicki Tauli-Corpuz (Indigenous persons), Michel Forst (human rights defenders) and Hilal Elver (food). I look forward to working with their successors, including Marcos Orellana (toxics), Pedro Arrojo-Agudo (water), Balakrishnan Rajagopal (housing), Francisco Tali Czay (Indigenous persons), Mary Lawlor (human rights defenders) and Michael Fakhri (food). It is both a pleasure and an honour to have such amazing colleagues!
Please take care, stay healthy, and keep up your great work on behalf of this beautiful but beleaguered planet and its amazing but ailing people.