Photo credit: Viktoria Aberg
Dear friends and colleagues
We did it!! The decades long collective efforts of thousands of people representing billions more finally reached fruition on the afternoon of Friday October 8 in Geneva with the UN Human Rights Council adopting a resolution recognizing, for the first time at the global level, the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. After a roller coaster negotiation full of surprises, the results of the vote were terrific: 43 States voted yes, zero States voted no, and four States abstained (China, Japan, India and Russia).
Huge credit is due to the core group of States supporting the human rights and environment mandate, (Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland). The resolution was co-sponsored by 78 States from all regions of the world. Civil society organizations, Indigenous peoples, youth, UNEP and other UN agencies, colleagues at OHCHR, academics and businesses made valuable contributions. I’m deeply grateful to everyone, near and far, past and present, who contributed to this historic success.
My genuine hope is that this resolution will inspire action and offer hope to the millions of people working so hard, sometimes at great personal risk, to push society in a more just and sustainable direction. I’m confident that the resolution will be a catalyst for constitutional, legislative and policy changes, and most importantly more ambitious action to protect human rights and the environment.
We can look back at the 2010 UN resolution on the right to water and sanitation to see what kind of impacts these resolutions have. A number of countries, including Costa Rica, Fiji, Mexico, Slovenia and Tunisia added the right to water to their constitutions, their highest and strongest laws. Other nations, from Colombia to France, added this right to legislation. Most importantly, nations accelerated efforts to fulfill the right to water. Mexico extended clean drinking water to more than 1,000 rural communities in the past decade. Slovenia prioritized securing water for Roma communities living in informal settlements. In Canada, new infrastructure was created in partnership with 119 Indigenous communities that previously suffered from long term drinking water advisories.
What are the next steps? The HRC resolution calls on the UN General Assembly to consider this matter, which will hopefully happen soon. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe recently recommended the creation of a new protocol on the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, to be added to the European Convention on Human Rights. Efforts are underway to incorporate this fundamental right in the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework as well as the draft treaty on transnational businesses and human rights. People in New York approved the addition of the right to clean air, clean water and a healthful environment to their state constitution in November. I welcome the opportunity to work with any State to strengthen their constitutions, laws and policies through the inclusion of the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment as well as other provisions needed to respect, protect and fulfill this right.
We are also planning to develop a detailed implementation guide in partnership with the UN Environment Programme … stay tuned for the opportunity to have your say!
Reports and upcoming consultations
In the spring of 2022, I will present a report to the Human Rights Council on non-toxic environments where people can live, work, study and play. This will be the sixth and final report in a series clarifying the substantive elements of the right to a healthy environment, following clean air, a safe climate, a healthy biosphere, safe and sufficient water and healthy and sustainable food. The report will include a strong focus on environmental justice, highlighting sacrifice zones around the world where the human rights of poor, vulnerable and marginalized communities have been violated in the name of profit and economic development. I am working on this report with the support of my colleague Dr. Marcos Orellana, the Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights.
In late November, we traveled to the Caribbean for an official visit to Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and informal regional meetings in Barbados. We are investigating the impacts of the climate crisis on the human rights of people living in the Caribbean and examining progress in implementing the right to a healthy and sustainable environment in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, one of the first countries in the region to ratify the Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters in the Latin America and the Caribbean.
In 2022 we hope to visit Portugal, the first country in the world to recognize the right to a healthy environment in its Constitution, back in 1976, and Slovenia, a strong supporter of the right to a healthy environment.
Ambassador Catalina Devandas Aguilar and Ambassador Shara Duncan Villalobos (Costa Rica)
We participated virtually in the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, held in Glasgow Scotland. Prior to COP26 we published a briefing note on loss & damage (co-authored by international human rights lawyer Stephanie Keene), supporting calls by small island developing states and least developed countries for new levies on air travel and maritime shipping. We also co-authored a statement on phasing out coal with Marcos Orellana, the Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights.
During the event we sent a letter to Alok Sharma and Patricia Espinosa expressing grave concern at the barriers to meaningful public participation. We received a quick but weak reply.
While some positive commitments were announced at COP26, overall States fell far short of taking actions with the urgency and magnitude required to effectively and equitable tackle the climate crisis.
Friends of the Court
Along with my predecessor, Prof. John Knox, and other current mandate holders, we are submitting amicus briefs in lawsuits around the world which involve human rights, climate change, and air pollution. In September, Marcos Orellana, Claudia Mahler (Independent Expert on the rights of older persons), and I filed a brief with the European Court on Human Rights in the Swiss Senior Women’s climate case against Switzerland. Marcos and I are also working on a brief to be filed with the Constitutional Court of Ecuador in a case involving a major oil spill that harmed the environment and Indigenous peoples. At issue are a State’s obligations related to implementing the right to a healthy environment, which is constitutionally protected in Ecuador.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child dismissed cases against Argentina, Brazil, France Germany and Turkey that were brought by 16 youths from across the world, based on the failure to exhaust domestic remedies. These disappointing decisions did have a silver lining, in that the Committee did conclude that it had jurisdiction, adopting the approach of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that:
Because the case is now complete, John and I are allowed to publish our two briefs, on admissibility and the merits, which are available here and here.
On a brighter note, an Indonesian court ruled in favour of the applicants in a major case about air pollution and human rights in Jakarta, Indonesia. The court ordered several levels of government to take strong and specific actions to air quality, many of which were identified as legally binding human rights obligations in our amicus brief.
We continue to invite communications that allege violations of human rights related to environmental damage, degradation, hazards, or the fundamental rights of environmental human rights defenders. 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. ditional information regarding submitting information is available on the mandate’s website.
The environment mandate has joined or led 47 communications thus far in 2021, which can be reviewed (including State and business responses, where received) through the search engine here (select environment mandate and limit the date range to 2021).
Since September 1, we have given more than fifty presentations, speeches and recorded video interventions—too many to list here. We appreciate the opportunity to participate in online events, and thank all of the organizers for their tremendous efforts to inform the public and policy-makers about the human rights implications of today’s global environmental crisis.
We also publicly addressed the following issues in recent months through press releases, often issued in collaboration with colleagues:
Joint Statement by UN human rights experts - Accelerate the end of the coal era to protect human rights
29 October 2021
Tax air travel and sea shipping to help climate-vulnerable nations, UN expert tells COP-26 leaders
29 October 2021
Joint Statement by UN human rights experts - UN human rights experts urge States to create a global level playing field for responsible business conduct
19 October 2021
UN recognition of human right to healthy environment gives hope for planet’s future – human rights expert
8 October 2021
UN Food Systems Summit marginalizes human rights and disappoints, say experts
22 September 2021
More press releases and statements....
The HRC resolution recognizing the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment was an historic moment in the evolution of the international human rights system. While the moment, and the words on paper, are inspiring, we must seize the momentum to drive actions that improve air quality, ensure safe and sufficient water, stabilize the climate system, produce healthy and sustainable food, reduce the toxic contamination of the biosphere and its inhabitants and conserve and restore ecosystems and biodiversity. Implementation is the key!
As always, we welcome your ideas, suggestions, and feedback on the mandate. Together we have already made a difference and will continue to do so!
You can reach my wonderful colleagues Viktoria Aberg and Frederique Bourque (and me) through the official UN email address email@example.com and follow us on Twitter @SREnvironment and through our Youtube channel!
Please take care, stay healthy, enjoy the wonders of nature, and keep up your great work on behalf of this beautiful planet and its amazing people.