Dear friends and colleagues
Here in the northern hemisphere, spring is in the air with flowers blooming (see fawn lilies above), birds singing, and whales migrating! Despite the terrible pandemic, recent months have been as busy as ever, with a lot of hours on Zoom, Teams, Skype and other video platforms and a greatly reduced carbon footprint. The most exciting news to share with you is regarding accelerated momentum towards the long-awaited UN recognition of the right to a healthy environment, which some of you have been working on for thirty years.
Thanks to terrific work by the core group of States supporting the environment mandate (Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland), sixty-nine States signed a joint statement at the 46th session of the Human Rights Council in March calling for a resolution on this right, including at least ten States from every region of the world. Fifteen UN agencies issued a powerful statement also calling for urgent recognition of this right. These statements followed a letter to the HRC signed by more than 1,100 civil society organizations demanding recognition as soon as possible. There is legislation pending in Canada, the United States, and possibly Scotland that would recognize the right to a healthy environment for the first time in those countries.
With all of this positive momentum, and facing an unprecedented global environmental crisis, will the United Nations finally take this critical step forward and recognize that everyone, everywhere, has the fundamental human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment in 2021? Stay tuned for our next newsletter!
I would also like to honour the extraordinary efforts of many people in Latin America and the Caribbean who have worked for years on the Escazú Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean, which came into force on 22 April 2021. This is an historic achievement, but much work remains to get additional States to join the treaty and for all States to implement its vital provisions, including a pioneering obligation to protect environmental human rights defenders.
The other exciting news from Geneva is that in March the Human Rights Council renewed my mandate for another three years. The resolution is very strong, and I am indebted to Costa Rica for leading the negotiations to a successful conclusion, as it was passed by consensus. One particularly interesting aspect is that the Council has requested that I convene an expert seminar on the role of human rights and environmental conservation in the prevention of future pandemics. I will continue to do my very best in this challenging but rewarding role, on behalf of people and the planet.
On March 3 and 4, I presented my latest thematic report to the Human Rights Council, called Human rights and the global water crisis: water pollution, water scarcity and water-related disasters. This was the fourth in a series of reports clarifying the substantive elements of the right to a healthy environment, following clean air, a safe climate and a healthy biosphere. Over 80 States and dozens of civil society organizations responded with comments and questions.
Photo: Presenting via video to an empty hall at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, March 2021
We also hosted a side event called The Global Water Crisis: Identifying and Implementing Rights-based Solutions, featuring H.E. Ambassador Catalina Devandas Aguilar of Costa Rica, Maude Barlow (author, activist, and former Senior Advisor on Water to the 63rd President of the United Nations General Assembly), Ms. Catarina de Albuquerque (Chief Executive Officer, Sanitation and Water for All), Ms. Yuri Ramkissoon (Senior Researcher, South African Human Rights Commission) and Dr. Pedro Arrojo (Special Rapporteur on the rights to water and sanitation).
Finally, we participated in a parallel event called Human Rights Depend on a Healthy Biosphere co-organized by the Geneva Environment Network and Earthjustice, which featured introductory remarks by diplomats from the Maldives and Switzerland. Excellent speakers included Susan Gardner (Director, Ecosystems Division, UNEP), Trevor Sandwith (Director, Global Protected Areas Programme, IUCN), Luthando Dziba (Head of the Conservation Services, South African National Parks and Co-Chair of the Multidisciplinary Expert Panel, IPBES), Elaine Geyer-Allely (Deputy Leader, Governance Practice, WWF-International) and Winnie Sengwer (Advocacy Officer, Defenders Coalition Kenya).
We are currently working on our next thematic report, on healthy and sustainably produced food as an essential element of the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. The Call for Inputs to the report is available here.
Friend of the Court
My predecessor, Prof. John Knox, my colleague Dr. Marcos Orellana (the Special Rapporteur on toxics) and I are submitting amicus briefs in important lawsuits around the world which involve human rights, climate change, and air pollution. Our goal is to assist courts and other tribunals with our expert perspectives on international human rights law, international environmental law and comparative constitutional law related to the right to a healthy environment. We received a grant from the Open Society Foundations (through the University of British Columbia) to support the work on these cases, for which we are extremely grateful.
We are currently waiting for decisions from courts in Brazil and Indonesia, as well as decisions from the UN Human Rights Committee and the Committee on the Rights of the Child and are excited to be participating in the first climate change case to reach the European Court of Human Rights. Here are a few updates:
Greenpeace and Nordic Nature and Youth v. Norway
In December, the Supreme Court of Norway issued a disappointing decision rejecting challenges to the approval of offshore oil and gas exploration in a new area of the Barents Sea (in the southern Arctic Ocean). The Court narrowly interpreted the right to a healthy environment found in Article 112 of Norway’s Constitution and summarily dismissed arguments related to international law. An excellent critique of the Court’s decision by Professor Christina Voigt is available here.
Groundworks Trust et al. v. Minister for Environmental Affairs et al
High Court of South Africa, Gauteng Division
This 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, will be argued in May (we filed our amicus brief in March). I would like to thank Robin Lenahan, Michael Clements and Wayne Ncube from Lawyers for Human Rights for their tremendous pro bono assistance.
Duarte Agostinho and others v Portugal and others
European Court of Human Rights
Marcos and I recently received permission from the European Court of Human Rights to file an amicus brief in the first climate change case to reach that court, involving six Portuguese youth and 33 European nations. The youth assert that these States have violated their rights under the European Convention on Human Rights by failing to take adequate action to address the climate crisis. We will submit a brief on relevant general principles of international law by 6 May 2021.
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. Additional information regarding submitting information is available on the mandate’s website.
Recent communications that the environment mandate has joined or led include:
Uganda UGA 3/2020, South Africa ZAF 3/2020, Mauritius MUS 1/2020, Colombia COL 13/2020 and COL 2/2021, United States USA 7/2021 , Mexico MEX 14/2020, Bangladesh BGD 8/2020, Cambodia KHM 11/2020, Nicaragua NIC 1/2021, Japan JPN 1/2021, Iran IRN 2/2021, Israel ISR 13/2020 Brazil BRA 2/2021, and Bolivia BOL 1/2021.
We also publicly addressed the following issues in recent months through press releases, often issued in collaboration with colleagues:
Water crisis is worsening, urgent response needed
USA: Environmental racism in “Cancer Alley” must end
Brazil: Killing of land rights defender must be duly investigated to stop impunity
UN experts call for halt to contentious tourism resort in Bangladesh
Nicaragua: UN expert urges improved protection of environmental rights defenders
The Human Right that Benefits Nature, Katarina Zimmer, BBC, 16 March 2021, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20210316-how-the-human-right-to-a-healthy-environment-helps-nature
Interview with Geneva Solutions, Michelle Langrand, 26 March 2021, https://genevasolutions.news/climate/i-m-not-afraid-to-point-a-finger-un-special-rapporteur-on-human-rights-and-the-environment
Interview with Human Rights Pulse, Bronte Creighton-Shaw, 5 January 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wtc-OAhL7-Q
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 include:
- “Mobilizing International Health and Human Rights Law and Governance for Pandemic Recovery,” Centre for International Sustainable Development Law, 29 April
- Global Goals for Nature, Climate and People, Earthx TV program, 19-23 April
- Celebration of the Entry into Force of the Escazú Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean, CEPAL/ECLAC, 22 April
- Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Right to a Healthy Environment, 16 April #Wikiforhumanrights Earth Day campaign launch event, 15 April
- “Climate Change and Security: Human Rights Challenges and Opportunities in Small Island Developing States,” Pacific Island Forum, UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs and Office of the High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and SIDS, 8 April
- Neglected: Environmental justice impacts of plastic pollution, Launch of new report by UN Environment Programme, 30-31 March
- “The right to breathe clean air,” International Conference on Policies and Strategies for Combating Air Pollution in Commonwealth Countries, Ramphal Institute, 30-31 March
- “Grassroots Frontline Environmental, Land and Human Right Defenders in West Africa,” Yale Law School, 30 March
- High-level Session: What role for human rights institutions in supporting the rights-based implementation of the Paris Agreement in 2021 and beyond? Geneva Dialogues on Human Rights and Climate Change, 24 March
- “Transboundary rivers and resilient recovery,” Side event at the Asia Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development side-event, Oxfam, 24 March
- A rights-based turn in biodiversity litigation?, New York University, 18 March
- “Speaking about the elephant in the room: Human rights under the pressure of speculative strategies,” A debate in anticipation of World Water Day, 18 March
- Global Pact for the Environment and Human Rights, Waseda University, Japan, 15 Mar.
- Water Sources Have a Woman's Face: Defending Land, Territory and the Environment in Central America, HRC side event, 12 March
- Chief Guest and opening keynote, Right to Breathe Clean Air: Health and Environment Related SDGs, Symbiosis Law School, Pune India, 3 March
- “Towards the right to a healthy environment and safe drinking water throughout the agricultural commodity value chain – the case of natural rubber,” Swedwatch, Source International and Mighty Earth 24 February
- #TheTimeIsNow: The case for universal recognition of the right to a healthy environment, Side event, Human Rights Council, 23 February
- Leadership Dialogue: “Contribution of the environmental dimension of sustainable development to building a resilient and inclusive post-pandemic world”, UN Environment Assembly 5.1, 22-23 February 2021
- Briefing with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child on children’s environmental rights, 5 February
- "THE TIME IS NOW: Canadian and Global Recognition of the Right to a Healthy Environment," Allard Law School lecture, University of British Columbia, 26 January
- Roundtable on the right to a healthy environment in Scotland, 25 January
- “Nature rights: An extension of human rights?” European Union webinar, 12 January
- European Union briefing on the Escazu Agreement, 15 December 2020
- International Human Rights Day Celebration, Normandy Chair for Peace, 10 December
- High-Level Session on the occasion of International Human Rights Defenders Day, Second meeting of the countries signatory to the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean, CEPAL/ECLAC, 9 December 2020
- Environmental Justice & Engaging Marginalized Youth, Youth Flyway Forum, 5 Dec.
- “Climate Change: The role of National Human Rights Institutions,” Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions, 4 December
- Children and Youth vs the Climate Crisis: Where do we go from here? YOUNGO webinar, 2 December 2020
- Closing ceremony for Mock COP 26, 1 December 2020
- For Stronger Action on Climate Change, Council of Europe hearing, 1 December 2020
- Environmental Democracy initiative with Indonesian Parliament and Westminster Foundation for Democracy, November
- Human Rights and the Climate Change Crisis: Ethical Implications and the Human Rights to Development and a Healthy Environment, University of Geneva, 26 November
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 are also grateful to the IUCN's World Commission on Environmental Law for publishing my video lectures (one in English and one in Spanish):
The Right to a Healthy Environment: Protecting Life on Earth
El derecho humano a un medio ambiente sano: Proteger la vida en la Tierra
Other Publications of Interest
D. Boyd, J. Knox and M. Limon, #TheTimeIsNow: The case for universal recognition of the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, Universal Rights Group, https://www.universal-rights.org/urg-policy-reports/the-time-is-now-the-case-for-universal-recognition-of-the-right-to-a-safe-clean-healthy-and-sustainable-environment/
D. Boyd, “The Human Right to a Healthy Biosphere,” Voices for a Living Planet, Supplement to 2020 Living Planet Report, WWF, https://livingplanet.panda.org/voices/the-human-right-to-a-healthy-biosphere
Pro Bono Guide to the Climate Crisis, https://www.probonocentre.org.au/climate-change-guide/
Center for International Environmental Law, 2021 Rights, Carbon, Caution: Upholding Human Rights under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement
Center for International Environmental Law, 2021, Funding Our Future: Five Pillars for Rights-Based Climate Finance
We are looking forward to a busy year ahead with the Human Rights Council (September), the General Assembly, the World Conservation Congress, ongoing negotiations about the post-2020 global biodiversity framework at the 15th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biodiversity (in October in Kunming, China), and the 26th Climate COP (in November in Glasgow, UK).
Delighted to welcome Antoinette Duplay to our small team, to help us with videos and publications. Check out our Youtube channel! We continue to welcome your ideas, suggestions, and feedback on the mandate, especially as we conclude the first three-year term and embark on the second! You can reach us through the official UN email address email@example.com and follow us on Twitter @SREnvironment