Lively conversations about women, girls, gender diverse persons and biodiversity - Montreal, Convention on Biological Diversity, COP 15
Dear friends and colleagues
What a year! 2022 saw all kinds of daunting challenges, but also a number of historic breakthroughs for the right to a healthy environment. There was the exciting UN General Assembly resolution recognizing the fundamental human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment on 28 July! The Global Biodiversity Framework completed in Montreal in December is unprecedented in its embrace of rights-based approaches to conserving, protecting, restoring, sustainably using and equitably sharing the benefits of nature. The GBF refers to the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, makes repeated references to the importance of respecting the rights of Indigenous peoples and other rural communities with strong cultural ties to nature, sets a target for gender equality and even mentions the rights of nature and Mother Earth. The Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan that emerged from COP 27 not only includes the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment but created the long-awaited Loss and Damage Fund to provide funding to SIDS and LICs in compensation for climate harms they are suffering.
2022 also saw huge victories in court cases where people asserted that their right to a healthy environment includes clean air. Courts in South Africa and Indonesia, in cases where we filed amicus briefs to support the applicants, ordered governments to take immediate action to improve air quality. We genuinely hope that these governments will implement effective and equitable steps to reduce pollution and fulfil the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. There was also a ground-breaking decision from the Human Rights Committee in the Torres Strait Islanders case (in which John Knox and I filed an amicus brief), where the Committee found that Australia violated human rights through inadequate climate adaptation measures.
One day we may look back at 2022 as a remarkable turning point in humanity’s efforts to achieve the elusive goal of sustainable development through human-rights based approaches. The years ahead will undoubtedly pose new challenges, but there is wind in our sails as we move forward in implementing the right to a healthy environment.
Upcoming Reports and Consultations
On March 9/10, 2023 we will be presenting a report to the Human Rights Council on women, girls and the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Women and girls are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis and environmental degradation but are also critically important actors with the capability to make enormous contributions to solving society’s sustainability challenges.
At the same session, we will present a report about the importance of rights-based approaches to preventing future pandemics, based on an expert seminar held in October 2022. States need to understand that the most effective and equitable way to protect all 8 billion people from the very real threat of future spillover (and potential pandemics) is by addressing the environmental drivers of spillover, which include deforestation, commercial wildlife trade and intensification of the livestock industry. We will also present reports on our 2022 country visits to Portugal and Slovenia.
We carried out back-to-back visits to Portugal and Slovenia in September/October 2022. These two States are pioneers in the recognition of the right to a healthy environment and strong advocates for its global recognition. Both countries face daunting challenges but have good practices that could be emulated by other States. The country visit reports will be presented to the Human Rights Council in March 2023.
Meeting with civil society representatives and local community members,
Anhovo in the Kanal ob Soči municipality, Slovenia
Visiting the site of a recent wildfire
Serra da Estrela, Portugal
On October 21, I presented a report to the General Assembly describing how the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment can be a catalyst for accelerated action to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The report refutes the widely held misperception that the SDGs are merely political aspirations, when in fact they are built upon a rock-solid foundation of human rights obligations. The right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is connected to each of the 17 SDGs in ways that are sometimes obvious and sometimes surprising.
We also published a briefing note on the “Essential elements of effective and equitable human rights and environmental due diligence legislation”. Co-authored with international human rights lawyer Stephanie Keene, this paper is intended to influence legislation at the national level in a number of States and at the regional level in the European Union.
Friends of the Court
2023 is shaping up to be another enormously important year for human rights and the environment in court rooms around the world. We have filed amicus curiae briefs in three climate cases before the European Court of Human Rights, two of which have been forwarded to the Grand Chamber in recognition of their importance. These are the Portuguese youth case brought by six young people suffering the dramatic impacts of the climate crisis, arguing that 32 European nations are not acting with adequate urgency to safeguard their rights; and the Swiss senior women’s case, in which the argument is that the rights of older women are being harmed by increasingly frequent and severe heat waves while Switzerland has filed to take sufficient measures to reduce emissions.
Another important case likely to be decided in 2023 involves the Community of La Oroya v Peru, where we filed an amicus brief with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Oral arguments were made in October and my colleague Marcos Orellana served as an expert witness. The Court’s decision is expected to delineate State obligations related to addressing air pollution and exposure to toxic substances in a community suffering high levels of poverty.
In recent months we have many presentations, speeches and recorded video interventions. Highlights included a dozen (!) presentations at the Conference of Parties to the UN Convention on Biodiversity in Montreal (COP 15), especially two sessions organized byWomen4Biodiversity, a Ministerial breakfast on Gender and Biodiversity, and a speech at the High-Level Plenary. I also participated virtually and via pre-recorded video in several events at COP27 in Egypt.
In October, we were delighted to participate in a special breakfast meeting convened by the newly elected President of the General Assembly, Csaba Kőrösi, to discuss next steps in implementing the GA resolution on the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. While in New York we also joined a side event at the General Assembly on human rights and the climate crisis with six other special rapporteurs including Ian Fry (human rights and climate change), Tendayi Achiume (contemporary forms of racism), Siobhan Mullally (trafficking in persons), Reem Alsalem (violence against women and girls), Balakrishnan Rajagopal (right to adequate housing) and Felipe Gonzalez (human rights of migrants). Very powerful to hear about the wide-ranging impacts of the climate crisis on human rights from my brilliant colleagues. Video here! While in Geneva hosting the expert seminar on pandemic prevention and human rights, I also managed to participate in an excellent side event to the ongoing negotiations about a legally binding instrument on businesses and human rights: “Towards Environmental Justice: The role of the Legally Binding Instrument for business accountability in combatting the triple planetary crisis” organized by Franciscans International.
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. Among the other events we spoke at last fall were the Right Here, Right Now Global Climate Summit hosted by the University of Colorado (Boulder) and the First Annual Forum on human rights defenders in environmental matters in Latin America and the Caribbean. This latter event was organized by ECLAC, in its capacity as Secretariat of the Escazú Agreement, in partnership with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Government of Ecuador, with the support of the World Bank's Human Rights, Inclusion and Empowerment (HRIE) Umbrella Trust Fund.
I also provided guest lectures at Nelson Mandela University, Harvard and the University of British Columbia, recorded 15 video statements for online or hybrid events and was interviewed for several podcasts including Linnea Nordlander’s The Climate Show. Finally, I testified before Canada’s House of Commons Standing Committee on the Environment and Sustainable Development regarding Bill S-5, a proposed law that would recognize Canadians’ right to a healthy environment for the first time through amendments to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.
We also publicly addressed the following issues in recent months through press releases, often issued in collaboration with colleagues:
21 October 2022- Trillions needed to close finance gap on Sustainable Development Goals, says UN expert
18 November 2022-Egypt: UN experts alarmed by harassment of civil society actors at COP27 climate summit
5 December 2022-States must renew their commitment to international cooperation to achieve global development goals and realise human rights
6 December 2022-Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework: Urgent need to protect nature and human rights, say UN experts
7 December 2022- Comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation must be a priority, say UN experts ahead of Universal Declaration anniversary
7 December 2022-Mexico: Government and business must address negative impacts of Train Maya project, say UN experts
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.
One of the great challenges in working at the nexus of human rights and the environment is maintaining a modicum of optimism in the face of a steady stream of dire news. However, one of the extraordinary privileges of serving as a UN special rapporteur is that I am constantly working with and meeting new people who are tackling these issues with incredible courage and creativity. To all of you, I wish you good health, happiness and time to enjoy both the inspiring friendship of allies on this journey and the natural wonders of this beautiful blue-green planet.
In 2023 we are planning a visit to Chile and hopefully an African State.
As always, we welcome your ideas, suggestions, and feedback on the mandate. Together we have already made a difference and together we will continue to do so!
I am very fortunate to be working with Stephanie Keene (United States), who is an international human rights lawyer, and Imalka Nimalgoda (Canada), who is a lawyer seconded to our team in a very generous gesture by Ecojustice.
You can reach my wonderful colleagues Viktoria Aberg, Frederique Bourque, Abigail Koshimo Brown (and me) through the official UN email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow us on Twitter @SREnvironment and through our Youtube channel!