Dear friends and colleagues
The momentum continues! After the breakthroughs at the Human Rights Council in 2021 and at the General Assembly in 2022 recognizing the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, action is happening across the world to breathe life into these resolutions. Belize and Grenada ratified the Escazú Agreement, marking the first time that these States have recognized the right to a healthy environment in law. Canada enacted changes to its framework environmental law, recognizing the right to a healthy environment in law for the first time after voting in favor of the GA resolution in 2022. There are now 160 States where the right to a healthy environment is recognized in law!
Another vital development is the publication of General Comment 26 on child rights, the environment and climate change by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. The Committee recognized for the first time that every child on this planet has the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, a right that is not explicitly included in the Convention on the Rights of the Child but is implicit in other rights and is an essential prerequisite to the enjoyment of all children’s rights. The General Comment comprehensively articulates the obligations and responsibilities of States and businesses respectively, to respect, protect and fulfill children’s right to a healthy environment. It will be an incredibly useful tool in the years ahead, and it was an honour to serve on the Advisory Board that supported the Committee’s efforts.
Upcoming Reports and Consultations
We will be presenting a report to the General Assembly in mid-October about the adverse impacts that Investor-State Dispute Settlement mechanisms, embedded in thousands of international investment agreements, are having on climate and environmental action, as well as human rights. It was really shocking to learn the magnitude of this problem. Cases seeking roughly one trillion dollars in damages have been filed, with climate and environmental cases making up most of the largest awards against governments (approximately $100 billion to date). Obviously, this money would be better spent on actions to address the planetary crisis and fulfill human rights instead of compensating the fossil fuel and mining corporations that have been major contributors to the planetary crisis. States in the global South are being bullied and exploited by investors in the global North, with devastating impacts on human rights and the environment. This needs to stop!
We are also in the process of preparing a report on businesses and the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, to be presented to the Human Rights Council in March 2024. A call for inputs will be issued in September and an expert meeting will be held in October.
We spent two weeks in Chile at the start of May on an official country visit. It was both inspiring and heart-breaking. Inspiring because of the extraordinary people we met, including Indigenous leaders, environmental human rights defenders, civil society, local government officials, judges, labour leaders, ministers, civil servants and business leaders—in Santiago, Quintero-Puchuncavi, Puerto Limon and Calama (near the Atacama Desert). Heartbreaking to see the tears rolling down the cheeks of mothers and fathers as they described the horrors of living in sacrifice zones, where industrial activities and corporate profits have been prioritized over people, health, human rights and the environment. It was encouraging to learn that Chile is making progress, as 8 coal-fired power plants have closed in recent years and a massive copper smelter closed just weeks after our visit. The comprehensive report will be presented to the Human Rights Council in March 2024.
Visiting the site of a copper smelter (now closed!)
On March 9 and 10, I presented my report (A/HRC/52/33) on women, girls and the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment to the Human Rights Council. It was a highly engaging interactive dialogue with more than 90 States asking questions or making statements. 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. We also participated in an excellent high-level side event on advancing the implementation of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment led by Ambassadors from Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland.
While in Geneva, I spoke at side events on “The impact on climate on the rights of people in vulnerable situations”, “Women, girls and the right to a healthy environment”, “Advancing environmental democracy in Africa: The road towards an environmental rights legal framework”, and a breakfast event “Celebrating International Women’s Day 2023 Women, Girls, And The Triple Planetary Crisis”. Finally, I participated in an experts’ meeting on advancing the implementation of the right to a healthy environment hosted by the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights.
To commemorate Desertification and Drought Day on 17 June, we published a new
Policy Brief about how these environmental challenges affect human rights, especially the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Fittingly, this year’s theme was “Her Land, Her Rights”. Co-authored with Ecojustice lawyer Imalka Nilmalgoda, we hope this report will draw greater attention to the role human rights must play in the implementation of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, the overlooked Rio Convention from the early 1990s. We also produced a short video for the high-level dialogue that took place the same day in New York.
Friends of the Court
Marcos Orellana (Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights), Ian Fry (Special Rapporteur on climate change and human rights) and I recently filed an amicus brief with the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea in an advisory opinion process related to climate change and the oceans. We are grateful for the assistance of the Vance Centre for International Justice, led by Susan Kath and Sam Bookman, and a talented team of lawyers from Milbank, led by Viren Mascarenhas and Chris Taufatofua. The three special rapporteurs, with the same partners, are preparing an amicus brief for the Inter-American Court of Human Rights as they are also going to issue an advisory opinion on the climate emergency and human rights. Given the leadership of the Inter-American Court on human rights and the environment generally, this represents an exciting opportunity to clarify the obligations of States to take effective, equitable and urgent climate action. We also plan to participate in the advisory opinion process of the International Court of Justice on climate change and State obligations.
We are anxiously waiting for court decisions in critically important cases related to human rights and the environment in court rooms around the world. Marcos and I 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. The first is 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. The second is the case brought by six Portuguese youths suffering the dramatic impacts of the climate crisis, arguing that 32 European nations are not acting with adequate urgency to safeguard their rights. The third case at the European Court, which is on hold pending the Grand Chamber decisions, involves continued offshore oil development in Norway, an activity that is impossible to reconcile with the right to a healthy environment in the face of a global climate emergency.
Another important pending decision is in the case of the Community of La Oroya v Peru, where I filed an amicus brief with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The Court’s decision is expected to delineate State obligations related to the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment in the context of extreme air pollution and exposure to toxic substances in an impoverished community.
In recent months we have many presentations, speeches and recorded video interventions. Highlights included a fascinating two-day seminar on the climate emergency and human rights in Costa Rica with judges from the Inter-American, European, and African courts on human rights.
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 virtually in the first half of the year were:
-the Prince Mahidol Award Conference on health, climate and environment;
-a World Bank webinar on the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment;
-the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Day of Dialogue on sustainable development and human rights;
-the Paro Forum on Climate Justice and Happiness in Bhutan;
-the 25th anniversary celebration of AIDA (the InterAmerican Association for Environmental Defense);
-the Aarhus Judicial Colloquium on Judicial Protection of Human Rights Against Pollution from Chemicals and Waste;
-a webinar hosted by India’s Environment Support Group on air pollution and the right to a healthy environment;
-a UNEP-sponsored side event at the Economic and Social Council Youth Forum on plastic pollution and the right to a healthy environment;
-a high-level event in anticipation of the Council of Europe’s Reykjavik Summit;
-an Environment Day event with the Supreme Court of Mexico discussing their jurisprudence on the right to a healthy environment; and
-a fascinating event on gender, human rights and chemicals management co-organized by Women4Biodiversity and the MSP Institute.
We also publicly addressed the following issues in recent months through press releases, often issued in collaboration with colleagues:
23 JUN 2023: UN experts call for end to global ‘war on drugs’ | OHCHR
1 JUNE 2023 : UN experts warn of “toxic tidal wave” as plastic pollutes environment and threatens human rights | OHCHR
15 MAY 2023 States must tackle racism and stigma against LGBT persons | OHCHR
4 APRIL 2023 : UN experts express solidarity with the people of Malawi in wake of Cyclone Freddy | OHCHR
27 MARCH 2023 : UN experts urge Parties to Rotterdam Convention to adopt amendment listing hazardous chemicals | OHCHR
22 MARCH 2023: Water is a common good not a commodity: UN experts | OHCHR
9 MARCH 2023 : States must tackle gender-based discrimination to guarantee right to a healthy environment: UN expert | OHCHR
20 FEBRUARY 2023 : Mexico must clarify fate and whereabouts of human rights defenders Ricardo Lagunes and Antonio Díaz and business must collaborate: UN experts | OHCHR
We continue to invite communications related to 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 details about submitting information are available on the mandate’s website.
The Costa Rican climate diplomat Christiana Figueres hosts a podcast called “Outrage + Optimism.” This phrase is a concise encapsulation of how I feel every single day. Outraged by the thoughtless exploitation of this unique and imperiled planet, outraged by indefensible climate and environmental injustices, and yet optimistic because of the millions of people working in myriad ways to achieve a just and sustainable future where everyone enjoys the right to live in a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. We are living in the end days of fossil fuels. Our grandchildren will shake their heads in disbelief that we burned coal and gas to generate electricity and used oil to power our internal combustion engines for transport. “How primitive!” they’ll say. It’s inspiring to imagine how clean and quiet the world will be when fossil fuels are no longer burned.
As always, we welcome your ideas, suggestions, and feedback on the mandate. This is the final year of my second and final term. Time has passed so quickly, and there is still so much to do!
The team of the Special Rapporteur, Palais des Nations, Geneva March 2023
L to R: Imalka Nilmalgoda, Stephanie Keene, Viktoria Aberg, David Boyd, Frederique Bourque
You can reach my wonderful colleagues Viktoria Aberg, Frederique Bourque, (and me) through the official UN email address: firstname.lastname@example.org We are fortunate to continue working with Stephanie Keene, an international human rights lawyer. And we are grateful for our year-long collaboration with Imalka Nilmalgoda, who has returned to working with Ecojustice in Canada.
Follow us on Twitter @SREnvironment and through our Youtube channel!