Published: 26 Mar 2021

Human rights and the environment are intrinsically intertwined: a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is essential in the enjoyment of our human rights; whilst polluted, hazardous and otherwise unhealthy environments potentially violate our human rights. Governments must protect and promote and businesses must respect environmental rights if we wish to tackle environmental challenges.

Human rights and the environment are intrinsically intertwined: a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is essential in the enjoyment of our human rights; whilst polluted, hazardous and otherwise unhealthy environments potentially violate our human rights. Governments must protect and promote and businesses must respect environmental rights if we wish to tackle environmental challenges.

Environmental rights are not abstract, remote, irrelevant concepts; they are measurable, prominent and functional aspects of society and its ecology.

More than 100 countries incorporate constitutional rights to a healthy environment. When environmental rights are violated, people and the planet suffer from reduced health and well-being.

The Role of International Geneva

Geneva is the main international hub on human rights issues and the majority of international universal human rights organs are based here.

United Nations Human Rights Council

The United Nations Human Rights Council is an inter-governmental body within the United Nations system made up of 47 States responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe. It has the ability to discuss all thematic human rights issues and situations that require its attention throughout the year. The UN Human Rights Council meets at the UN Office at Geneva.

Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is the leading UN entity on human rights and represent the world’s commitment to the promotion and protection of the full range of human rights and freedoms set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. OHCHR is home for secretariats of international human rights treaty bodies and the UN Human Rights Council.

Michelle Bachelet is the High Commissioner for Human Rights, often known as the UN human rights chief.

Treaty Bodies

The human rights treaty bodies are committees of independent experts that monitor implementation of the core international human rights treaties. Each State party to a treaty has an obligation to take steps to ensure that everyone in the State can enjoy the rights set out in the treaty.

Currently, there 10 treaty bodies that are established by nine human rights international treaties and one optional protocol . The treaty bodies are composed of independent experts of recognized competence in human rights, who are nominated and elected for fixed renewable terms of four years by State parties.

Recently, UN human rights experts also welcomed the impending entry into force of the first environmental human rights treaty in Latin America and the Caribbean, known as the Escazú Agreement, lauding it as a ground-breaking pact to fight pollution and secure a healthy environment. The Escazú Agreement also includes strong protections for indigenous peoples and environmental human rights defenders, at a time when they are subject to unprecedented levels of violence.

Universal Periodic Review

The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a unique process which involves a review of the human rights records of all UN Member States. The UPR is a State-driven process, under the auspices of the Human Rights Council, which provides the opportunity for each State to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries and to fulfill their human rights obligations.

Aarhus Convention

The Aarhus Convention on access to information, public participation and access to justice in environmental matters, hosted by UNECE, is also devoting a part of its work on the protection of environmental defenders. The Escazú convention in Latin America is working in the same direction.

Special Rapporteurs

Special Procedures

There are other types of bodies on human rights such as the Special Procedures which are independent.

Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment

David R. Boyd is the current Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment with the following mandate:

  • Continue to study the human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment
  • Continue to identify, promote and exchange views on good practices relating to human rights obligations and commitments to inform, support and strengthen environmental policy making, especially in the area of environmental protection
  • Promote and report on the realization of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, and to disseminate his findings by, inter alia, continuing to give particular emphasis to practical solutions with regard to their implementation
  • Work on identifying challenges and obstacles to the full realization of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment and protection gaps thereto, including in the context of sustainable development
  • Continue to contribute to and participate in conferences and meetings relevant to the mandate, including at the United Nations Environment Assembly
  • Develop a dialogue with all relevant stakeholders to enhance public awareness of the human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a environment
  • Conduct country visits and to respond promptly to invitations from States

Special Rapporteur on the Implications for Human Rights of the Environmentally Sound Management and Disposal of Hazardous Substances and Wastes

Marcos A. Orellana is the current Special Rapporteur on hazardous substances and wastes (i.e. toxics).  The Special Rapporteur is an independent expert appointed by the Human Rights Council and undertakes the following main tasks:

  • Conduct research and analysis to be presented in separate thematic reports to the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly;
  • Undertake country visits and reporting on the situation in those countries in relation to the concerns of the mandate;
  • Send letters to governments, business enterprises and other relevant entities regarding  the actual or potential exposure of people to hazardous substances and wastes, and other related implications, such as those related to the lack of information, participation and access to remedies.

Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders

Mary Lawlor is the current Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders with the following mandate:

  • Promote the effective implementation of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders in cooperation and dialogue with Governments and other actors
  • Study developments and challenges on the right to promote and protect human rights and seek, receive and respond to information on the situation of human rights defenders
  • Recommend effective strategies to better protect human rights defenders
  • Integrate a gender perspective and pay particular attention to women human rights defenders

In 2019, a resolution was adopted by consensus at the Human Right Council about the protection of the people who are acting for the environment. It has been followed by a roadmap to see how, at the international level, researchers, academics, states and civil society can join forces in order to make sure that the growing trends of attack against people who are defending the environment including official governmental civil servants, rangers and people from the civil society.

Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation

Pedro Arrojo-Agudo is the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation with the following mandate:

  • Focus on the issue of human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation;
  • Carry out thematic research
  • Undertake country missions
  • Collect good practices
  • Work with development practitioners on the implementation of the rights to water and sanitation

On 28 July 2010, through Resolution 64/292, the United Nations General Assembly explicitly recognized the human right to water and sanitation and acknowledged that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realization of all human rights. The Resolution calls upon States and international organisations to provide financial resources, help capacity-building and technology transfer to help countries, in particular developing countries, to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all

Right to a Healthy Environment

An appeal to the Human Rights Council to recognize without delay the right of all to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment was shared with all member states ahead of HRC45. This appeal, entitled “The Time Is Now“, has been signed by more than 1,150 organizations from civil society, social, environmental, youth, gender equality and human rights movements, trade unions, Indigenous Peoples, and local communities, from more than 100 countries. The call was conveyed at HRC46 in a joint NGO statement.

On 9 March 2021, over 60 nations urged the HRC to recognize the right to a healthy environment, moving a step closer towards adding a new universal human right that also benefits the planet to the list. Simultaneously, the UN Environment Programme delivered a joint statement on behalf of 15 UN entities calling for global recognition, implementation, and protection of the human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

Geneva Roadmap

In 2020, United Nations programmes, environmental defenders, NGOs and academic institutions discussed how to mobilize the international community towards supporting environmental defenders. Worldwide, they advocate for healthy environments – not just for their own local communities but for everyone. Despite, their efforts, environmental human rights defenders (EHRDs) remain highly vulnerable and under increasing attack across the globe.

While there are various organizations that have implemented different projects to protect environmental defenders and strengthen the usage of environmental rights, some of these initiatives are fragmented. Hence, the UN programmes and partners came together to coordinate existing defender protection programmes and to develop a Geneva Roadmap.

The Geneva Roadmap seeks to ensure the effective implementation of the right to act for the protection of the environment. It aims to provide a collective platform in which initiatives and commitments of governments, civil society, research and academia and private actors can support one another.

With the support of Switzerland, Fiji, Norway, and in collaboration with NGOs and academic partners, the Geneva Environment Network organized side events to the HRC43 in February 2020 and the HRC46 in March 2021 aimed at strengthening the dialogue process of the Geneva Roadmap for the implementation of Resolution 40/11. The latest event identified milestones in 2021 as several events on the international scene offering critical opportunities for the realization of the Geneva Roadmap, both at the regional and global level.

Climate Change

Climate change is an existential threat for people and the planet. Its harmful effects undermine the full enjoyment and realization of all human rights, disproportionately affecting those who are already in vulnerable situations. Over the past years, the Human Rights Council took on resolutions and discussions on specific aspects of climate change, while Special Rapporteur contributed with reports on specific thematic angles within their mandates. However, there is currently no mechanisms to holistically address the interface of climate change and human rights.

The Human Rights Council has contributed to raising awareness of the links between human rights and climate change by successive and targeted clarifications of the ways climate change affects human rights, including through the adoption of a series of resolutions related to climate change and human rights. The OHCHR also published a factsheet on the “Frequently asked questions on human rights and climate change

In 2010, an alliance of civil society organizations has called upon the HRC to establish a mandate for a new UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Climate Change in order to better protect the rights of those on the frontlines of climate impacts. This call was reiterated by the Climate Vulnerable Forum – an alliance of States highly impacted by climate change – at the 2019 Conference of Parties (COP) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and in many other contexts by various groups of States and civil society organizations.

In 2020, the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) and Franciscans International (FI), in cooperation with the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Geneva Office, launched a series of activities to assess how a new UN Special Rapporteur mandated on climate change could effectively support the work of civil society and Indigenous Peoples organizations already working on these issues. Based on regional consultations around the world, they published a report highlighting key recommendations for the institutions of the mandate.

The call for a mandate on human rights and climate change was reiterated at HRC46 by a coalition of 55 states in a joint statement. The Geneva Interfaith Forum on Climate Change, Environment, and Human Rights – a group of faith-based organizations that gather to reaffirm the responsibility of each faith and spiritual tradition to care for the environment – also presented a statement in support of the mandate

United Nations Environment Programme and Human Rights

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) works to advance the inclusive and effective implementation of environmental rights law through, protecting environmental defenders, strengthening legal frameworks, building capacities of relevant stakeholders and advancing universal recognition of the right to a healthy environment.

As environmental issues have grown within the work of the Human Rights Council, there has been an agreement between the High Commissioner and the Executive Director of UNEP. One of the outcomes of this close collaboration is the publication on the response to Covid called: “Human Rights, the Environment and Covid-19”. It gives the keys elements on how the environment and human rights are interlinked in what happened with Covid and also with the development of the Covid response.

UNEP and OHCHR Agreement

In 2019, UNEP and the OHCHR have prioritized efforts to promote and protect environmental and human rights with the signing of a new cooperation agreement. The heads of the two UN bodies agreed that although more than 150 countries have recognized the human right to a healthy environment in their constitutions, national laws and jurisprudence, or through regional agreements, significantly more work is needed to inform policy-makers, justice institutions and the public on the various ways they can take action to uphold this right.

Strengthened cooperation will aim to drive better protection of environmental human rights defenders and their families, who frequently face violence – including killings and sexual violence, smear campaigns, and other forms of intimidation.

The partnership will also encourage greater acceptance by leaders and governments of the human right to a healthy environment pursuing efforts toward its global recognition. It will seek to increase support to national governments to promote human rights-based policies, particularly in terms of sustainable management of natural resources, development planning, and action to combat climate change.

Learning

Introduction to Human Rights and the Environment

UNITAR / UNEP / InforMEA

The Introduction to Human Rights and the Environment course covers the relationship between human rights and the environment; explains the bases for the application of human rights to environmental issues, and the procedural and substantive obligations relating to the environment; and gives examples of constitutions that have incorporated a right to a healthy environment, good practices in procedural and substantive environmental protection.

Environmental Human Rights Defenders

InforMEA

The course focuses on the crisis of the environmental defenders.

Resources