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Statement by David R. Boyd, Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment at the 73rd session of the General Assembly

New York, 25 October 2018

Excellencies, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen

We live on the only planet in the universe known to support life. This miraculous blue-green orb is our home, and yet human society is causing unprecedented levels of environmental degradation. Scientists have determined that we are exceeding a number of planetary limits that are essential not just to human life but to all life on Earth.

Levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have risen from 280 parts per million prior to the Industrial Revolution to over 400 parts per million today, triggering dangerous and unpredictable climate change.

Rates of extinction are hundreds of times higher than normal, indicating that humans are causing the sixth mass extinction in the 3.8 billion years of life on this planet.

The World Health Organization reports that nearly one quarter of the global burden of disease—that is the annual total of all deaths and illnesses—is caused by exposure to environmental hazards in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, and the buildings and communities in which we live.

Every four seconds a human’s life ends prematurely because of exposure to pollution and other environmental hazards. That’s 800 deaths per hour. That’s more than eight million premature deaths per year, including the deaths of roughly one million children. This is the tip of the iceberg, for environmental hazards inflict preventable illnesses upon hundreds of millions of people every year. These are almost all preventable deaths and illnesses, preventable through stronger laws, policies, and programs.

In 2012, the Human Rights Council created a new mandate, appointing my predecessor, John H. Knox, as an independent expert to study the human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. In 2015 Professor Knox was promoted to Special Rapporteur and in 2018, the mandate was again extended. I am profoundly honoured to be serving as the second Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment. The resolution extending the mandate specifically requests the identification of challenges, obstacles, and protection gaps that are preventing the full realization of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the two international covenants were created, the phrases “climate change,” biological diversity,” and “environmental burden of disease” didn’t even exist. And yet today the ecological systems, biological diversity and planetary conditions that are the vital foundations of human existence are under unprecedented stress. It is beyond debate that people are wholly dependent on a healthy environment in order to lead dignified, healthy and fulfilling lives.

Professor Knox and a team of researchers reviewed hundreds of statements of treaty bodies, regional human rights tribunals, special procedures mandate holders and other human rights authorities that had applied human rights norms to environmental issues. Virtually every source reviewed identified human rights whose enjoyment was infringed or threatened by environmental harm, and the sources agreed that States had obligations under human rights law to protect against such harm. Professor Knox concluded that the relationship of human rights norms as applied to the environment was “remarkably coherent.” As a result, his final report to the Human Rights Council included a set of Framework Principles that set out the human rights obligations related to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. The obligations included procedural obligations (such as duties to provide information, facilitate participation and provide access to remedies), substantive obligations (including the obligation to regulate private actors) and additional obligations towards vulnerable people.

However, after six years as mandate holder, Professor Knox came to the conclusion that there is a glaring gap in the global human rights system. He and I are in 100% agreement that it is time for the UN to recognize the fundamental human right to live in a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. This right belongs to everyone, everywhere. Human life, health, wellbeing, and dignity depend on access to clean water, clean air, and a healthy environment. This right meets all of the procedural and substantive requirements established by the General Assembly to govern the proclamation of additional human rights.

Although the UN has not yet recognized the right to a healthy environment, many member States have done so. The right to a healthy environment enjoys constitutional status—the strongest form of legal protection available—in more than 100 countries.

Over 100 States include the right in their environmental legislation. At least 130 States have ratified regional human rights treaties that explicitly include the right to a healthy environment—treaties covering Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East, parts of Asia, and Europe. In total, more than 150 States already have granted legal recognition to the right to a healthy environment.

Decades of experience at the national and regional levels demonstrate the benefits of recognizing the right to a healthy environment, namely:
-Stronger environmental laws and policies
-Improved implementation and enforcement
-Greater public participation in environmental decision-making
-A level playing field with social and economic rights

The ultimate test in evaluating the right to a healthy environment is whether it contributes to healthier people and healthier ecosystems. The evidence in this regard is impressive. Numerous studies have concluded that recognition of this right has a positive causal influence on environmental performance in areas including improved air quality, increased proportion of the population with access to safe drinking water, and decreased greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, legal recognition of the right to a healthy environment has enabled millions of people to breathe cleaner air, gain access to safe drinking water, and reduce their exposure to toxic substances.

Of particular importance are the positive effects of the recognition of the right to a healthy environment on vulnerable populations, including women, children, persons living in poverty, members of indigenous peoples and traditional communities, older persons, persons with disabilities, minorities and displaced persons. Respecting, protecting, and fulfilling the right to a healthy environment reduces environmental injustices by ensuring a minimum level of environmental quality for all members of society, consistent with international standards.

There are at least four approaches that the General Assembly could employ to recognize the right to a healthy environment. One option would be a new international treaty, such as the Global Pact introduced by France last year and now being discussed.

A second option would involve the development of an additional protocol to an existing treaty. For example, the right to a healthy and sustainable environment could be the focus of an optional protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

A third option, potentially powerful but time-consuming, would be to develop a new international covenant on environmental rights, to complement the ICCPR and the ICESCR.

A fourth and potentially more expeditious approach would be for the General Assembly to adopt a resolution focused on the right to a healthy environment, as it did for the rights to water and sanitation in 2010.

PHOTO: UNGA Recognition of the Right to a Healthy Environment
The time has come for the United Nations to formally recognize the human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, or, more simply, the human right to a healthy environment. This would not only be consistent with the state of the law in most of the world, but would also provide important and tangible benefits. It would complement, reinforce and amplify the regional and national norms and jurisprudence developed over the past 45 years. Recognition of the right to a healthy and sustainable environment by the United Nations would acknowledge that this right must be universally protected (rather than subject to the current patchwork of protection). It would serve as an impetus for more nations to incorporate this right into their constitutions and legislation and potentially provide mechanisms for increased accountability when governments violate or fail to protect this human right.

All States dedicated to protecting the health of both human beings and the ecosystems upon which we depend move expeditiously to incorporate the right to a healthy environment into their constitutional, legal and policy frameworks. States in Latin America and the Caribbean should promptly sign and ratify the Escazú Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters.

In every country and every community there are women and men, girls and boys, courageously working to protect the environment. The recognition by the United Nations of a universal right to a healthy environment would be a profoundly meaningful way to empower, energize and inspire the continued efforts of these human rights defenders.

The current situation, with over 200 environmental defenders being murdered annually, and many more harassed, threatened and detained, is totally deplorable and demands action.

Since I began speaking to you ten minutes ago, over 100 people have died prematurely, including a dozen children, because of exposure to pollution and other environmental hazards. These deaths are preventable through stronger laws, policies, and programs. The UN General Assembly has the power to catalyze actions to

accelerate the response to climate change

Protect biodiversity

Expand access to safe drinking water

And save millions of lives, by recognizing the right to a healthy environment and thus filling a glaring gap in the international human rights system.

In view of the severe environmental problems threatening our beautiful blue-green home, this ought to be a matter of the utmost urgency for the General Assembly.