Speeches - June 2005 - Social Progress, Larger Freedom and the Global Ecosystem - United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
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Social Progress, Larger Freedom and the Global Ecosystem




on the occasion of the



San Francisco, California, USA

Wednesday 1 June 2005



Sixty years ago, in this city, the founding members of the United Nations pledged to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights and the dignity and worth of the human person, and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.

Those commitments come from the UN Charter, whose first words are: ‘We the peoples of the United Nations.’

‘We the peoples’ was the chosen title of the Secretary-General’s report to the Millennium Summit in 2000 which led to the adoption of the Millennium Declaration and its set of time-bound goals—commonly known as the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs—which guide much of the work of the UN system today.

In his Millennium Report, the Secretary-General made a telling point. He had asked the General Assembly to prepare for the Millennium Summit by concentrating on three global issues: freedom from want, freedom from fear, and the freedom of future generations to sustain their lives on this planet.

This third freedom, he noted, was not even identified in the original UN Charter, simply because at that time the founders of the United Nations could scarcely imagine that it would ever be threatened.

If we look at another essential UN publication, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, we see a similar story.

All the key words are in the preamble: dignity, peace, social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom. But no mention of the environment on which we all depend.

The phrase, ‘In larger freedom’ which appears in both the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, has been further highlighted this year because it is the title of the Secretary-General’s report for the summit that will take place in September, in New York, to assess progress towards the MDGs and to consider essential reforms to the UN.

The full title of the report is: ‘In larger freedom: towards development, security and human rights for all’. Inside, the Secretary-General explicitly links success in achieving these objectives with the sustainable use of the Earth’s environmental resources.

I quote: “All our efforts to defeat poverty and pursue sustainable development will be in vain if environmental degradation and natural resource depletion continue unabated.”

During his tenure, the Secretary-General has consistently promoted this message, a message that has been growing in force and urgency for more than three decades, since the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment.

One outcome of that conference was the establishment of the United Nations Environment Programme.

It also marked the formal acceptance by the international community that development and the environment are inextricably linked.

Let’s not underestimate the significance of Stockholm.

In a fiercely polarised world, where global warming and the depletion of the ozone layer were hardly issues, and where development at all costs seemed to be the prevailing credo across the globe, world leaders agreed that defending and improving the human environment for present and future generations was “an imperative goal for mankind—a goal to be pursued together with, and in harmony with, the established and fundamental goals of peace and worldwide economic and social development.”

Since then—through the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and the 2002 Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development—environmental issues have become increasingly prominent and accepted on the international agenda.

And not just in rhetoric. Since UNEP was established, a whole raft of environmental legislation—international and national—has been enacted, establishing a wide range of de facto environmental rights and obligations where none existed before.

This is something that UNEP has been very closely involved in—from helping draft multilateral environmental treaties to building capacity among lawmakers and the judiciary in developing countries.

The effect of all this environmental consciousness raising has been to create a growing perception that the environment, or the goods and benefits we derive from it, is a fundamental right.

Take, for instance, water. One of the MDG targets is to reduce by half the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water. At the moment that means about one billion people—one person in six.

According to Mikhail Gorbachev, former President of the Soviet Union and current head of Green Cross International, “water is not a privilege, it is a right.”

This concept has also been forcefully expressed by the UN.

In its 2003 publication, ‘The right to water’, the World Health Organization notes that the right to the highest attainable standard of health was recognized as a human right in article 12.1 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

It argues that “this right extends to the underlying determinants of health; central among these are safe water and adequate sanitation.”

And it quotes the UN Secretary-General: “Access to safe water is a fundamental human need and, therefore, a basic human right.”

So, we can see that, conceptually, we have come a long way in a very short time.

However, we can also see that we have an awfully long way to go.

We live in a world where the news headlines give us daily evidence that the basic human rights of people—more often than not poor people in developing countries—are denied, abused or ignored.

Rights such as the right to life, liberty and security; rights such as freedom of expression and association; rights such as the right to work or the right to education.

We also live in a world where the global ecosystem continues to decline—again largely, but not exclusively, at the expense of the world’s poorest people.

The recently published Millennium Ecosystem Assessment revealed that 60 per cent of the services provided by the world’s ecosystems are in decline or even degraded to an extent that we can no longer rely on their services.

These services include climate regulation, clean air and water, fertile land and productive fisheries.

These are the services that help to keep disease and pests in check, that provide valuable new medicines and protect communities from natural disasters.

Their decline presents a major obstacle to achieving the MDGs.

Now, in highlighting the challenges, I don’t want to paint too pessimistic a picture.

There are plenty of examples of how governments, industry and communities are coming up with ideas and solutions to our environmental problems.

I simply want to point out that there are a lot of issues that need resolving.

Nor am I going to comment on how to improve human rights generally. That, of course is one of the UN’s most important and difficult jobs.

What I am going to do is echo what the Secretary-General has said, and point out that our human rights and all our aspirations for sustainable development are inextricably linked to a healthy productive environment.

Environmentally sustainability is a necessary condition for achieving many of the rights on which modern society is based, or which it is striving to achieve.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person. It also states that everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing.

A degraded ecosystem denies these rights as effectively as any government oppression.

Poor people, in particular, depend on ecosystem services for their subsistence and their livelihoods. I am talking about everything from water collected from streams, to firewood, to traditional medicines and subsistence agriculture.

Poor people are also the most vulnerable to ecosystem decline, to diseases caused by air or water pollution. They also have the least choice of where they live, finding accommodation in slums next to major roads, polluted streams or toxic waste sites.

Quite apart from the other privations they may face, their rights to life and adequate health are often denied simply by their environment.

Let me give another example. Article 26 of the Declaration of Human Rights says that everyone has the right to education, and that elementary education shall be compulsory.

Well, elementary education is, of course, out of reach of the millions of children who die each year before their fifth birthday due to largely avoidable environment-related diseases.

Examples include diarrhoea—caused by unclean water and inadequate sanitation—and respiratory diseases.

Countless more children have their learning ability impaired by parasite loads, by lead poisoning and other environment-related illnesses.

Then we have to consider the children who have no time for school, or are too tired to learn if they get there, because they spend a considerable portion of their day and their energy hauling water or collecting firewood, scenarios which are all too common in much of the developing world.

Examples like these illustrate why, at UNEP, more and more of our work is focused on the links between environment and poverty.

Poverty is often a cause of environmental degradation.

Environmental decline most certainly keeps people in the poverty trap.

And, as we can see, poverty and environmental decline combine to deprive people of their fundamental rights.

In summary my message today is that if we are to protect and promote the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and fulfil the pledges of the UN Charter, we must focus on fundamental needs, the necessary conditions for improving the human condition.

This is what the MDGs do.

What the MDGs say is that if we are to achieve social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom we need to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, we need to achieve universal primary education, we need to empower women, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health and combat preventable disease—and we absolutely need to ensure the environmental sustainability on which the success or failure of these goals will largely rest or fall.




Further Resources

IUCN Environmental Policy and Law Paper No.51

UNEP World Environment Day Official Site

UNEP Fresh Water Resources

UNEP & the Millenium Development Goals

Water Sanitation and Health (WSH)

Human Rights and the Environment

Together We Can
The World Environment Day Gospel Song


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