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Division of Environmental Law and Conventions

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Human Rights and the Environment

BACKGROUND

More than 2 million annual deaths and billions of cases of diseases are attributed to pollution. All over the world, people experience the negative effects of environmental degradation ecosystems decline, including water shortage, fisheries depletion, natural disasters due to deforestation and unsafe management and disposal of toxic and dangerous wastes and products. Indigenous peoples suffer directly from the degradation of the ecosystems that they rely upon for their livelihoods. Climate change is exacerbating many of these negative effects of environmental degradation on human health and wellbeing and is also causing new ones, including an increase in extreme weather events and an increase in spread of malaria and other vector born diseases. These facts clearly show the close linkages between the environment and the enjoyment of human rights, and justify an integrated approach to environment and human rights. 

OVERVIEW OF LEGAL ISSUES

There are three main dimensions of the interrelationship between human rights and environmental protection:

  • The environment as a pre-requisite for the enjoyment of human rights (implying that human rights obligations of States should include the duty to ensure the level of environmental protection necessary to allow the full exercise of protected rights);

  • Certain human rights, especially access to information, participation in decision-making, and access to justice in environmental matters, as essential to good environmental decision-making (implying that human rights must be implemented in order to ensure environmental protection); and 

  • The right to a safe, healthy and ecologically-balanced environment as a human right in itself (this approach has been debated).

The Stockholm Declaration, and to a lesser extent the Rio Declaration, show how the link between human rights and dignity and the environment was very prominent in the early stages of United Nations efforts to address environmental problems. That focus has to some extent faded away in the ensuing efforts by the international community to tackle specific environmental problems, with more focus being placed on developing policy and legal instruments, both at the international and national levels, targeted at the environmental problems that were emerging, through a series of MEAs and other mechanisms. Although the foundation of developing such mechanisms laid on the considerations made at the time of the Stockholm Conference, the human rights dimension is not made explicit in most of these instruments.

However, there have been several calls from different UN bodies to address the issues of human rights and environment in conjunction.  The Commission on Human Rights (now transformed into the Human Rights Council) by Resolution 2005/60 requested the High Commissioner and invited UNEP, UNDP and other relevant bodies and organizations, within their respective mandates and approved work programmes and budgets:

 “to continue to coordinate their efforts in activities relating to human rights and the environment in poverty eradication, post-conflict environmental assessment and rehabilitation, disaster prevention, post-disaster assessment and rehabilitation, to take into consideration in their work relevant findings and recommendations of others and to avoid duplication” (paragraph 8). 

The UN reform process also calls for the integration of human rights in all of the organization’s work.

In a series of resolutions, the former United Nations Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations Human Rights Council have drawn attention to the relationship between a safe and healthy environment and the enjoyment of human rights. Most recently, the Human Rights Council in its resolution 7/23 of March 2008 and resolution 10/4 of March 2009 focused specifically on human rights and climate change, noting that climate change-related effects have a range of direct and indirect implications for the effective enjoyment of human rights. These resolutions have raised awareness of how fundamental the environment is as a prerequisite to the enjoyment of human rights.

FOCUS OF DELC'S WORK AND INTENDED OUTCOME

Good practices on Human Rights and the Environment

UNEP, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment have joined efforts to identify, promote and exchange views on good practices relating to the use of human rights obligations and commitments to inform, support and strengthen environmental policymaking, especially in the areas of environmental protection and management.  

The joint initiative identified practical and concrete examples of good practices where states and other actors have successfully implemented human rights obligations related to environmental protection and management, which could be replicated in other contexts,  and  which will increase the understanding and awareness of the linkages between human rights and the environment, including providing more clarity on the human rights obligations related to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, sustainable and healthy environment. 

The good practices were collected at the international, regional, national and sub-national levels in collaboration through regional/ sub-regional consultations as well as questionnaires and surveys.

In the process of identifying such practices and analyzing the practical aspects of the interaction between the two field of human rights and the environment, UNEP and partners also identified challenges and problems in the balancing of the protection of human rights and the protection of the environment, and identified lessons learned in respect of such interaction, which are also available with the good practices identified. The good practices are available here.

  • Human Rights and Environment Compendium

The Compendium on human rights and the environment takes stock of the normative and jurisprudential developments in the field of human rights and the environment.  It describes international instruments that relate to human rights and the environment, such as multilateral environmental agreements, international human rights treaties, and international resolutions and declarations.  It also includes summaries of decisions rendered by the human rights supervisory mechanisms in Africa, Europe and the Americas, as well as the Human Rights Committee, the International Court of Justice and the World Bank's Inspection Panel. 

 The objective of the publication is to identify and promote good practices relating to the use of human rights obligations and commitments to inform, support and strengthen environmental policy making, especially in the areas of environmental protection and management.