dcsimg
English Site French Site Spanish Site Russian Site Arabic Site Chinese Site OHCHR header
Make a donation to OHCHR


Header image for news printout

Statement of High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay at the OHCHR-UNEP Joint Side Event on Human Rights in Sustainable Development - Human Rights at the Heart of Sustainable Development: Honouring Principle 1

Check against delivery

Rio de Janeiro, 19 June 2012

Distinguished delegates, representatives of civil society, colleagues, and friends,

Welcome to all of you, and our most sincere thanks for being here.

How good it is to be joined here on the panel by such a distinguished group, representing as they do an essential slice of the conscience of Rio. UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner, Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace, Antonio Tujan of the IBON Foundation, Jessica Evans of Human Rights Watch, and Justice Antonio Benjamin of the Federal Court of Brazil, welcome to all of you and thank you for being here.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The landmark Rio Declaration, adopted here 20 years ago, was remarkable in many respects, not least for its integrated approach to economic development, social development, and environmental protection. The logic of this integrated approach has since been globally embraced, and the integrated wisdom of Rio has spawned countless important developments in the years that followed.

But the Rio Declaration was also celebrated for its recognition that human rights are essential to sustainable development. Its 27 principles put human beings and their right to a healthy and productive life at the centre of concerns for sustainable development.

It specifically invoked the right to development, called for action to reduce disparities in standards of living, affirmed the role of women, indigenous peoples and local communities in sustainable development, and called for the protection of people living under repression and occupation.

It emphasized the meaningful participation of people, called for access to information, and to remedies and redress. It addressed liability for perpetrators, compensation for victims, and legal development to ensure extra-territorial accountability. And it called for the use of impact assessments to avoid harm in the first place.

Just as those provisions were a step forward in 1992, failing to reaffirm them would be a step back in 2012.

Dear colleagues,

Much has happened since the first Rio conference to vindicate the integrated logic of Rio. By now, it should be seen as axiomatic that strategies based on the narrow pursuit of economic growth without due regard for equality, accountability and related environmental, social, and human rights considerations will both fail in their economic objectives, and risk damaging the planet, and the fundamental rights of the people who live here.

Simply put, incoherence between international human rights standards, environmental strategies, and economic policies can undercut all three.

That’s why I believe a human rights-based approach is not only a normative imperative, but also essential to the success of green economy strategies.

Without explicit human rights safeguards, policies intended to advance environmental or development goals can have serious negative impacts on those rights. We have all seen what happens when such safeguards are not in place.

All too often, rights-insensitive, technocratic processes have excluded women from decision-making, economic and social inequalities have been exacerbated, societal tensions have been aggravated, indigenous peoples have seen threats to their lands and livelihoods from emission reduction schemes, scarce food-growing lands have been diverted for the production of biofuels, and massive infrastructure projects have resulted in the forced eviction and relocation of entire communities.

There is a better way. Participatory, accountable, non-discriminatory and empowering development is more effective, more just, and, ultimately, more sustainable.

That’s why, here at Rio, I have appealed to all countries to recognize that any policies and measures adopted to advance sustainable development must be firmly grounded in, and respectful of, all internationally agreed human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right to development.

I have asked as well that the outcome of this Conference include a recognition that all actors, in both the public and private sectors, must exercise due diligence, including through the use of human rights impact assessments.

Particular care must be taken to prevent and remedy any negative impacts on the human rights of vulnerable and marginalized groups, including indigenous peoples, minorities, migrants, persons living in poverty, older persons, persons with disabilities, and children.

The empowerment of women, the protection of their rights, and their meaningful participation in decision making must be assured.

And explicit attention must be given to protecting the human rights to food, to water and sanitation, to health, to housing, to education, to justice, to development, and to participation in public affairs, in the context of a green economy.

After all, adequate food, health care, education, housing, and the fair administration of justice are not commodities for sale to the few, but rather rights to which all are entitled without discrimination. And anything done in the name of economics, or development, or the environment must be designed to advance these rights and, at the very least, should do nothing to undermine their realization.

This implies responsibilities for all actors, including in the private sector. The UN’s own Guiding Principles on business and human rights affirm the international framework of accountability that derives from human rights law.

It includes the State duty to protect human rights against abuses by third parties, including business enterprises, the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, and the need for access to remedies for victims of business-related abuse. For business actors, this carries obligations to scrupulously avoid infringing on human rights and to meaningfully address any adverse human rights impacts resulting from their activities.

Distinguished delegates,

This close nexus between human rights and the environment has long been recognized by the UN human rights programme. The Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, for example, addressing the right to health, calls on states to take steps for the improvement of all aspects of environmental hygiene. The Convention on the Rights of the Child explicitly cites the dangers and risks presented by environmental pollution to the rights to adequate nutritious foods and to clean drinking water.

ILO Convention No. 169 and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples both contain provisions on the environment of indigenous peoples. And both the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights contain environmental references.

This should not be surprising. The positive obligations of states, under international human rights law, to ensure the protection and realization of rights to life, to health, to water and sanitation, to adequate housing, and to a range of other rights, are all directly impacted by environmental considerations.

And environmental factors, their causes and consequences, and the prevention and mitigation of their impacts, are also the products of choices made by governments, and the by the private entities that governments are charged with regulating, under the rule of law.

So let us be clear today: Human rights matter to this debate. The only way to ensure that the green economy is not a green-washed economy is to insist on a human rights-based approach, putting people and their rights, rather than government power or corporate profit at the centre. In this heavy politicized discussion, human rights are not a regional bargaining chip, but rather a global imperative.

Taking them seriously means prioritizing the free, active and meaningful participation of affected groups, the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples on their lands, full accountability of both the public and private sectors to people as holders of rights, an end to discrimination on the basis of race, sex, language, religion or any other basis, the political and economic empowerment of people, and full coherence between international human rights obligations on the one hand, and green economy policies on the other.

Ladies and gentlemen,

These are challenging times-- times of economic, environmental and political crisis.

In seeking answers, I believe that all at this conference should listen carefully to the calls of the “peoples of the United Nations” echoing from Tahrir Square to Wall Street. People across the globe are increasingly unwilling to defer to invisible forces, unaccountable institutions, or unresponsive governments to guarantee their economic and environmental well-being, and their human rights.

They are demanding higher levels of accountability -- from their governments, from international institutions, and from the private sector. They are demanding a return to the rule of law -- including in the economic and environmental spheres.

For governments, as well as for international institutions, bilateral donors and business enterprises, failing to recognize this and to adapt accordingly has real consequences for the realization of policy goals, programme effectiveness, the sustainability of business and investment, relationships with people on the ground, and their credibility as international partners.

As we work to clean up the mess left by a long period of economic and environmental impunity, we must also ensure that markets are subject to the rule of law, and embedded in broader social values, foremost amongst them international human rights and concerns for our environment.

By now it should be evident to all that any gains once thought to result from lowering human rights or environmental standards for business are illusory, and no sustainable solutions can be built on so flimsy a foundation.

Responsible governance therefore requires the adoption of adequate regulatory and policy frameworks that induce more responsible corporate behaviour and ensure accountability for human rights abuses and for environmental damage.

And for responsible businesses, this means acting with respect for human rights and the environment, recognizing both their moral and legal duty to do so, and the inescapable fact that long-term business prospects are inextricably coupled with society’s well-being.

Distinguished representatives of civil society, delegates, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

The true litmus test of sustainable development is not to be found in measures of GDP, or expanded private investment, or even within the narrow confines of the MDGs. Rather, it is the degree to which, those or any other strategies and interventions satisfy the legitimate demands of the people, without discrimination, for freedom from fear and freedom from want, for a voice in their own societies, and for a life of dignity.

This is the test of success. This is the challenge of Rio.

I thank you.