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Independent Expert Concludes Visit to Costa Rica Mission

San Jose, August 1, 2013 – The mission of the Independent Expert of the United Nations on human rights and environment, John Knox, ended today with the presentation of preliminary findings and conclusions.

Knox’s mission came at the invitation of the Government of Costa Rica, lasted from 28 July to 1 August 2013, and surveyed a broad agenda with public institutions, civil society organizations, UN agencies, industry and academia, as well as visits to Costa Rican communities.

John Knox was appointed in August 2012, for a period of three years, as the first Independent Expert on the issue of human rights obligations related to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

“The right to enjoy a healthy environment is increasingly recognized worldwide as a fundamental human right. Moreover, a healthy environment is essential to the enjoyment of many other rights, including the rights to life and health,” said Knox.

At the closing press conference, the Independent Expert recognized Costa Rica as a pioneer in environmental protection and respect for and protection of human rights. Knox expressed special admiration for the commitment of the citizens of Costa Rica in the exercise of their human rights to ensure protection of the environment.

According to Knox, over 90 countries, including Costa Rica, now include the right to a healthy environment in their constitutions. Costa Rica has gone much further than most countries to adopt a human rights approach to environmental protection. The country also provides strong protection for the public to have access to environmental information, participation in decision-making in environmental matters, and to have access to effective remedies. The Constitutional Court, the dedicated Environmental Tribunal, and the independent Ombudsperson all play an active role in ensuring that citizens can exercise their rights effectively.

“Costa Rica’s dedication to human rights has helped it to make significant progress in protecting its environment. The country has made great strides in reforesting its territory, from 26% of total forest coverage in the 1980s to more than 52% today, giving security for present and future generations to have a healthier environment,” the Independent Expert said.

As part of his mandate, the expert sought to identify specific practices to ensure the use of human rights to protect the environment. In addition to the adoption of the constitutional right to a healthy environment and protection of the right to effective public participation, Knox recognized other examples of best practices during his visit.

Knox cited as one example the Certificate for Sustainable Tourism driven by the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT). This is a system designed to categorize and differentiate tourism enterprises according to the degree to which they comply to a model of sustainability and proper management of natural, cultural and social resources. Knox especially highlighted the efforts of ICT to promote tourism enterprises that consume local products to achieve linkages with smallholders. The Independent Expert applauded the country’s willingness to share this model of sustainable tourism with other nations, as it has done with some Latin American peers.

The Independent Expert was also positively impressed by the Costa Rican communities’ enthusiasm for participating at the local level in efforts to protect of the environment. He mentioned the example of Bijagual as developing good practices in forest protection, prevention of hunting, water care, protection of flora and fauna, as well as in the implementation of sustainable agricultural models.

The Independent Expert also stressed that despite the achievements, there are still major challenges in the country that must be addressed. Knox mentioned the need to strengthen the protection and monitoring of the State in protected areas, where vulnerable social and community organizations and citizens have commenced their own surveillance of environmental issues, and have been put at risk.

“It is not the task of social organizations or ordinary people put to their lives at risk to protect the environment. Those police functions are tasks that should be in the hands of governments, “said Knox.

On the other hand, Knox reiterated the importance of the right of civil society to engage in tasks that are fundamental in the processes of decision-making, public awareness, education actions, activism and even in some cases, social protest.

The Independent Expert noted the recent proposal to establish a commission to examine past and present threats to the rights of the people working to protect the environment. Because these threats have increased worldwide in recent years, he said, the commission could be an innovative model for other countries.

Knox also stressed that the Government should take into account the human rights of people living in protected areas to decide the best way to promote environmental protection.

“Environmental protection should not be at undue cost to communities that have deep historical roots in areas of environmental importance. It is of vital importance to ensure that the human right to a healthy environment does not conflict with other fundamental rights, “said Knox.

Knox acknowledged that Costa Rica continues to work toward a current water law, but encouraged it to move more quickly and thus to fulfill the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Water, who visited Costa Rica for four years. This law should help remedy Costa Rica’s high levels of water pollution in many areas and incorporate the recognition of the human right to water, he said.

The Independent Expert will prepare a public report with conclusions and recommendations on topics studied during the mission, which will be presented to the Human Rights Council of the UN in 2014.