GENEVA / MONTEVIDEO (2 May 2017) – United Nations Special Rapporteur John Knox says Uruguay has much to be proud of in its record on human rights and the environment, but that it still has some challenges ahead, including the setting up of an Environment Ombudsperson.
In a statement marking the end of his five-day mission to the country, Mr. Knox said: “Uruguay has supported its obligations to human rights and the environment by adopting a number of laws and policies on rights to information, public participation in environmental decision-making, and providing remedies following environmental harm.”
“But the Government should adopt affirmative measures to structure environmental information in a way that is easily understandable by the general public, especially those, like people living in poverty, who are most vulnerable to environmental degradation,” he noted.
Like other countries, Uruguay seeks to pursue both economic growth and environmental protection. These goals can sometimes come into conflict with one another. For example, expanding agricultural production through the use of fertilizers, agro-chemicals, and irrigation can cause environmental harm, including to water quality.
“The best way to ensure that development is truly sustainable is to provide effective access to information, which in turn allows informed public participation in the decision-making processes,” said Mr. Knox. “Only in that way can the public be assured that economic growth is not coming at the expense of human rights.”
The Special Rapporteur stressed opportunities for public participation needed to be more than simply informing the public of decisions already taken.
Mr. Knox also reflected concern about potential misuse of a recently adopted decree aimed at dealing with the obstruction of public roads by protesters. He reaffirmed that peaceful public demonstrations were among the ways people could exercise their freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly.
“Any regulation by the State of these freedoms is acceptable only if it is necessary and proportionate to legitimate aims – and such measures should never result in the detention of those protesting peacefully,” the expert said.
He stressed the importance of legal measures in protecting environmental rights. “I am happy to learn that the office of the Attorney General is planning to create a new unit to support those bringing environmental cases, and I also strongly encourage the adoption of a pending bill on crimes against the environment,” he said.
The Special Rapporteur made clear that those most directly affected by environmental harms were best placed to identify violations, bring them to the attention of the Government, and seek redress.
He pointed to complaints that the current system for reporting problems was “confusing and not always responsive” and called for a new mechanism, which would include an Ombudsperson, who may have the authority to receive all environmental complaints and ensure that each was addressed promptly by the appropriate office.
The Special Rapporteur further commended Uruguay for having taken a leading role in implementing the Paris Agreement on climate change.
“To meet their human rights obligations, States must do what they can to reduce their contributions to greenhouse gases, and to assist their citizens with measures to adapt to the changes,” Mr. Knox said. “Uruguay is taking significant strides in this regard and is an inspiring example of how a country can replace harmful fossil fuels with renewable energy.”
The UN human rights expert also encouraged Uruguay to work with other countries in South America and the Caribbean to seek a legally binding environmental treaty for the region by the end of 2017.
During his visit, Mr. Knox met Government officials, delegates from the business sector and representatives from civil society, in Montevideo and in the Santa Lucía Basin.
His final report will be presented to the Human Rights Council in March 2018.
The UN Human Rights Council appointed
Mr. John H. Knox (USA) in 2012 to serve as Independent Expert, and reappointed him in 2015 as Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations related to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable
environment. The Council requested him, a professor of international law at Wake Forest University in the United States, to clarify the application of human rights norms to environmental protection, and to identify best practices in the use of human rights obligations in environmental policy-making.
Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the
Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.
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