Header image for news printout

“Can you tell us more about the relationship between human rights and environmental rights and why it’s so important?”

Kate Gilmore, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights 

Today’s launch of UN Environment’s Environmental Rights Initiative coincides with the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration for Human rights.

Our declaration of interdependence, the UDHR no other framework of values has traveled so far, so fast to influence so many - no other document in history has been translated into as many languages.

The universality of rights binds humanity together, across all our diversity in the conviction - given that born we all are equal in dignity and rights. But this is not a dignity hermitically sealed off from the air we breathe, the land that nourishes us or the rivers that slake our thirst.  To the contrary, as the Special Rapporteur Knox has said, all human rights depend on the environment.

The environment is the envelope for our ESC rights and the foundation for our CP rights.  Without protecting it, we can’t safeguard our rights to health, food, water - our very right to life and our very capability to enjoy our rights depends on the environment.  

For the sake of our dignity, in the interest of our rights, for those on the front lines of climate change and for those who will come after us, we must do more to protect and preserve our environment.  That is the view of the Human Rights Council, the human rights treaty bodies; it is embedded in the jurisprudence, law and in constitutions of more than 100 States; and is part of the preamble to the Paris Climate Agreement.

Friends, a capacity unique to human beings, to know one thing to be true but to act as if the very opposite were the case.  In flagrant disregard of the facts, the science and our own principles, proceed we do to pollute our land, air and water, to consume our land, rivers and sea; to prioritize short term business interests and financial greed over our planet, over human rights, over future generations - in a relentless, know better, do worse march towards catastrophic warming.

The devastating environmental consequences of our past and present actions have already created a current and future legacy of destruction - of hunger, thirst, health complications - exacting a schedule of repayments we cannot meet, nor any future generation afford.  It is a bill whose highest tolls are exacted upon those least responsible; a toll whose scope and magnitude is as yet unknown and yet one we could prevent.

The polluter must pay, we say. But in practice, he rarely does.

Instead the down payments are being made by the indigenous toddler whose once thriving traditional river fishing tribe has been bought by pollution to its end. She knows how to swim, fish and paddle her canoe, but her skin is covered in rashes and her insides excoriated by poisonous mercury from illegal mining. She does not benefit from the gold mined out of her ancestral land, her ancestral river – she only pays the price, perpetuating the cycle of impunity there since colonial days.

And those who would or could speak out on her behalf, on behalf of her environment, and their rights to do so - to participate, to access information, to organize to resist environmental harms - are under grave threat.   Over the past two years – close to four hundred environmental activists, wildlife rangers and indigenous leaders have been killed - simply for trying to protect their environment.  Many assassinated by hired guns, reportedly under contract to corporations or state authorities. Very few of these killings has ever been investigated, identified, or charged, let alone prosecuted.

Yet, there is an alternative way:

  • Environmental human rights defenders can be and must be protected, respected and supported.  That is their right. 
  • The people they represent must be enabled to participate in transparent decision-making on climate action which as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has noted - will contribute to more effective action that can avert the worst threats of climate change.
  • Those seeking to harm them, to unsustainably exploit lands and resources must be held accountable.

In fact these are commitments already freely made by States in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the UNFCCC and in international human rights law

Friends, we can see the future that we must avoid.   We have promised ourselves the future we want.  And we know too much to let slip from our grasp the future that our children and their children are due. 

And this is why the Environmental Rights Initiative is so critical.

Thank you.