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28th session of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent
Environmental Justice, the Climate Crisis and people of African descent


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Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

24 March 2021

Distinguished members of the Working Group,
Excellencies,
Colleagues,

This discussion by the Working Group is an important and timely opportunity to develop guidance on how to effectively address environmental injustice, racial disparities, unequal protection and the unique impact of the climate crisis and environmental racism on people of African descent. I look forward to your conclusions and recommendations in this respect.

I would like to thank the Working Group for the work in monitoring and documenting the human rights situation of people of African descent; the expert thematic and country-specific recommendations; and the powerful advocacy.

The Working Group’s Operational Guidelines on inclusion of people of African descent in the 2030 agenda for Sustainable Development articulate a rights-based approach to development programing that will leave no one behind.

The killing of George Floyd in May last year catalyzed a global uprising against the brutality and systemic racial injustice that people of African descent face in countries around the world.

Fueled also by the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on people of African descent, that protest movement has been accompanied by an unusually broad-based global conversation about the extent to which racism, and particularly anti-Blackness, permeates social, economic and governance structures.

The climate crisis also has immense and disproportionate impacts on the rights of people of African descent to life, health, housing, food, education, and livelihoods, as this Working Group has highlighted. These impacts are tied to historical and structural racism, which has pushed communities of African descent into situations of marginalization and poverty.

Generation after generation of racial discrimination mean that many people of African descent, like other discriminated peoples and communities, are forced to live in areas that are vulnerable to environmental degradation, where their right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is often not fulfilled. The siting of landfills, toxic waste dispensaries, factories and power plants – as well as inadequate enforcement of environmental regulations – is commonplace in communities heavily populated by people of African descent. Often they result in high rates of asthma, cancer and other environment-related illnesses–as well as, less visible and longer term effects.

The negative impacts of climate change are disproportionately borne by people living in the least well protected situations – whether those situations are geographical or occupational, in the case of jobs at the margins of the formal economy. People of African descent – like other peoples and communities – are often subjected to human rights abuses by extractive industries and other business interests.

Environmental racism poses serious and disproportionate threats to the enjoyment of multiple human rights, including the right to life, the right to health, the right to an adequate standard of living and cultural rights.

In many parts of the world, people of African descent, who seek to defend their human rights related to the environment, face unacceptable violence, threats, and intimidation. In some cases, business interests can be associated with attacks, when business interests are prioritised over the interests of community workers. And the expectation from business is clear: in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, business expectations should refrain from violating the rights of others. In addition, businesses should consult human rights defenders as an important expert resource as part of their human rights due diligence, as defenders have a key role as watchdogs, advocates and voice for affected stakeholders.

Distinguished experts,

Building back from COVID-19 – as every State will have to do – is an opportunity to build new systems that are more fair and more resilient, in a world that is cleaner, greener and safer.

This will require a human rights-based approach that promotes meaningful participation by all, including those at greatest risk. People of African descent must be part of the climate solution.

The organizers of the upcoming COP26 Climate Conference in Glasgow have pledged to make this “the most inclusive COP ever.” UN actors and States should join civil society in seeking to hold them to that promise. It is vital to ensure inclusion of – and recognize leadership by – people of African descent in decision making at all stages of environmental action.

We need to address the ways in which systemic and historical racism, and multiple and intersecting systems of discrimination, have disproportionately affected people of African descent.

This includes directing climate adaptation and mitigation funding to communities that have historically experienced discrimination. It means analysing racial impacts in our human rights due diligence efforts for all climate and environmental action. It means accountability for human rights violations and environmental damage and reparations. It means ensuring that people of African descent are consulted and enjoy the benefits arising from the use of the land. And it means meaningfully addressing climate change-related loss and damage experienced by marginalized communities.

Last week I reminded the Council that to put an end to racial injustice in law enforcement and all areas of life, we must address the legacies of enslavement and colonialism.

We need to systematically address the roots of today's harms - systemic racial discrimination.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Durban World Conference against Racism, where States acknowledged that slavery and the slave trade are a crime against humanity. And a source of racism today.

It is time to act on their promises of racial justice.

Like the 20th anniversary of Durban, this year’s mid-term review of the International Decade for People of African Descent is an important opportunity for States to renew their commitment to action that addresses the root causes and current manifestations of racism, including environmental racism.

As the Coordinator of the International Decade for people of African descent, I want to emphasise that we need to conclude negotiations to establish the Permanent Forum on people of African descent and develop a United Nations declaration on the promotion and full respect of human rights of people of African descent, in full collaboration with people of African descent.

My Office is deeply committed to ending racial discrimination against people of African descent, in all its forms, and to promoting fulfilment of their human rights. We will continue to work with Member States, people of African descent, civil society, national human rights institutions and equality bodies to implement international human rights standards and your recommendations, among others. You can count on my full support.

I wish you a fruitful session.

Thank you.