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Hernán Santa Cruz Regional Dialogue for Latin America and the Caribbean

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"Promoting economic, social, cultural and environmental rights: implications for development, sustainability and peace in the COVID-19 era."

Statement by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.

8 December 2021

Excellencies,

I am very pleased to open this Hernán Santa Cruz dialogue for Latin America and the Caribbean.

I thank the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the University of Peace for their collaboration with my Office in the organization of this event.

Hernán Santa Cruz's vision – that States must respect all human rights, regardless of the economic systems in place – offers hope to all individuals, peoples and nations, especially in a region as unequal as ours.

Santa Cruz noted that "scientific inventions must belong to society and be enjoyed by all." This powerful statement takes on special relevance in the face of global injustice in access to COVID-19 vaccines.

He also advocated principles that were later enshrined in the Declaration on the Right to Development … such as the constant improvement of human welfare; active, free and meaningful participation of all individuals and peoples in decisions that affect them; and the fair distribution of the benefits of development.

The right to development is grounded in international cooperation and solidarity, both of which are needed now more than ever. 

As we head into a new year, I firmly believe that there is only one way forward – unless we accept the unacceptable.

The unacceptable is the so-called normality that got us here in the first place. Inequality. Discrimination and systemic racism. The environmental crisis.

We must recover better.

That means doing everything we can to respect, protect and fulfil indivisible human rights: civil and political rights, economic, social and cultural rights, environmental rights and the right to development.

This is our only option if we are to be more inclusive, more just and more resilient to future crises, including the emergency that threatens our livelihoods and our very existence: climate change.

I welcome today's focus on environmental rights.

Today, due to human action – and inhuman inaction – the triple planetary crisis of climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss is directly and severely affecting many rights, such as the right to adequate food, water, education, housing, health, development and even to life itself.

These crises amplify conflicts, tensions and structural inequalities, and drive people into increasingly vulnerable situations – particularly those most at risk of exclusion, such as members of indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants, women, people with disabilities, among others.

As these crises intensify, they will constitute the greatest challenge to human rights in our era.
Globally, 389 climate-related disasters were recorded in 2020, killing at least 15,080 people, affecting 98.4 million others and inflicting $171.3 billion in economic damage.

Caribbean countries are among those that contribute the least to climate change. But they are also among those most affected by its adverse consequences, with serious implications in terms of human rights. Over the past five years, the region has been hit by six major humanitarian crises related to natural disasters, including category 5 hurricanes.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that Latin America and the Caribbean will continue to be threatened by rising sea levels, drought, hurricanes, floods and fires, putting their rich biological and cultural diversity at risk.

As Txai Surui, a young Brazilian indigenous woman, said during COP26 in Glasgow, "the plants are not blooming as they used to... the Earth is talking. It is telling us that we have no more time."

Costa Rica is exemplar on forest restoration, with its decarbonization plan. In addition, along with other countries, it has called for action on the consequences of environmental degradation on human rights at the international level. I highlight the endorsement of the recognition of the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment at the last session of the Human Rights Council. 

A human rights-based approach is needed to address the already notable impacts of the environmental crisis. 

As in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, those already in vulnerable situations are most at risk of human rights harm as a result of climate change. 

The World Food Program has reported that 30% of migrants in the Central American "Dry Corridor" cited extreme weather conditions as a reason for leaving. The World Bank projects that, if no action is taken to prevent the effects of climate change, nearly 4 million people in Central America and Mexico and 17 million in Latin America could migrate for this reason by 2050.

The situation calls for solidarity. I urge countries of transit and destination to ensure that all returns take into account the principles of sustainability, voluntariness, dignity and security, as well as the principle of non-refoulement.

And as a more definitive response, we need to create societies that are more resilient to climate change and where those affected can access social protection and new livelihood opportunities.

Excellencies,

Compounding these problems is the fact that Latin America is considered one of the most dangerous regions in the world for environmental and land defenders.

These human rights defenders continue to be threatened in the region - with harassment, stigmatizing narratives and even attacks on their lives and personal integrity.

It is abhorrent that they have to take such risks to advance their cause. It is imperative to protect them. As it is imperative to intensify efforts to realize the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment in Latin America and the Caribbean.

With these objectives in mind, let me make some concrete recommendations.

First, I call on all countries that have not yet ratified the Escazú Agreement to do so without delay.

It is also necessary to ensure the participation of all in decision-making on environmental policies, especially those most affected by the crisis.

And, of course, these policies must be based on human rights. Indeed, human rights must be considered a tool by governments at all levels to help create inclusive societies that respect the environment, for example, in the context of budgetary, fiscal and public procurement decisions.

In addition to political will, leaders must push for legislation, programs and guidelines to prevent and adapt systems to climate change and move towards replacing the use of fossil fuels, ensuring a renewable energy matrix.

I also emphasize the role of the private sector, which must integrate human rights into its business models.

Accountability mechanisms - for governments and companies - must also be established or strengthened.

Beyond all this, however, we must never lose sight of the fact that protecting the planet is everyone's job.

People should consume responsibly, making purchasing decisions based on criteria of sustainability and environmental protection.

Excellencies,

Despite the challenges, we have seen good practices on our path to protecting people and planet, including through South-South, triangular and regional cooperation. 

And I am glad that many of them count on the technical assistance of my Office.

For example, we are working to develop and update national Business and Human Rights Action Plans in the countries of the region, implementing the Joint Project on Responsible Business Conduct, in collaboration with the ILO and the OECD, throughout the region. 

In Mexico, we supported the implementation of the "Catalyzing Rights-Based Environmental Action for People and Planet" project, which triggered new collaborative networks and concrete proposals in several areas. That included the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change impacts, the protection of environmental defenders, corporate due diligence, and also access to information, participation and environmental justice, in line with the 2030 Agenda, in particular SDGs 6, 7 and 13.

In Honduras, we have documented the consequences for the enjoyment of human rights of the contamination of the Motagua River on the border with Guatemala and the waters of the Caribbean and we established a strategic partnership with the private sector and local communities to discuss them.  We are also supporting several communities and grassroots organizations to improve their enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights and to cope with the severe impacts of climate change and drought.

In Bolivia, we accompany and support the work of several indigenous communities in the east of the country that have initiated a process of reclaiming their collective rights through their ancestral knowledge and customs. These communities seek the recovery of the environment and access to drinking water, with special emphasis on protecting women and the elderly.

Excellencies,

If our challenges are interrelated, so are their solutions.

As we celebrate Hernán Santa Cruz, we should ask ourselves: Can we redesign our political and economic policies and systems to put people and the planet first? Can we, together, rise to the new challenge?

I would argue that we must.

And as I have shown you, we can.

To do so, we need an economy that works for all, that is centered on people and planet, and that therefore improves the conditions for ensuring respect for human rights, including the rights to development and to a healthy environment.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has committed all UN agencies to advance Our Common Agenda, a broad-based initiative to promote human development, equality and inclusion based on human rights principles.

This must be our path. The path to a world that is more resilient, more just and more respectful - both of our rights and of our planet.

Thank you.