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Environment and human rights: the link is there, and so is the States’ obligation to protect them – UN expert

Environment and human rights

07 March 2013

GENEVA (7 March 2013) – The United Nations Independent Expert on human rights and environment, John Knox, highlighted the urgent need to clarify the human rights obligations linked to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Such clarification, he said, “is necessary in order for States and others to better understand what those obligations require and ensure that they are fully met, at every level from the local to the global.”

“Human rights and the environment are not only interrelated, they are also interdependent,” Mr. Knox noted during the presentation of his preliminary report* to the Human Rights Council. “A healthy environment is fundamentally important to the enjoyment of human rights, and the exercise of human rights is necessary for a healthy environment.”

“All human rights are vulnerable to environmental degradation, in that the full enjoyment of all human rights depends on a supportive environment,” underscored the Independent Expert.

“The lack of a complete understanding as to the content of all environmentally related human rights obligations should not be taken as meaning that no such obligations exist. Indeed, some aspects of the duties are already clear,” he said. “Applicable human rights obligations are not lessened merely because the environment is concerned.”

In his report Mr. Knox also identifies rights whose implementation is vital to environmental policymaking, such as the rights to freedom of expression and association, rights to receive information and participate in decision-making processes, and rights to legal remedies. “The exercise of these rights,” he explained, “makes environmental policies more transparent, better informed and more responsive to those most concerned.”

“States should recognize the important work carried out by human rights defenders working on land and environmental issues in trying to find a balance between economic development and environmental protection, should not tolerate their stigmatization and should ensure prompt and impartial investigations into alleged violations of their rights,” he said.

“Although the interdependence between human rights and the environment may seem self-evident,” warned the Independent Expert, “the specific contours of substantive and procedural duties relating to the environment require further clarification.”

Mr. Knox’s preliminary report identifies many issues that need to be addressed in moving forward, including those regarding transboundary and global environmental harm, such as climate change; non-State actors, such as multinational corporations; and vulnerable groups, including children, the displaced, the extremely poor and indigenous peoples.

John Knox was appointed as the Independent Expert on human rights and the environment in July 2012 by the United Nations Human Rights Council. He is independent from any government or organization. Learn more, visit:

(*) Read the full report by the Independent Expert:

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