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Statement of United Nations Special Rapporteur John H. Knox on the conclusion of his mission to Uruguay

28 April 2017


28 April 2017

Today, I concluded my mission to Uruguay, which began on 24 April. During my visit, I met with government officials, civil society organizations, academics, and the National Human Rights Institute, among others. Although most of my meetings were in Montevideo, I enjoyed the opportunity to travel to the Santa Lucia river basin, where I met with more Uruguayans, including a women’s community association reviving native plants, dairy farmers introducing more effective sanitation technology, and volunteers replanting native trees around a reservoir. I warmly thank every individual I met for their hospitality and openness in sharing their experiences with me.

I would also like to express my appreciation to the Government for its invitation for this visit, and for its excellent cooperation while I have been here.

My mandate from the United Nations Human Rights Council requests me to promote the implementation of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. An unhealthy and unsustainable environment undermines the enjoyment of many human rights, including rights to life, health, water, and food. To protect these and other rights, every State has a general obligation to protect the environment. States also have specific obligations, including to provide environmental information, to facilitate public participation in environmental decision-making, to provide access to effective remedies to environmental harm, and to ensure that development and environmental policies benefit everyone in the society without discrimination.

Uruguay has supported the links between human rights and the environment at the international level, including by playing a very positive role in the negotiation of a regional instrument on rights to information, participation and remedies in environmental matters. I encourage Uruguay to work with other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean to seek a legally binding treaty by the end of this year.

Uruguay has also taken a leading role in the implementation of the Paris Agreement on climate change. Climate change has been called the greatest threat to human rights in the twenty-first century, and it is already undermining the human rights of many vulnerable communities around the world. 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 adaptation measures. Uruguay is taking significant strides in this regard. In particular, it is an inspiring example of how a country can replace harmful fossil fuels with renewable energy. By obtaining 96% of its electricity from renewable sources, including 22% from wind power, Uruguay provides a model to other countries of what is possible.

At the domestic level, I welcome the commitment of government officials to incorporate a human rights perspective into environmental policies, including through the recent agreement between the Ministry of Housing, Territorial Planning and the Environment and the Secretary of the President of the Republic for Human Rights.

One fundamental aspect of protecting human rights in the environmental context is the implementation of the right to information about environmental problems and policies. Uruguay makes a great deal of environmental information available, but it could do a better job in coordinating the many different government sources of relevant information and making it more easily accessible. For example, the public should be able to readily find understandable information about water quality, both at the tap and in lakes and rivers.

I encourage the Government, including the Secretary of the President on Environment, Water and Climate Change, the Ministry on Housing, Territorial Planning, and the Environment, and other Ministries that make up the Environmental Cabinet, to ensure that the new Environmental Observatory that is now under development greatly facilitates the public’s access to information. In particular, the Government should adopt affirmative measures to structure environmental information in a way that is easily understandable by the general public, including those most vulnerable to environment degradation, such as those living in poverty.

During my visit, I heard many concerns that public participation often occurs too late in the decision-making process. The opportunity for public participation needs to be more than simply informing the public of decisions already made; it needs to occur early enough that the views of the public can be taken into account in the final decisions. However, I received positive feedback about the participatory process that led to the new National Water Plan, which included innovative methods that reflected the expert input of academics from the University of the Republic. I encourage the Government to continue to pursue this approach in its consideration of its consideration of a new National Environmental Plan, as well as other decision-making processes.

I also heard concerns about the potential misuse of the recently adopted decree on obstructing public roads. Broad language such as this has been used in many countries as grounds for restricting peaceful environmental protests. I agree with the statement of the National Human Rights Institution that “peaceful public demonstrations are one of the ways of exercising freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.” Any regulation by the State of these freedoms is acceptable only if it is necessary and proportionate to legitimate aims. Such measures should never result in the detention of those who are demonstrating in a peaceful manner.

Finally, I want to address the importance of access to justice in the environmental context. The best regulations to protect the environment are meaningless if they are not implemented. The Government has a number of administrative tools that it can use to seek compliance with environmental regulations, but its judicial tools have been used much less frequently.

I was happy to learn that the office of the Attorney General is planning to institute an environmental unit to support bringing environmental cases. I also strongly support adoption of the pending bill on crimes against the environment.

Those who are most directly affected by environmental harm are in the best position to identify violations, bring them to the attention of the Government, and seek redress. The Ministry of Housing, Territorial Planning and the Environment, as well as other Ministries, have adopted methods through which individuals may report allegations of environmental problems, but I heard many complaints that these mechanisms are not always responsive, and that it can be confusing for the public to know which mechanism should be used for different types of problems. The Government should consider the adoption of a new, transversal mechanism – such as an environmental ombudsperson – with the authority to receive all environmentally related complaints and ensure that each is addressed promptly by the appropriate office.

For advice in setting up such a mechanism, and for incorporating human rights into environmental policy generally, I encourage the Government to consult with the National Human Rights Institution. Although it is still young, the Institution has already established its expertise in the field of human rights, including its relationship with environmental protection. I applaud the decision of the Institution to convene a seminar on the right to health and the use of chemicals in the agriculture sector last year, and its consideration of a number of individual submissions alleging environmentally-related human rights abuses. Nevertheless, while it has an important role to play in this area, it cannot substitute for administrative complaints procedures.

In conclusion, Uruguay has much to be proud of in its record on human rights and the environment, but it still has some challenges before it. I am confident that it can meet these challenges as it moves forward.

I will continue to develop these preliminary conclusions in more detail, including the formulation of specific recommendations over the next few months. I will publish a report with my conclusions and recommendations later this year, and formally present the report to the Human Rights Council in March 2018.