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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

FOR ALL Coalition: For the Promotion of Gender Equality and Human Rights in Environment Agreements

A choice between two futures for our environment

28 September 2018

​Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet

28 September 2018

Distinguished Vice President,
Friends and colleagues,

It is a pleasure to be here today for the launch of this important initiative. My Office is proud to support the For All Coalition. 

There can be no question that human rights-based environmental action is smarter, more effective and better for both people and planet. 

The interdependence between human health, wellbeing and dignity, and the environment in which we live, is undeniable. From the devastation of air and water pollution to the scourge of climate change, our environmental actions – and inactions – pose an unprecedented threat to the effective enjoyment of human rights. 

The World Health Organization estimates that 1.7 million children under the age of 5 die each year as a result of toxic exposure and other aspects of an unhealthy environment. Climate and weather related disasters contribute to the displacement of more than 20 million people each year. The impacts of climate change kill people, devastate communities, wreck local economies, and are wiping out traditions and cultures. Ultimately, it poses an existential threat to all life on the planet as we know it.

The Human Rights Council has made it eminently clear that addressing these challenges is our responsibility, and a fundamental issue of human rights. 

The denial of this responsibility has inflicted countless preventable environmental catastrophes on human beings. And those most profoundly affected are the most vulnerable, those who already face multiple layers of discrimination -- because of their gender; because of their economic status, because they are members of indigenous peoples or minorities; because they are migrants, or internally displaced; because of their age; or because they are people with disabilities.  

Environmental harms deepen inequalities. They disproportionately affect those who have the least. When there are gender inequalities in access to economic, social and cultural rights, one consequence of natural disasters is that women suffer from higher rates of mortality – with a direct correlation observed between women’s status in society, and their likelihood of receiving adequate health-care in times of disaster and environmental stress.

I truly believe that women and others disproportionately affected by environmental degradation can be key agents in the environmental protection and in response to the negative impact of climate change. For example, indigenous women have for centuries protected biodiversity and ecosystems. They have, in effect, been taking climate action by safeguarding lands and traditional seed varieties, and applying many farming practises which promote sound environmental management. 

When women and all others have adequate access to land and other fundamental resources and services, we will all benefit.  

We will not ensure sustainable development or a sound future for our planet if we continue to ignore the inequality of women and the marginalisation of many discriminated groups.

Nor, if we continue to deny the irreparable harm that human activities have already reaped on our environment. We are poised at an inflection point. On one side lies wholesale, self-inflicted planetary devastation. On the other, sustainable development that benefits people and planet, leaving no-one behind. 

The choice between these two futures is ours to make. We have the tools, knowledge and expertise to prevent the most damaging effects of environmental degradation, including climate change.

In 2015, people around the world rejoiced in the passage of the first universal, legally binding agreement to mitigate climate change and adapt to its impacts. The Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was a landmark achievement in what will be a very long struggle to defeat the scourge of climate change. Its Preamble calls explicitly for States to respect and promote human rights, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity.

The 2030 Agenda, the Paris Agreement and other multilateral environmental agreements, provide a roadmap for rights-based, inclusive, sustainable development. But this will only be a reality, if their implementation complies with their spirit and purpose, to protect the environment for the benefit of this and future generations.

International human rights law has a critical role to play because it places legal obligations on all States to take the necessary steps in law, policy, institutions, and budgets to protect human rights from environmental harms, and redress them where they occur.

States have committed to ensure the right to participate in environmental decision-making processes, access to information and justice in environmental matters, and freedom from reprisals for exercising these rights. 

We need to encourage Governments to act in line with their promises. This starts with the primary objective of the For All Coalition, integrating human rights and gender equality throughout the major multilateral environmental agreements. 

My Office is committed to support this objective. We are already doing so in the context of the UNFCCC. For the past several years, we have advocated for the integration of human rights in the guidelines for implementation of the Paris Agreement to be adopted at the 24th Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC in Poland. And we have also supported the elaboration of the UNFCCC’s first Gender Action Plan and the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform.

These efforts represent a first step to addressing a critical problem. Today, many women, as well as other groups disproportionately affected by environmental harms, do not have access to justice, information or decision-making. Their rights are not being respected. 

Indeed, in many countries, environmental human rights defenders – especially women – are subjected to threats, reprisals and physical attacks, including killings. 

We need to raise our voices, and empower civil society and human rights defenders across the world to participate in environmental decision-making. 

We need more clarity, and better data to demonstrate the disproportionate harm being inflicted on women and other groups. States and other actors need to make evidence-based regulatory decisions, and they need to ensure accountability for victims. Environmental, health and human rights impact assessments can guide more effective decision-making. 

We need environmental action at all levels that is centred on the needs of the people – all the people.

The For All Coalition aims to ensure that States both understand, and – crucially  –fulfil their commitments to all their people and to our planet.

My Office looks forward to providing the Coalition with technical support to strengthen and promote environmental actions that are based in human rights. 

Thank you.