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A healthy and sustainable environment needed to protect human rights

22 May 2014

“It is now beyond argument that human rights law includes obligations relating to the environment,” said the UN Independent Expert on human rights and the environment, John H. Knox, to the UN Human Rights Council.

From the pollution of air and water to the unsustainable use of natural resources, environmental degradation adversely affects the enjoyment of a broad range of human rights, states Knox’s recent report on the human rights obligations related to environmental protection.

During the presentation of his report at the 25th session of the Human Rights Council, Knox stressed the fact that States need to assess environmental impacts on human rights and to make environmental information public, in order to facilitate participation in environmental decision-making.

“Moreover, States have special duties to protect members of groups particularly vulnerable to environmental harm, including women, children and indigenous peoples,” said Knox.

In regards to indigenous peoples, natural resource extraction and other development projects on or near their territories have become one of their most pressing concerns because of their close relationship with nature, states the report.

In his remarks, Knox also stressed that States must take the situation of indigenous peoples into account when implementing and enforcing environmental standards. The challenge, he said, is setting aside protected areas and, at the same time, respecting the rights of the indigenous peoples, who have lived in those areas for many years.

During his first country visit to Costa Rica, Knox noted the strict interpretation of laws banning urban structures within a certain distance from the coast.

As a result, entire communities, particularly the Afro-Caribbean minority group, were put at risk of expulsion from places where they had lived for generations. Understandably, members of these communities feel that the strict interpretation of this law fails to take into account their rights and interests, and even reflects a degree of discrimination against them, the report states.  

 “States must not discriminate against groups on prohibited grounds in the application of their environmental laws and policies and they must take additional steps to protect certain groups, such as indigenous groups,” said Knox.

The report, entitled the human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, is based on a year-long research project that surveyed statements by a wide range of actors, including human rights treaty bodies, regional human rights tribunals, UN Special Rapporteurs, international environmental instruments, and the Human Rights Council itself.

Knox will work together with the UN Environment Programme to examine how human rights obligations relating to the environment are put into practice. This will result in a summary of good practices, to be presented to the Council in March 2015.

22 May 2014