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Report of the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment (A/HRC/31/53)

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Note by the Secretariat

The Secretariat has the honour to transmit to the Human Rights Council the report of the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, John H. Knox, prepared pursuant to Council resolution 28/11. Drawing on an expert seminar, a public consultation and more than 40 written submissions, the report describes possible methods of implementing human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a healthy environment. The proposals are addressed to: (a) the Council, the United Nations Environment Programme, the United Nations Development Programme and other intergovernmental organizations; (b) regional human rights bodies and other regional organizations; (c) Governments and national human rights institutions; (d) civil society organizations; and (e) the Special Rapporteur himself.

Introduction

  1. In its resolution 19/10, the Human Rights Council decided to appoint an independent expert with a mandate to study the human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, and to identify and promote best practices on the use of human rights obligations and commitments to inform, support and strengthen environmental policymaking.

  2. In March 2014, the Independent Expert presented a mapping report that reviews the statements of human rights bodies, as well as views gathered in regional consultations with Governments, civil society organizations, international organizations and academics, on the obligations of States under international human rights law relating to the environment (A/HRC/25/53).

  3. The diverse sources reviewed indicate a growing level of consensus about how human rights norms apply to environmental issues. There is agreement that environmental degradation can and does interfere with the enjoyment of a wide range of human rights. To protect against such interference, human rights bodies have stated that Governments have: (a) procedural obligations, including to make environmental information publicly available, to facilitate public participation in environmental decision-making and to provide access to legal remedies; (b) substantive obligations to adopt institutional frameworks to protect against environmental harm that may infringe on enjoyment of human rights; and (c) heightened obligations to protect those who are most vulnerable to such harm.

  4. Many Governments, international organizations, corporations and civil society organizations are already employing human rights perspectives to address environmental problems. In March 2015, the Independent Expert presented a report to the Human Rights Council in which he identified more than 100 good practices with respect to each of the above obligations, in every region of the world (A/HRC/28/61). In addition to being available on the website of the United Nations, descriptions of the practices are now accessible through a stand-alone dedicated website, www.environmentalrightsdatabase.org, which allows the practices to be easily searched.

  5. In its resolution 28/11, the Human Rights Council renewed the mandate and changed the title of the mandate holder to Special Rapporteur. In that same resolution, the Council requested the Special Rapporteur to continue to study human rights obligations relating to the environment and to identify good practices in the use of such obligations, but also to promote and report on the realization of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, to disseminate his findings by continuing to give particular emphasis to practical solutions with regard to their implementation and to work on identifying challenges and obstacles to the full realization of such obligations. The human rights norms relating to the environment continue to develop and evolve and, with a view to further clarifying the applicable obligations, the Special Rapporteur continues to examine thematic issues, including climate change and ecosystem protection. As recognized in resolution 28/11, however, many of the human rights norms relating to environmental protection are clear enough that it is appropriate to examine how they can be better promoted and implemented.

  6. To that end, the Human Rights Council requested the Special Rapporteur and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to convene an expert seminar on the effective implementation of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, challenges thereto and the way forward, on the basis of the findings of the mandate holder.

  7. In accordance with that request, the Special Rapporteur, with the support of OHCHR and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), organized a meeting of more than 20 experts on 26 and 27 October 2015. He also held a public consultation on 28 October. In addition, the Special Rapporteur received more than 40 written submissions. At the meetings and through the submissions, he received valuable input from representatives of Governments, civil society organizations, international organizations and academics.

  8. Drawing on all of those sources, the present report describes possible methods of implementing human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a healthy environment. Although the methods listed are not exhaustive, they give a wide range of approaches that would further the following goals, among others: (a) disseminating information about the human rights norms relating to the environment; (b) building capacity; (c) protecting the rights of those who are most vulnerable; and (d) strengthening cooperation between different actors.

  9. The report is addressed to all those in a position to implement human rights norms in relation to the environment. Proposals are organized in categories corresponding to the actors that could carry them out, including: (a) the Human Rights Council and other intergovernmental organizations; (b) regional human rights bodies and other regional organizations; (c) Governments and national human rights institutions; (d) civil society organizations; and (e) the Special Rapporteur himself.

  10. At the outset, the Special Rapporteur highlights three general points that were emphasized by many of the interlocutors in this process. First, the methods of implementation are not “either/or” alternatives. They complement one another. To promote the full enjoyment of human rights relating to the environment, actors should pursue multiple methods of implementation.

  11. Second, the Special Rapporteur draws attention to the relevance of the new Sustainable Development Goals, which provide an overall framework for development policy over the next 15 years. Virtually all of the suggested methods of implementing human rights norms relating to the environment would also support achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

  12. Third, many interlocutors stressed that a human rights perspective on environmental protection not only promotes human dignity, equality and freedom — the benefits of implementing all human rights — but also improves the effectiveness of policymaking generally. Ensuring that those most affected by development and environmental policies are able to obtain information, freely express their views and participate in the decision-making process makes the policies more robust and sustainable. Assessing development and environmental policies in the light of human rights, including the rights to life, health and an adequate standard of living, helps to ensure that the policies directly improve the lives of human beings who depend on a healthy environment — which is to say, all human beings.

II. Implementing human rights obligations relating to the environment

  1. The following sections describe the proposals for implementation of human rights obligations relating to the environment that could be carried out by: (a) intergovernmental organizations, including the Human Rights Council; (b) regional bodies; (c) Governments and national human rights institutions; and (d) civil society organizations.