The full enjoyment of human rights, including the rights to life, health, food and water, depends on the services provided by ecosystems. The provision of ecosystem services depends on the health and sustainability of ecosystems, which in turn depend on biodiversity. The full enjoyment of human rights thus depends on biodiversity, and the degradation and loss of biodiversity undermine the ability of human beings to enjoy their human rights. 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/34/49; Feb-March 2017) ¶ 5.
Dear friends and colleagues,This newsletter reports on my presentation to the Human Rights Council and a new website on environmental human rights defenders, as well as other developments in relation to the mandate.Presentation to the Human Rights Council. On March 8, I presented my annual report to the Human Rights Council. This year’s report explains that the full enjoyment of human rights depends on biodiversity, and describes how the exercise of human rights is important to the protection of biodiversity. A World Post article on the report is available here. My statement to the Council is available in written form here, and a video of the presentation and the interactive dialogue with governments and other participants is here. On the whole, the government representatives who spoke during the dialogue supported the importance of recognizing the relationship between biodiversity and human rights. We also had a very productive discussion at a side event on March 9, at which the heads of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the World Wildlife Fund International both spoke strongly in favor of increasing attention to the ways that biodiversity and human rights are interrelated.On March 24, the Council adopted a resolution on human rights and environment that, among other things, welcomes my work, takes note of my report on biodiversity, and encourages States to adopt an effective normative framework for the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, including biodiversity and ecosystems. The resolution (A/HRC/ 34/L.33) will be made available here in due course.New website on environmental human rights defenders. On March 6, Universal Rights Group and several other partners, including myself, announced the launch of a new web portal with information and links for environmental human rights defenders – that is, those who defend the environment and the human rights that depend on it. As Global Witness has described, environmental defenders are increasingly under threat: at least 185 were killed in 2015 alone. Called www.environment-rights.org, the new site describes the rights of environmental defenders, includes links to sites of international organizations and others who can help them, and provides a great deal of other relevant information. The organizers plan to continue to add to the site in the future, and to translate it into other languages, including Spanish and French.Environmental defenders in Kenya and Viet Nam. On February 24, I issued a press release urging the Government of Kenya to take all necessary measures immediately to protect Ms. Phyllis Omido, the recipient of the 2015 Goldman Prize, and three members of her organization, who were assaulted, subjected to death threats, and forced into hiding after they filed a law suit against a lead smelter. I joined with the Working Group on enforced or involuntary disappearances, the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, the Special Rapporteur on toxics, and the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, to send a joint communication on this matter to the Government of Kenya.On March 8, I joined the Special Rapporteurs on freedom of association, freedom of expression, human rights defenders, and toxic substances, in issuing a joint statement urging the Government of Viet Nam to immediately release a popular blogger known as Mother Mushroom, who has been detained incommunicado since October last year. Ms. Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, a 37-year-old environmental human rights defender, is accused of spreading propaganda against the Government, on the basis of her writing posts online about, among other issues, the dumping of toxic chemicals in April 2016 in Vietnamese waters.
Report on pesticides. On March 8, during the same interactive dialogue at which I presented my report, Hilal Elver, the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, presented a report to the Council that she had prepared with the Special Rapporteur on toxic substances, Baskut Tuncak, on the dangers of pesticides to human health and the environment. Their report describes research showing that pesticides cause an estimated 200,000 acute poisoning deaths every year, the vast majority of which occur in developing countries. The Special Rapporteurs have called on governments to negotiate a new international treaty to regulate and phase out the use of dangerous pesticides.Visit of Vicki Tauli-Corpuz to the United States. On March 3, at the end of her two-week visit to the United States, Vicki Tauli-Corpuz, the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, issued a statement that, among other things, criticized the United States for authorizing the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline without an adequate assessment or meaningful consultation with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other tribes in the area. She will issue a full report with recommendations in the next few months.Visit to Uruguay. I will visit Uruguay from April 24 to 28 to examine how it is implementing human rights obligations relating to the environment. If you have information you would like to share in that respect, or you would like to meet with me during my visit, please email me at email@example.com. Feel free to refer to questions prepared for the visit, available here in English and Spanish.As always, thank you for your interest in and support for the mandate!Best regards,Mail AttachmentJohn H. KnoxUN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the EnvironmentHenry C. Lauerman Professor of International LawWake Forest University School of Law
Mr. John H. Knox
on human rights and the environment
Human Rights Council, 34th Session
8 March 2017
Excellencies, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen, today, I present a report on the human rights obligations relating to the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity. Biodiversity includes not only the millions of species of plants and animals. It also includes the genetic variations within species, and the many different ecosystems that make up the global environment, such as forests, wetlands, deserts, rivers, and oceans.
The main message of the report is simple: The full enjoyment of human rights depends on healthy ecosystems, and healthy ecosystems depend on biodiversity. The full enjoyment of human rights thus depends on biodiversity, and the loss of biodiversity undermines our ability to enjoy our human rights, including the rights to life and health, to food and water, and to cultural life.
For example, biodiversity supports the rights to life and health because, among other reasons, the development of human immune systems depends on exposure in childhood to bio-diverse surroundings; biodiversity also helps to protect us against certain diseases that are transmitted from animals to humans; and biodiversity provides a treasure house of sources of medicinal drugs, many of which remain unexplored. Our debt to nature is particularly great with respect to antibiotics and anti-cancer medications. To take just one of thousands of examples, the leading treatment for childhood leukemia was derived from the rosy periwinkle, a flower used as a traditional medicine in Madagascar.
Biodiversity is also integral to the full enjoyment of the rights to food and water. Greater diversity makes fisheries and commercial crops more productive, more stable, and more resilient to disasters and to climate change. Diverse animal, plant, and algae species help to filter water, including of toxic substances. A famous example is Lake Baikal in the Russian Federation, where crustaceans the size of poppy seeds keep the water clear by ingesting pollutants as well as food. In the words of a local environmentalist, they are “the heroes of the lake”.
To protect and promote the full enjoyment of these and other rights that depend on biodiversity, it is necessary to protect biodiversity. As in other areas of human rights and the environment, the human rights duties can be categorized as procedural obligations, substantive obligations, and obligations relating to those who are most vulnerable.
Procedurally, before a State grants a concession for exploitation of a forest, authorizes a dam, or takes other steps that allow the degradation of biodiversity, it should assess the impacts of the proposal, provide information about its possible effects, facilitate public participation in the decision-making process, and provide access to effective legal remedies for those who claim that their rights have been violated. Many of your governments have sent me examples of procedural safeguards and innovations at the national level. I have made all of the contributions available on the UN website, and I encourage you to review them.
However, many shortcomings still remain. Perhaps the most egregious problem is the continuing failure to protect environmental human rights defenders. In 2015 alone, there were 185 confirmed killings of environmental defenders around the world. Countless others are subjected to violence, unlawful detention, or other types of harassment. Governments must do better at responding to threats, investigating violations, and arresting those responsible. Moreover, States must ensure that their laws do not criminalize peaceful protests and opposition, or otherwise restrict or prohibit the work of environmental defenders.
Substantively, human rights law does not require that ecosystems remain untouched by human hands. Economic and social development depends on the use of ecosystems, including, in appropriate cases, the conversion of natural ecosystems such as forests into human-managed ecosystems such as pastures and cropland. As States have recognized, however, this development cannot over exploit natural ecosystems. In Sustainable Development Goal 15, States committed to “protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss”.
But States are not meeting the goals they have set for themselves. The drivers of biodiversity loss continue, including habitat destruction, poaching, and pollution. Of the 56 components of the Aichi Targets, States were on pace to meet only five, as of 2014. And in December 2016, the Conference of the Parties to the Convention stated that “only a minority of parties have established targets [in their national biodiversity strategies and action plans] with a level of ambition and scope commensurate with the Aichi Biodiversity Targets”.
struck the planet, altering the climate and destroying the dinosaurs and three-quarters of all species on Earth. This time, we are the asteroid. We are bringing this catastrophe upon ourselves.
Over the past 40 years, the population of vertebrate animals on the planet has declined by more than fifty percent. On current trends, the decline will be two-thirds by 2020. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 13 per cent of bird species, 25 per cent of mammals, 33 per cent of corals, and over 40 per cent of amphibians are threatened with extinction. Over 2000 species are critically endangered, which means that they face “an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild.”
giant pandas left in the wild. But we are also losing species before we even know them. Only a small
fraction of the hundreds of thousands of plant species have been studied for their medicinal potential,
and even plants known to be valuable are often at risk. As many as 40 per cent of the 60,000 plant species used for medicinal purposes are endangered, including plants long important in traditional medicine such as the African cherry and the Himalayan yew.
Although the global failure to protect biodiversity ultimately affects everyone, it is already having disastrous consequences for indigenous peoples and others who depend closely on natural ecosystems for their food, water, fuel, and culture. Too often, heedless exploitation of natural resources pollutes their rivers, cuts down their forests, displaces them from their homes, and destroys their sacred places. Peaceful opposition is often met with harassment and violence.
In 2017, I intend to undertake country visits to Uruguay and to Mongolia; to prepare a report on children’s rights and the environment; and last but not least, to develop clear and understandable guiding principles, or practical guidelines, on human rights and the environment to present to the Council next March, in my final report.
Thank you, Mr. President.