GENEVA (11 March 2014) – “It is now beyond argument that human rights law includes obligations relating to the environment,” the United Nations Independent Expert on human rights and the environment, John Knox, said while urging States “to take these obligations into account in the development and implementation of their environmental policies.”
Mr. Knox’s appeal came during the presentation of his first comprehensive report to the UN Human Rights Council on the human rights obligations relating to environmental protection.
The obligations require States to assess environmental impacts on human rights and to make environmental information public, to provide access to effective remedies, and to facilitate participation in environmental decision-making.
“The duty to facilitate public participation means that States must do more to safeguard the rights of freedom of expression and association against threats, harassment and violence,” he said. “Those who defend the environment often do so at great personal risk.”
“Environmental human rights defenders deserve no less protection than other human rights defenders,” the Independent Expert underscored.
In his report, Mr. Knox explains how States’ duties go beyond ensuring adequate procedural safeguards. Human rights law also requires them to adopt legal and institutional frameworks that protect against environmental harm that interferes with the enjoyment of human rights.
“The obligation to protect human rights from environmental harm does not require States to prohibit all activities that may cause any environmental degradation,” the expert said. “States have discretion to strike a balance between environmental protection and other legitimate societal interests.”
“However,” he stressed, “the balance cannot be unreasonable, or result in unjustified, foreseeable infringements of human rights.”
Moreover, Mr. Knox highlighted, States have special duties to protect members of groups particularly vulnerable to environmental harm, including women, children and indigenous peoples.
The Independent Expert emphasized in his report that work remains to be done to clarify these obligations further, including in relation to transboundary environmental harm. Even there, however, “it is clear that States have an obligation of international cooperation that is highly relevant to global harm such as climate change,” he said.
The report is based on a year-long research project that surveyed statements by a wide range of sources, including human rights treaty bodies, regional human rights tribunals, UN Special Rapporteurs, international environmental instruments, and statements by the Human Rights Council itself.
Mr. Knox will now work together with the UN Environment Programme in examining empirical evidence of how human rights obligations relating to the environment are put into practice. This effort will result in a compendium of good practices, to be presented to the Council in March 2015.