Human rights and environmental protection are interdependent

Press release
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Today, Prof John Knox (Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment) presents a report on "the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment" in front of the Human Right Council of the UN in Geneva. FIDH welcomes this report and joins the call made by the Special Rapporteur to the UN General Assembly to adopt a resolution formally recognising the right to a healthy environment as part of international human rights law, already recognised by a great majority of countries at national and/or regional level

This report introduces 16 Framework Principles on human rights and the environment based on obligations of States under human rights law and their interpretation by human rights bodies.
FIDH shares the conviction at the basis of the report that human rights and environmental protection are interdependent, « while a safe, clean and healthy environment is essential for the enjoyment of human rights, the exercise of human rights including the right to freedom of expression, education, participation and remedy is vital to the protection of the environment ».

FIDH’s contribution to the earlier version of the report has been largely taken into account in the final version, in particular regarding the reference to the importance of business impacts on environmental and human rights.
While recognising that those principles are not exhaustive, and that many aspects of the relationship between human rights and the environment still need to be clarified, FIDH believes that this report is an important step in the understanding and implementation of human rights obligations relating to the environment. This relationship will clearly be essential for the protection of people and the planet in the years to come.

Over the past 10 years, FIDH has worked to reaffirm the relevance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the current debate over climate change, toxic waste and energy. Environmental damages directly threaten the right to life, to health, to water, to development, to housing, to work, to culture and the rights of indigenous people (see for example FIDH’s position on the COP21 negotiations). Affected populations have the right to be protected from adverse environmental impacts, such as polluted water, soil and air, deforestation, and displacements that result from desertification or floods caused by climate change.

As we have documented, major gaps remain in the implementation of international human rights law and State and non-state actors are often responsible for massive violations of environmental and human rights.

Human rights defenders, and in particular environmental and land defenders, are increasingly the target of repressive measures; the pressure on land has become unbearable. Between 2011 and 2014, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders documented 43 assassination cases targeting land rights defenders and the judicial harassment of 123 defenders, sometimes together with their arbitrary detention.

At the same time, in some countries like Honduras, the energy supply transformation process driven by the fight against climate change risks causing irreversible harm to protected areas in the Pico Bonito National Park and to the Cuyamel River micro basin, the main source of water for nearly 7000 people in the San Francisco municipality, Atlántida.

While in others, like South Africa, the decline of the mining industry entails huge environmental and human rights impacts due to the lack of appropriate accountability of both companies and public institutions. The sudden closure of the Blyvoorzicht mine has left a community of 6000 people to fend for themselves.

Europe itself is not immune from negative impacts on human health and the environment generated by economic activities, as demonstrated by the decision of the European Committee of Social rights in the case FIDH filed against Greece for the industrial pollution of the Aesopos riverwhere high levels of pollution, due to the discharge of industrial liquid for over 40 years, continue to affect several villages totalling more than 200 000 inhabitants.

The Framework presented today clearly reaffirms that States have the legal obligation to respect, protect and fulfil human rights by ensuring a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment (Principle 1). Although States are accountable for the harmonisation of public policies and national laws with their obligations, they are often ineffective or complicit in human rights violations.

The Special Rapporteur equally underlines the role and responsibilities of business enterprises and other non-state actors in harming human rights and the environment. (Commentary to Principle 1 and Principle 12). These actors include private security firms, armed rebellion and paramilitary groups, as well as transnational, national and state-owned corporations. They extract, pollute and destroy scarce environmental resources and operate with poor labour standards.

International organisations too bear responsibilities. They prescribe economic policies to governments, introduce private land markets, encourage privatisation of the water supply, enforce high health service fees and finance large development infrastructures that have had and still have negative impacts on human rights.

The Intergovernmental Working Group in charge of elaborating an international binding instrument related to transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights should build on the work of Prof John Knox and consider the interdependence between human rights and the environment as the fundamental basis of any further instrument on business and human rights.

FIDH believes that a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is essential to the fulfilment of the right to life, food, health, water, housing... Similarly, the introduction of human rights considerations into environmental policies is essential to the protection of the populations affected by global warming and to the well-being of future generations.

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