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If we fail our environment, we fail our human rights

For Earth Day, Monday 22 April 2013

“If we fail our environment, we fail to protect our human rights,” warn UN experts on Earth Day

GENEVA (22 April 2013) – “We continue to fail to protect and conserve our environment in many respects, often with dire consequences for the enjoyment of human rights, despite great progress in some areas,” today warned a group of United Nations independent experts on the occasion of Earth Day 2013.

“In the decades since the first Earth Day, on 22 April 1970, the international community has taken great strides to address pressing environmental issues,” noted the UN human rights experts on environment, toxic waste, health, water and sanitation, food, indigenous peoples and human rights defenders. “It has come together to address ozone depletion, the loss of endangered species, marine pollution, and many other environmental threats.”

“However, when governments around the world fail to restrict emissions of greenhouse gases leading to global climate change,” said the UN Independent Expert on human rights and the environment, John Knox, “they fail to protect many human rights, including rights to life, health, property, development, and self-determination, of people living in vulnerable communities such as those in low-lying coastal areas and in the polar region.”

“The right to health is an inclusive right that extends to such underlying determinants as healthy environment,” stressed UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health, Anand Grover. Thus, “when toxic substances are dumped or leak and people living near the waste sites become ill and even die, those individuals’ human rights, such as their rights to life and health, have been infringed,” underlined the UN Special Rapporteur on toxic waste, Marc Pallemaerts.

“When untreated human waste which is threatening our environment is killing and making millions of people, in particular children, sick,” explained UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, “the right to sanitation, which includes the safe disposal of human waste, is being violated”.

“When our rivers are being depleted and polluted, the livelihoods of many vulnerable groups are put in jeopardy,” explained UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier de Schutter, “including the ability for those groups to access sufficient and safe drinking water, grow food, and harvest from traditional fisheries.”

“When mining and other extractive activities take place within indigenous territories without adequate environmental safeguards”, said UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, James Anaya, “a wide array of those communities’ human rights are usually violated or put at risk.”

“When many individuals around the world who peacefully advocate against the environmental impact of projects are harassed, intimidated, stigmatised, criminalized, beaten and even killed,” said Margaret Sekaggya, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, “then their right to life and to physical integrity have been violated. Similarly their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, which are necessary to claim other fundamental rights, have been severely infringed. Those who advocate for a clean and healthy environment necessary for the enjoyment of human rights should be able to speak up without fear of persecution or intimidation of any sort.”

“When we pollute the Earth and waste resources, we violate the rights of future generations and undermine an international order based on democratic participation and equitable sharing of the planet’s wealth,” said the UN Independent Expert on the promotion of an equitable and democratic international order, Alfred de Zayas. “International solidarity by governments and civil society is required to safeguard the Earth, including by seeking the development of penal measures under international law.”

“These are but a few examples of the many challenges continuing to face the international community due to the deterioration of the environment,” the group of experts said. “The international community must cooperate to collectively address these and the many other pressing environmental problems that continue to have severe impacts on the enjoyment of human rights.”

The first Earth Day, on 22 April 1970, marked the beginning of the modern environmental movement, and its anniversary has become a global event that reaffirms the critical need to protect and conserve our natural environment, the experts noted.

“Now it is time to take this occasion to recognise the fundamental link between a clean and healthy environment to the realisation of a wide array of fundamental human rights,” they said. “It is also essential that the international community recognise the critical role that human rights law can play to ensure environmental protection.”


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