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UN Human Rights Council to Appoint Independent Expert on Human Rights and the Environment

At its 19th session on the 20th of March, the UN’s Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on human rights and the environment facilitating an independent expert on human rights obligations related to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. The resolution was adopted by consensus, with more than 80 States co-sponsoring. The expert is to be appointed for a period of three years.

The decision comes on the back of the related work done by the Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes and perhaps signifies a reinvigoration of the focus on the links between human rights and the environment. The tasks of the Expert will be, inter alia, to study the human rights obligations, including non-discrimination obligations, relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, to identify, promote and exchange views on best practices relating to the use of human rights obligations and commitments to inform, support and strengthen environmental policymaking, especially in the area of environmental protection, and to submit a first report, including conclusions and recommendations, to the Human Rights Council at its twenty-second session and annually thereafter.

While the international environmental rights agenda has been somewhat dormant following the 1992 Rio Summit, regional developments in the area of procedural rights – most notably in the form of the 1998 UNECE Aarhus Convention – and domestic constitutional environmental rights developments have made some progress over the last two decades. Likewise the environmental agenda has gained currency in the setting of climate change where a number of UN and World Bank reports and resolutions have kept the issue in the forefront.

One interesting development in respect to the Council’s resolution will be what action (if any) states will take in June at the Rio+20 Summit in relation to environmental rights.

For more information download the resolution here.

2 Comments

  1. Itzchak Kornfeld, Hebrew University Itzchak Kornfeld, Hebrew University 24 March 2012

    I would like to add the following to Ole’s excellent post.
    First, interestingly the resolution was tabled by Costa Rica, The Maldives, and Switzerland, but was adopted by the Council by consensus, with more than 80 States co-sponsoring.
    Second, the resolution crystallizes efforts over decades from numerous quarters. It provides/establishes an institutional vehicle to advance the linkages between human rights and the environment.
    Third, the new Special Procedure contained in the Resolution anticipates the establishment of of a universal right to a healthy environment by the Council. Although a good deal of work will be needed over the next three years in order to obtain this very important objective.
    Progress on the Human Rights & Environmental track raises a number of issues, some of which I point out below, including those raised by the CIEL:
    (1) What is or will be the mandate of the Independent Expert (IE)?
    That mandate is established in the Council’s Resolution. For example, the IE is expected to clarify the human rights obligations related to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. The IE would also contribute to the follow-up of the outcome of the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development, which will take place this June.
    (2) How will progress on the “Environment” track affect progress on the “Climate Change” (CC) track?
    One can anticipate that some States will argue that the creation of an “environment” mandate obviates the need for the creation of a “climate change” mandate. However, this argument challenges NGOs and States to clearly distinguish between the “environment” and “climate change” tracks, so as to make the case for progress on the CC track.
    Indeed, civil society will be confronted with the challenge of growing pressure and opening the space for progress on the CC track. It will be quite interesting to see how this pressure will be dealt with. But, we can anticipate that some creative ideas will result.
    (3) What would constitute progress on the CC track?
    The core elements of a CC track include the possibility of hearing victims of CC&HRs violations and the ability to engage CC negotiations.
    One way that these elements could be achieved is via the creation of a Special Rapporteur on CC&HRs. Indeed some have suggested that the Council could establish a separate “Forum”, which would allow victims and scientists, among others to travel to Geneva to shed light on the core elements of the CC track. Moreover, what would not constitute progress is another “panel”, since a “panel” to introduce to topic already took place.
    (4) When could we see further progress on the CC track?
    The Council is expected to consider the outcomes of the February 2012 CC & HRs “Seminar” in this June’s Session. June would be the earliest that the Council could take action on these two topics. Therefore, in order to keep these issues current, individuals and civil society need to mount pressure on the Council and adjunct organizations to place the CC & HR issues on its agenda for June.

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