UN declares healthy environment a human right—now what?

This past fall, the United Nations Human Rights Council declared a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment to be a human right. (The US does not currently have a seat on the Council, and China, India, Japan and the Russian Federation all abstained from the vote.) Moreover, through a second Council resolution, the post of Special Rapporteur was created to promote human rights in the context of climate change. While hailed as groundbreaking by numerous environmental advocates, what concrete results can we expect from these resolutions? With the world running out of time to curb the effects of extreme climate change, can the United Nations’ assertion of humanity’s right to a healthy environment and stable climate push the world’s nations to take serious action?

In this interview, TRNN contributor David Kattenburg examines these UN resolutions and what they do and don’t mean for humanity’s fight against climate catastrophe with Todd Howland and Saher Rashid Baig. Todd Howland, who helped draft the two UN resolutions, is chief of the Development, Economic and Social Issues Branch of the United Nations’ Human Rights Office. Saher Rashid Baig is a youth, environmental, and human rights advocate based in Karachi, Pakistan, who is engaged with the Climate Change Virtual Conference of Youth and with YOUNGO, a global network of young activists seeking to empower youth voices in shaping global climate policies.

Pre-Production: David Kattenburg
Studio/Post Production: Cameron Granadino


Transcript

David Kattenburg:    Hello, and welcome to The Real News Network. I’m David Kattenburg. Clean air, clean water, biodiversity, fertile soils, these are the bedrock of human development and prosperity. So is a stable climate. Human civilization began 11,000 years ago as ice sheets receded and Earth’s climate turned temperate and stable. So nothing is more critical for the wealth of nations than a stable climate. Scientists understand this, so does the United Nations Human Rights Council. This past fall in a unanimous vote the council declared a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment to be a human right. China, India, Japan, and the Russian Federation abstained from the vote. The United States does not have a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. And by a vote of 42 to 1 the post of Special Rapporteur was created to promote human rights in the context of climate change. That resolution was opposed by the Russian Federation. China, Eritrea, India, and Japan abstained.

Joining me to talk about these two landmark resolutions are Todd Howland and Saher Rashid Baig. Todd Howland is Chief of the Development, Economic and Social Issues Branch of the United Nations Human Rights Office. He helped to develop these two UN resolutions. Saher Baig is an Environment and Human Rights advocate based in Karachi, Pakistan. Saher is engaged with a Climate Change Virtual Conference of Youth, and with the YOUNGO, a global network of young activists seeking to empower youth voices in shaping global climate policies. Saher Baig, Todd Howland, welcome to The Real News. Thank you so much for joining me. Todd, I’m going to start with you. Can you tell me about these two resolutions? Give me a quick summary of their drafting history, and can you explain what a Special Rapporteur is?

Todd Howland:     Thanks very much David, and thanks for having me on the show today. The Special Rapporteur is an independent expert that is chosen by the Human Rights Council, and the Human Rights Council is made up of 47 member states of the 93 that are part of the United Nations. A Special Rapporteur is an independent expert that’s assigned, for example, there’s 45 thematic Special Rapporteurs and there’s 13 that relate to countries. And their role is to really look at that theme or look at that country and to examine exactly what’s happening in that area and to provide reports to the Human Rights Council. They also often make country visits to further investigate what’s happening on the development of that particular theme.

So it’s important that when we look at the creation of a Special Rapporteur, that usually indicates that the thematic issue or the country needs attention. And so that’s why in this particular case in the October session, the 48th session of the Human Rights Council, the Special Rapporteur on climate change and human rights was created. It’s an important development because it’s a recognition now by member states that climate change is a human rights issue. And secondly that it provides for an independent expert to continually funnel information into the UN system about climate change and human rights.

David Kattenburg:     And tell me about this other resolution. There was the other resolution that declared a healthy environment to be a fundamental human right. Tell me about that resolution, Todd Howland.

Todd Howland:    Well, David, that’s a… That one’s perhaps more of a landmark because of the fact that the Human Rights Council clarified that the environment is subject to and of concern by the Human Rights Council and the United Nations. It’s actually long in coming. You can trace it all the way back to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that indicated human rights should apply in all aspects of society. You can trace it back to the Stockholm Declaration of ’72, sort of the beginning of the international environmental movement.

And you could see by the time the Human Rights Council came to actually passing this resolution that already 155 countries in the world had recognized the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. So in many ways the recognition by the Human Rights Council was the fact that not only are there roots in many different human rights and environmental pieces of human rights law, but that it also relates to developments in different regions and in different countries. Also, it was really an important political development because the core states that were supporting this ended up with more than a thousand NGOs globally supporting them and pushing for this. 15 United Nations agencies were supportive of this particular resolution. So it really was a massive effort by many different individuals, in many different organizations globally to get this recognition.

David Kattenburg:     And as much of a landmark as it was, this idea that we human beings have a right to a healthy environment is kind of already embedded in international public law. You mentioned the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but there’s also the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and economic, social, and cultural rights. I mean, it’s a complicated topic and international law is huge. Without going into details, incredible details, can you give us a quick scan of where we find confirmation within these canonical instruments, legal instruments, that we have a right to a healthy, clean environment and stable climate?

Todd Howland:       Sure. David, I think that if we go back to the Universal Declaration that’s where you find sort of the common values as existed at that time globally. And if you see then from the Universal Declaration there’re two major covenants that come out. The first two, the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. You can really tie issues related to the environment and climate change to both of these covenants. One very specific example is the right to health. The right to health obviously is impacted when we have pollution, when we have toxic dumps, when we have trans-boundary contamination. And so you end up seeing a direct relationship between the quality of the environment we live in and the health that people enjoy. And so that’s a very clear connection. Second, what we’ve seen more recently are the, let’s say the individuals that are dying from cancer created by environmental, let’s say environmental pollution.

And we’ve seen a growing body of scientific understanding in terms of the relationship between certain toxins that are in the environment created by human intervention and how those have impacted the health and wellbeing and even life. And so then you can go to the right to life that’s found in some political rights. But there’s a lot of aspects to this that you can find in different parts of the covenants. You can see a history, for example, dating back to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights from 1981, that all people should have the right to a general satisfactory environment favorable to their development. You can see it in the Arab Charter on Human Rights from 2004, you can see it in the Protocol to the San Salvador Declaration to the American Convention on Human Rights from ’98. And so you see a growing understanding by different member states and different regions of the relationship between a healthy environment and human rights.

David Kattenburg:    Saher Baig, the right to a healthy environment is immediately clear to marginalized communities and rural people and young people across the Global South. Can you share your own experiences with us from your home in Karachi in Pakistan? Tell me some of the specific environmental rights issues that you think must be addressed in the short term, and getting specific about these issues, what are they?

Saher Baig:         Thanks, David. Thank you for having me, first of all. It was really insightful even for me to be here and hear about all of these things and that. But definitely some of the major issues that we can talk about specific to my region, or in other countries of my region definitely, would be just as Todd mentioned. Some of the diseases that are occurring because of pollution and because of environmental related or extreme weather events, for example. So some of the things that we can list would be, of course, desertification, would be, of course, water scarcity, would be not clean water being available for people of… Not even for vulnerable marginalized communities but also for all the people because of the pollution, because of the landfills that we are having. The other problems would be of course urban flooding, because now the floods and extreme weather events due to climate change are not only occurring in rural areas.

The urban areas are also majorly affected, for example, my own city as well. Now, every year we don’t have some nice pleasant rainfall, but we rather have a lot of rain at one point and that causes urban flooding. So you cannot even get out of your home, even if you’re a privileged person, you’re not living in a village, you’re living in a very built up city, you can still not do it. So I mean, some of these problems that are affecting people’s life are of course the flooding that is happening, the extreme heat effects that are happening, the heat island effects that are happening. And plantation is… We can actually see that they’re being serious about planting trees. But I mean, if you ask me as someone who has been active in the negotiations, or who has been active in the major climate policies, at [dynamics], I don’t think that is a major area of focus that we should be focusing on.

So I think that the right to a healthy environment declaration is a very great step towards the right direction, and I mean, it was a long time coming, definitely. And there are other things that are actually also happening, but David, I would want to ask your permission to talk about that first, because you wanted me to list all the disasters. But I mean, yes. So, I see, and as a person from a Global South, I see and live, these are these impacts every day. I see a fisherman suffering, I see a farmer suffering. I see how droughts can change one person’s life. I see how extreme weather events can kill people, just a lot of it. And at normal summers, which are a fun part for somebody living in the Global North, can kill someone and ruin their whole families, for example.

So this is actually my passion to actually work even more towards the rights of the young people, as their wellbeing has been majorly affected, and towards the rights of the future generations as well, because we are not doing it just for ourselves. We are doing it for the future generations as well, because we have to give them a sustainable world. So I have been working on –

David Kattenburg:    Let me jump in here quickly. Can you tell me about this Declaration on Children, Youth and Climate Action that you’ve been working on?

Saher Baig:                Yes, exactly. That is where I was coming basically. So I have been working on this Declaration on Children, Youth and Climate Action, it’s an intergovernmental declaration, which was launched at COP25 in Madrid in 2019. And for this, one of the UN agencies, UNICEF, and Children’s Environmental Rights Initiative, and also the constituency state that I’m a part of that is called YOUNGO, which is the official Children and Youth constituency of the UNFCCC, are the core custodians. This declaration has seven prominent demands or key asks that member states can actually take into account and build towards every single young person’s and future generations and children’s right to a healthy environment, basically. This declaration has 30 countries so far and we have been working on it throughout these two years, and we want to make it the first ever COP decision in UNFCCC’s history focused on young people and children. Because this is really unfortunate how we see some things are very basic as right to a healthy environment.

And it’s really, I mean, everyone can see how young people and future generations, what place do they hold in protecting their rights? But there has been no COP decision focused on them until today. So this declaration is very crucial. And at COP26 we have also launched a network of champion governments, which are the governments who have signed the declaration. Because we do not only need signatures. That is not enough. We also need implementation. We also need them to turn their ambition into action, to turn their words into action, to show us that they’re doing something. So this declaration is very crucial, and I just hope that anyone who’s watching it right now and who can liaise with their government as well would definitely sign this declaration as well. We need as many member states as we can.

David Kattenburg:      Well on that topic, let’s talk about next steps. UN Rights Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet has called on member states to take “bold action to give prompt and real effect to the right to a healthy environment.” And she’s called on governments to develop transformative economic, social, and environmental policies that will protect people and nature. Todd Howland, is a concrete action agenda in the works? And when will a Special Rapporteur actually be appointed?

Todd Howland:          Well, David, I think that it’s a very complex question because there are 193 member states of the UN and each of them are in, let’s say, different stages of development relative to their understanding and their action needed relative to climate change and the environment. Some states are definitely taking more leadership and you can see in terms of policies. You can even see in the business sector, an area that’s, let’s say, too often considered a human rights-free zone. Different extremely important business actors thinking about how they actually conform their practices, their business models to human rights standards. And so it is a nascent effort relative to the dimension of the problem that we’re facing. The fact that we do have recognition from the Human Rights Council provides activists and those politicians that feel this is a crisis and are pushing. It provides them one extra arm, for their advocacy. But we have a long way to go to reach what the high commissioner has termed, “bold action,” but that’s really what’s required if we’re going to save people and the planet at this moment.

David Kattenburg:      And logistically, is there a focus or a nexus or a place or an office where an action agenda is actually being developed within the human rights area of the United Nations? Has somebody been tasked with coming up with a short list of actions that can be taken ?

Todd Howland:      Absolutely. I mean, part of the role of the office of the High Commission for Human Rights, part of the role of the UN Environmental Programme, is to support those entities, states, businesses, let’s say the duty bearers, to change their practices. And part of what our role is is to identify good practices and you’ll see that there’ll be upcoming reports to the Human Rights Council that will be seeking out those good practices and will be sharing those in the context of upcoming reports. Already before the last two resolutions there was a Special Rapporteur on the environment and human rights, now there’s one on climate change and human rights. Together you will see a growing effort from the Human Rights Council, where both of them are highlighting problems and opportunities for change.

David Kattenburg:     Saher, you’ve spoken about your declaration. Can you talk a bit about specific plans that are underway or actions that are being organized and implemented by youth groups and coalitions around the world which are trying to advance the protection of human rights insofar as the environment is concerned? Can you talk about specific actions that are underway?

Saher Baig:              So, yes, basically, first of all, if I talk specifically about the declaration, we are trying to mobilize the young people at grassroots levels. Because every country is different. Every push, just as Todd also mentioned, all these declarations and all these talks actually give us a stronger arm to push even further, to create a greater momentum, for example. So we are trying to mobilize the advocates at grassroots levels, trying to make them understand why this declaration is important so that they can take this forward. For this, we have also launched in the UN climate change dialogue in 2020 an open letter for all the young people towards their governments to sign this declaration and also to come up with different actions that they want to see. The different actions that are concrete and implementable.

Saher Baig:         But we also have to take in account the security risks that young people actually face when they’re advocating, given that they’re advocating at a decision making table, at negotiations table, or on the roads. Now, that being said, there are of course different practices that the young people have shown that can be included in the policies very meaningfully. So we are not here to actually play a blame game, but we are rather here to work together, hand in hand with people who are already there at the decision making system. And we are advocating for our voices to be included meaningfully because we are giving them the solutions, how this can be worked out. So for example, even during the pandemic, how we can… We have great examples of how young people did not let the work of policy die.

The virtual conference of youths of YOUNGO is a great example for that, that included the voices of the young people from vulnerable marginalized communities, gave them the freedom to make their voices heard in the wider consultations, which was this whole consultations with the name Global Youth Statement was handed to the COP president. And it was included in the cover decision as well. Countries are also reading out how the young people also want more youth-inclusive decisions. For example, New Zealand read out that during the COP26. And then there are of course other initiatives that are taken by the young people to make the whole climate action agenda more linguistically inclusive so that we are not leaving behind the Indigenous communities. We’re not leaving behind the people who are working, who are actually being impacted, who are actually the frontline communities, but they cannot be included because this whole conversation is so rigid linguistic wise.

It’s like everyone is talking in six UN languages or in English. If we don’t want to leave actually no one behind, we have to think about the linguistic diversity that we have. And it’s… I think that the young people there are thinking about these small details to make the actual change more inclusive and more impactful. So I think as a young person, this is something I’m really proud of. And I think that we should be heard, and I’m really glad to hear whatever Todd was saying. They recognize that these actions and this push from the young people on the road, or from the young people at the negotiation tables are very crucial. So that we are reminded that we have to leave a sustainable world, for us and for the future generations.

David Kattenburg:     Todd, thoughts on this? Do you want to reply to what Saher has just said?

Todd Howland:       No, I think the reality is that human rights change is rarely a gift. Human rights change requires a concerted effort because the reason why we’re in this situation is that there’s powerful interests. And so that’s why the mobilization of the youth networks and of the environmentalists and of those that are interested in socially responsible actions is so critical, because the powerful interests make money from the current situation. And that it’s important to see that there’s other interests and to bring those interests into the political discussions, and to show the importance of taking the right decisions. And those right decisions relate to what are the current human rights standards? And those current human rights standards indicate that the economic policies need to reflect the values of our world as seen by the Human Rights Council. And that would include the right to a healthy, sustainable environment.

David Kattenburg:    I’d like to raise a final point here. If we humans have a right to clean air and water, healthy soils, biodiversity, and a stable climate, we should be able to pursue these rights in courts, I would think, national and international. And one recent, very interesting example of these issues in the courts is that the German Constitutional Court rendered a decision this past spring regarding Germany’s climate protection act, ruling that the act didn’t take Germany’s international obligations and future generations into account. And the German government, I gathered, modified its climate change act in accordance with the Constitutional Court’s decision.

And I’m thinking about these Norwegian activists who are taking the Norwegian government to court over oil and gas exploration off the Norwegian coast, I believe, at the European Court of Human Rights. So now that environmental health has been declared a human right, are legal enforcement tools on people’s minds? Todd, and then Saher? And this is a tough one, of course. It’s one thing to come up with normative guidelines, it’s another thing to actually give them legal teeth. And then to pursue this issue in the courts, this isn’t… Yeah. Your thoughts, Todd?

Todd Howland:       I think what we can see is similar efforts that were made in the past by the Human Rights Council international community. One, for example, from 2011 clarified – They’re called the Ruggie Principles – That human rights applies to business. And it’s taken quite a while, but today you see different countries beginning to apply those standards as defined by the Human Rights Council in domestic litigation. Economic, social, and cultural rights in many countries are already [inaudible]. South Africa is a very good example, where there is already a significant amount of litigation that would relate to the right to health and the environment. And so I think what we’ll see is a growing tendency. And it will take time for every country, and it may take a long time for some countries to actually recognize and have the uptake of these international standards. But I am confident that activists like Saher, and all of her colleagues globally will be using every last bit of what comes out of the Human Rights Council to advocate for change.

David Kattenburg:     Saher?

Saher Baig:           Thanks. I really believe in that thought and definitely the Human Rights Council and the work of the Human Rights Council is basically providing us hope and giving us the tools to advocate better on what we believe in. I have a great example. I did not know this question was coming, but I mean, I’m so happy that it did. So, first of all, yes. You’re absolutely right there. Young people taking things in their hand, suing their governments, I know a very great Jamaican environmentalist friend who actually said, why are you not doing enough and you can? Because it’s our basic right to have a healthy environment, it’s our basic right. It’s your basic duty to save what’s happening in the country with regards to climate change, why are you not doing enough? This is frustrating. But there’re also young people who are mobilizing themselves, like this great initiative that I have worked with very briefly, which is called World’s Youth for Climate Justice.

They’re taking the whole climate crisis problem from… They’re young people from different parts of the world and they’re taking this to the International Court of Justice. Why? Because we believe that justice can be given. And we believe that this is actually a legal problem, and we believe that we can actually build up if we mobilize together all the forces, we’re serious about it. It’s not about one person doing all the work as a young person, but we together joining forces from all around the world taking this problem to the International Court of Justice. Well, I don’t know how this will work out. I really hope that it will work out. I really hope just as Todd mentioned that it will take a long time for some countries to get serious about it.

And it will take a long time to actually realize that this is a serious problem for them and for us and our future generations. But there are also countries that are doing a great job in including their young people. We should not also forget that. It’s not enough, but it’s something. And it also inspires us to keep on going because our voices are then included. So I think that, David, when you ask how the young people are actually doing those implementable bits, giving them, I think that even before the right to a healthy environment got adopted, World’s Youth for Climate Justice have been working to take this whole problem to the International Court of Justice. I think that we believe in the UN as an entity who can actually help us, and the Human Rights Council who can actually give us the tools to protect our basic rights. And I think that this is great. We all have to work hand in hand, and I really have hope that we can achieve a better future.

David Kattenburg:    I’ve been speaking with Todd Howland, Chief of the Development, Economic and Social Issues Branch of the United Nations Human Rights Office, and Saher Baig, a Youth Environment and Human Rights advocate based in Karachi, Pakistan. Todd and Saher, thank you so much for joining us. Before you go, please don’t forget to subscribe to The Real News YouTube channel and head over to therealnews.com/support to become a monthly Real News sustainer. Your contributions help ensure we keep bringing you important coverage and conversations like this one. Thank you so much for watching. Bye bye.

David Kattenburg

David Kattenburg is a journalist, human rights advocate, and science educator based in Breda, Netherlands.