Discussion on Human Rights violations involving the environment
49th session of the Human Rights Council
28 February - 1 April 2022
Item 3: Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment: non-toxic environment
10 March 2022
By Payton Focht / GICJ
At the 23rd Meeting, 49th Regular Session of the Human Rights Council (HRC), held on 10 and 11 March, Mr David R. Boyd, the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, delivered a presentation on the report to the HRC. The Special Rapporteur highlighted growing concerns surrounding pollution and toxic substances which have led to increasing numbers of premature deaths. He underscored that the majority of the burden is placed on individuals and communities already facing poverty, systemic discrimination, and marginalisation. Mr Boyd noted the environmental injustice these individuals face as well as the fact that impoverished communities are more greatly affected by such inequality.
In addition, the effectiveness of current treaties and obligations in this area is minimised by gaps in the terms of the agreement as none of them references human rights or human rights obligations despite the fact that the Human Rights Council adopted the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment (Resolution 48/13) on 8 October 2021. This is a major issue, as human rights considerations should be at the forefront of environmental decision making. It is also increasingly difficult for individuals, especially those from marginalised groups, to gain access to environmental information, access to justice or effective remedies. The Special Rapporteur discussed the use of “Sacrifice Zones” or areas where, typically marginalised communities, are exposed to extreme levels of pollution and toxic contamination. These Sacrifice zones are used on a global scale and constitute a major human rights violation.
While states have shared good practices in this area, many of the current approaches are failing to adequately address the persisting environmental damage. The result is a systematic denial of human rights. States must vigorously pursue zero pollution targets and the elimination of toxic substances, as well as Sacrifice Zones, to ensure the enjoyment, full realisation and enjoyment of human rights. A Human Rights-based approach, as expensive as it may be, could save millions of lives, which according to the Special Rapporteur, is worth it. The latter updated the Council on his recent investigation in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Mr Boyd revealed that due to the geographical location of the region, St. Vincent and the Grenadines are at the frontline of the climate crisis and their future is in the world's hands.
The Special Rapporteur noted that the international community and HRC need to establish effective dialogues to educate countries on issues relating to the climate crisis. In addition, Mr Boyd stated that he is creating a handbook for states and companies which provides suggestions to combat these environmental issues, with emphasis on sacrifice zones and pollution. The delegations thanked the Special Rapporteur for his work on the report and his report on St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) highlighted that the extent of the human rights violations brought on by the climate crisis has been reiterated in the oral statements delivered by the Special Rapporteur, states, and NGOs. They noted that a more coherent vision and special emphasis on eradicating sacrifice zones is needed.
Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ) recognises the severe impact the environment imposes on vulnerable populations and communities. We have long held that there is a connection between the environment and human rights. Now, more than ever, states have an obligation to ensure that their people are safe from pollution and toxins. The international community must take drastic measures to reverse or remediate the environmental damages that they have created in their countries. The youth of the world are depending on states to step up and take all available measures to reverse the environmental impacts.
On 8 October 2021, the Human Rights Council adopted resolution 48/13, recognizing, at the global level, the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. By this time, the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment was recognized by more than 80% of member states of the United Nations. This resolution is expected to create universal recognition in constitutions, legislation and regional human rights treaties, as well as a way to help accelerate action to address and improve the climate crisis. Resolution 48/13 is to be used as a catalyst for actions to clean up air quality, which will improve the lives of billions of people according to David R. Boyd. Resolution 48/13 was originally created in response to rising sea levels, coastal erosion, increased intensity of storm surges, and the human rights implications that come with such environmental changes. The impacts of climate change affect people of all countries and socioeconomic status, however, there is a recurring trend involving people of the lowest socioeconomic standing carrying the burden of this crisis. The report addresses the right to a non-toxic environment in which people can safely live, work, study and play. In addition, it examines the elements of the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, including clean air, a safe climate, healthy ecosystems and biodiversity, safe and sufficient water and healthy and sustainable food. The report was created on the premise of human rights issues surrounding the management and disposal of hazardous substances and waste.
On 8 October 2021 the HRC adopted the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment (resolution 48/13). The report of the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment for the HRC, Agenda item 3, discussed the human rights implications of environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and waste. It also identified a non-toxic environment as one of the substantive elements of the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
The world is plagued by environmental injustices, including “sacrifice zones” where communities (usually vulnerable communities) are exposed to extreme levels of pollution and toxic contamination. Pollution and toxic substances cause at least 9 million premature deaths which increase every year. Air pollution is the largest environmental contributor of premature deaths, causing an estimated 7 million annually. Low and middle-income countries are the recipients of nearly 92 per cent of pollution-related deaths. Over 750,000 workers die annually because of exposure to toxic substances on the job, including particulate matter, asbestos, arsenic and diesel exhaust.
The report revealed that millions of tons of toxic substances are released into air, water and soil annually. The production of chemicals has doubled between 2000 and 2017 and is expected to increase despite the worsening global climate crisis. The increase in chemical production is primarily from non-members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Chemical accidents can have a catastrophic impact on health, human rights and the environment. Exposure to toxic substances raises the risks of premature death, acute poisoning, cancer, heart disease, stroke, respiratory illnesses, adverse effects on the immune, endocrine and reproductive systems, birth defects and lifelong negative impacts on neurological development.
Many nations have laws and policies to protect human health and environmental health from toxic substances, however, focus is placed on reduction, not elimination. Due to this, there are many loopholes in legislation and many institutions that are created to carry out duties relating to the implementation of such legislation, often lack the expertise and resources to carry out their duties effectively. Progress has been made in certain areas, however, protecting all humans and ecosystems from the adverse effects of chemicals has not been realized. Currently, 24 States are not on track to achieve the above-noted Sustainable Development Goals and the costs associated with pollution and toxic chemicals cost trillions of dollars annually.
States must establish monitoring programmes, assess major sources of exposure and provide the public with accurate, accessible information about risks to health; ensure meaningful, informed and equitable public participation in decision making and use the best available scientific evidence to develop laws, regulations, standards and policies. States must also enable affordable and timely access to justice and effective remedies for all; assess the potential environmental, social, health, cultural and human rights impacts of all plans, policies, projects and proposals that could foreseeably result in exposure to pollution or toxic substances and integrate gender equality into all plans and actions and empower women to play leadership roles at all levels. There should also be protection for environmental human rights defenders, protection for defenders from intimidation, criminalization and violence, investigations, prosecutions and e perpetrators of these crimes must be held accountable to address the root causes of social-environmental conflict. In addition, States must not cause pollution or exposure to toxic substances that violate the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment; protect this right from being violated by third parties, in particular businesses; and take positive actions to fulfil this right.
A sacrifice zone is a place where residents’ human rights suffer as a result of living in pollution hotspots and heavily contaminated areas. The people who inhabit sacrifice zones are exploited, traumatized and stigmatized and such zones are often the byproduct of business and governments which harm the interests of present and future generations. States must not permit the creation of sacrifice zones. Instead, states should strive for zero pollution and zero waste; eliminate the production, use and release of toxic substances and prevent exposure by regulating industries, emissions, chemicals and waste management, and promote innovation and acceleration of safe substitutes. States must adopt science-based standards for pollution and toxic substance waste, based on international guidance from organizations including WHO, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and UNEP. Businesses should also conduct human rights and environmental due diligence and respect human rights in all aspects of their operations. There are countless examples of businesses violating the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment by generating pollution or causing exposure to toxic substances. All humans are exposed to pollution and toxic chemicals, however, the burden falls disproportionately on individuals, groups and communities that are enduring poverty, discrimination and systemic marginalization. States should allocate special attention to other vulnerable or marginalized groups whose rights are jeopardized by pervasive pollution, toxic contamination and sacrifice zones including women, children, Indigenous peoples, minorities, refugees, migrants, persons with disabilities, older persons, people living in protracted armed conflicts, and people living in poverty. Non-discrimination requires States to stop exacerbating environmentally hazardous zones, and begin to actively improve existing situations of environmental injustice, with special urgency in sacrifice zones. This is a global human rights issue and states must take action now.
David Boyd, the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, began his opening statement by discussing the exciting news of the HRC adopting resolution 48/13, recognising, at the global level, the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Mr Boyd stated that he hoped that this would be a catalyst for new and improved legislation, treaties, and which will improve the actions taken by states to combat climate change. He discussed the increasing levels of chemicals and toxins in the air, soil and water and how urgent action is needed to combat this issue. He noted that as exposures increase, the overall health of the population would worsen and human rights violations will multiply if action is not taken. The current effectiveness of current treaties and obligations are minimized by gaps in the articles, as not one of them mentions human rights. Mr Boyd highlighted that all people are exposed to pollution and toxins but the burden disproportionally falls on individuals and communities already facing poverty, systemic discrimination, and marginalisation. Environmental injustice occurs when impoverished communities, being more greatly affected, are less likely to have access to environmental information, are less likely to participate in environmental decision making, or to have access to justice or effective remedies.
During the interactive dialogue, emphasis was placed on the topic of Sacrifice zones, where residents suffer consequences and human rights violations as a result of living in pollution hotspots and heavily contaminated areas. They are uninhabitable and tend to be located near impoverished and marginalized communities.
Mr Boyd examined the right to health, life, water, food, housing, cultural rights, the rights of the child, and the rights of indigenous people in his statement. He underscored that recognising the right to a clean environment should change our approach to human rights and climate-related legislation. He emphasised that in the present day, achieving a non-toxic environment is a human rights obligation, not an option. A rights-based approach must be taken when drafting legislation and treaties that include people most affected by the climate crisis. Mr Boyd stated that current efforts are grossly inadequate and where violations occur, states need to impose sanctions to ensure that human rights obligations are being met.
The Special Rapporteur highlighted that despite the cynical outlook the report may have generated, positive practices are being used and implemented by governments which is encouraging. However, many of the current approaches are failing as the result is a systematic denial of human rights. He affirmed that states must focus on educating people on the climate crisis and states must vigorously pursue zero pollution policies and the elimination of toxic substances and sacrifice zones.
In addition, Mr Boyd elucidated that he believes that everything we make can be reused, recycled, or composted. With this, there needs to be a new global treaty on plastics since they cause huge issues to human rights and should be made recyclable and without toxins to combat the human rights violations they cause. In addition, he emphasised the need for a rapid phase-out of fossil fuels. To help states with these daunting tasks, Mr Boyd and his colleagues are preparing a handbook for states to address these issues. He recognised the work of the HRC to recognise the absence of disconnect between human rights and the environment. However, it was highlighted that there is a need to educate colleagues and members of the international community and in order to accomplish this, the Human Rights Council should host educational dialogues which provide further information on how to address these issues. The priority should be the most polluted parts of each country and states should prioritise the cleaning up and elimination of toxins or pollutants to ensure that the people living in these areas are not burdened any further.
The delegate for St. Vincent and the Grenadines thanked the Special Rapporteur and his team for the report. The country is still recovering from the volcano eruption in 2021 and taking steps to address the environmental impact the eruption had on the environment. The delegate revealed that environmental rights are a top priority of the government, who have already passed various environmental laws to combat the climate crisis. The delegate accepted all recommendations at 3rd cycle UPR. In addition, it was stated that the government has already taken steps to address the issues presented by the Special Rapporteur and welcomes his recommendations.
The representative for Costa Rica and Paraguay commended the work of the Special Rapporteur. She highlighted how vulnerable persons bear the burden of the climate crisis which must be addressed. She also noted that the Covid-19 pandemic forced countries to consider the importance of health as a human right. The representative emphasised that the Human Rights Council has a duty to educate people and subsequently called on all states to implement environmentally friendly legislation which would redress the effects of climate change.
The representative of Monaco commended the Special Rapporteur on the report and highlighted the importance of clean drinking water and sanitation for all persons. They also noted that the costs associated with the mismanagement of toxins is huge and asked the Special Rapporteur if there were specific actions states could take to mitigate the climate crisis.
The delegation of France highlighted that this issue affects all people but most greatly affects vulnerable persons. It also discussed its initiative at the One Ocean Summit to more ambitiously protect the world’s oceans. The delegation asked the Special Rapporteur: To what degree does political recognition contribute to the preservation of the environment?
In continuation, the Chinese delegation underlined China’s efforts to improve the environment. The delegation called out the United States and Canada for environmental racism, and stated that they should correct these practices. Furthermore, the group called for the investigation of the US and Canada, so as to hold them accountable for their violations.
In its statement, the Russian delegation argued that there is no single standard for the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment and there are no uniform approaches to deal with human rights and the environment. Russia called upon the Special Rapporteur to not publish specific documents that are legally binding and imposing obligations on states regarding the environment. It also noted that the new human right was not agreed upon by states and was only based on what experts and scientists were saying; instead, states should be the primary actors.
The delegation of the United Kingdom expressed their pleasure of hosting COP26, and shared their aim to work internationally to accomplish goals, with a focus on three major aspects; climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. The delegation noted that the guidelines set out by the Special Rapporteur are important for states and businesses. Before giving the word to the next delegation, the group asked the Special Rapporteur: What are the most effective practices that states can adopt for the disposal of hazardous waste?
The delegate of the United States of America thanked the Special Rapporteur and recognized the connection between the environment and the enjoyment of human rights. The representative emphasised that the US was particularly concerned with plastic pollution since it impacts environmental habitats and human health, especially in vulnerable communities. It urged nations to take immediate and concrete actions on a national level to protect the environment and asked the Special Rapporteur what actions countries could take to address plastic pollution, taking into account national circumstances.
The Latin America Representative discussed the importance of the elimination of plastic waste and how it is a detriment to public health. In addition, he emphasised the importance of raising awareness and generating solutions that include the community. The representative concluded his statement by stating that more strategies must be devised to combat future environmental disasters which may arise.
Representatives from NGOs and civil society expressed that the extent of global human rights violations are demonstrated through examples and grievances provided by the Special Rapporteur, the states, and NGOs. They underscored the need for a more coherent vision across the world to combat these global issues. Representatives noted that states should be keeping a close eye on all of the sacrifice zones which must be reported on continuously. Finally, they discussed the issues surrounding mining pollution stating that issues arise not just when disasters happen but are seen in the environmental impact for years to come.
In his closing statement, Mr Boyd noted that every state has some kind of environmental impact legislation, but an easy additional step would be to add a human rights focus to it. He highlighted the importance of international cooperation. In addition, the world needs a new approach to chemicals. Currently, chemicals are being regulated individually, instead, we should be regulating families of chemicals. States must also be more conscious of imports and exports that use chemicals that are illegal in either the host country or the destination country. Finally, the states previously made a commitment to not leave anyone behind with regard to human rights. However, no one on earth is farther behind than those in sacrifice zones. States need to commit to not leaving anyone behind.
Position of Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ)
Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ) recognises the severe impact environmental damage imposes on vulnerable populations and communities. GICJ emphasises that states need to adopt a human rights-based approach to dealing with climate change. In addition to Sacrifice Zones, many countries are exploiting and disproportionately damaging vulnerable populations. As such, GICJ stands with the victims of environmental racism and those being more detrimentally affected by climate change, pollution, and toxins.
We have known that there is a connection between the environment and human rights. Now, more than ever, states have an obligation to ensure that their people are safe from pollution and toxins. Sacrifice Zones are a clear and obvious human rights violation that affects people all over the world. The international community must take drastic measures to reverse or remediate the environmental damage that they have created in their countries. The youth of the world are depending on states to step up and reverse the effect of climate change and its negative effects on the population. Climate change and the environment is an issue that affects the world and lower-income households and communities are disproportionately affected. Climate change is a catalyst for drought which affects farmers and agriculture, increasing the price of food as it becomes more scarce. An increase in food costs harms lower-income families and individuals as they are not able to afford the increase in the price of commodities. This is just one of many examples of how the environment and human rights are related. The environment and human rights are linked in numerous ways, so much so that a human rights-based approach to the environment is imperative and unavoidable if states are to safeguard their citizens’ human rights.
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