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‘Greening’ human rights

A healthy environment is a human right, expert panellists have insisted at a panel discussion moderated by UN Environment Legal Officer Barbara Ruis.


Two UN Special Rapporteurs and other professionals examined how human rights can contribute to the protection of the environment during the unique and insightful event, which was organized within the framework of the Geneva Environment Network and emphasised an urgent need for change.


Chemicals and waste were brought to the forefront of the conversation. “Increasingly, the environmental issue is becoming more and more a criminal issue,” underlined Baskut Tuncak - UN Special Rapporteur on Toxics. Mr Tuncak gave three priorities concerning chemical and waste management: raising awareness of toxics, pollution and waste as a human rights issue; the impacts of toxics and pollution on children; and the responsibility of business to respect human rights.


The exchange further emphasised the impacts of chemicals on the neurological development of children. Lead causes “more than 6,000 premature deaths per year,” stressed Achim Halpaap - Chief of UN Environment Chemicals and Waste Branch, calling on companies to consider green practices.


Water and sanitation was additionally considered a key priority – with 2.5 billion people currently lacking access to sanitation. Bruce Gordon of the World Health Organization stated how “the right to sanitation is not about just having a basic toilet, now it is about the whole chain,” indicating a ‘butterfly effect’, where one small activity has widespread effects on the environment and consequently on dependent communities nearby.


Furthermore, Gonzalo Oviedo from the International Union for Conservation of Nature remarked how “conservation of ecosystems and the health of biodiversity is a human right.” In his observations, vulnerable groups were identified as people that directly depended on the environment for their survival.


Tackling these challenges was considered a vital priority by all panellists.


Parallel to Erik Solheim’s - Head of UN Environment - idea of naming and shaming business practises, the Chief of Environment for Europe and Sustainable Development at the UN Economic Commission for Europe, Zaal Lomtadze, suggested putting businesses in the limelight to promote good practices, encourage due-diligence and inspire others to work in the same way.


In addition, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and environment John Knox, reducing the transboundary impacts of climate change on human rights “triggers the duty of global cooperation”.


The presentation concluded with Mr Knox’s statement that, “roughly 100 countries in the world already recognize the right have a ‘healthy environment’” - meaning that the movement towards ‘green’ human rights is already in motion.


The discussion coincided with the Geneva Pledge side event – 'The Post-Paris agenda: bridging human rights, climate change and the environment' – at the Human Rights Council, held on September 13. The keynote speakers were Patricia Espinosa, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Executive Secretary, and Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The event illustrated the important of uniting both environment and human rights issues. According to Jan Dusik, Head of UN Environment's Europe Office, “The Geneva Pledge calls for environmental and human rights communities to come together to learn from each other, to share experiences and to generate better environmental or climate policies at national level.”


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