John Knox, the United Nations expert on human rights and the environmentJohn Knox, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, urges the UN to take a stronger stance on a healthy environment. Photo credit: UN Geneva/Jean-Marc Ferré, via Flickr

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By Jennifer Dorroh

A United Nations expert’s report, issued last week, outlines the legal framework for the international community to recognize a healthy environment and climate as a human right. The report could bolster the arguments of citizens seeking accountability for ecological harm in human rights courts around the world.

John H. Knox, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, presented the “Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment” last week to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, and urged the UN to recognize the human right to a safe environment. His report synthesizes hundreds of related existing national laws and multilateral agreements.

“The environmental problems we face today are so obviously damaging,” Knox said an interview with Climate Liability News. “Every year 1.5 million children under the age of 5 die due to environmental harm. It’s pretty hard to argue that this doesn’t violate their human rights.”

Yet the explicit human right to a healthy environment is absent from the major global human rights agreements, which were adopted before the environmental movement of the 1970s. Knox believes it is critical to fill this gap. “In the documents that lay out people’s right to a life of dignity and equality, the environment is only mentioned in passing, leaving a hole in the human rights field,” he said. He noted that the majority of UN member countries already recognize this right through their constitutions, laws and policies, or through regional instruments like the environmental rights pact two-dozen Latin American and Caribbean nations signed this month.

“There has been no real equivalent at the global level. This has given rise to the question of whether human rights apply to cases of environmental harm,” Knox said.

He hopes this report will lay that question to rest. “The framework principles clarify that there are human rights norms that governments are under obligation to safeguard. This makes it harder for governments to argue that they don’t know their responsibilities to citizens,” he said.

The report comes as human rights courts from Latin America to Asia are investigating or hearing cases that seek to hold governments and corporations accountable for the human cost of environmental disasters and climate change.

In its landmark opinion last month equating environmental protection with human rights, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights cited Knox’s earlier statements as a UN expert. He believes the framework principles “will be used as a contribution to that ongoing conversation,” he said.

In the Philippines, meanwhile, the country’s Commission on Human Rights has undertaken an investigation of the fossil fuel industry based on the science that ties the majority of climate change-fueled global warming to just 90 major fossil fuel companies, called the Carbon Majors.

Annalisa Savaresi, who teaches environmental law at the University of Stirling in Scotland, believes the framework principles will support the effort to hold the Carbon Majors accountable. “Recent research suggests that corporations have long known about climate change and its prospective impacts, but have failed to act upon this knowledge. The application of the principles distilled by Special Rapporteur Knox therefore clearly suggests that business should be held responsible for human rights abuses associated with the impacts of climate change,” she wrote in an email.

In cases based on domestic, rather than international, law, such as Juliana v. United States, the document’s influence may be more rhetorical or indirect, Knox noted.

Still, this indirect effect is important, said Nicholas Stump, who advocates for environmental justice in Appalachia and teaches at West Virginia University’s College of Law. “It adds legitimacy to the argument at all levels,” he said. “It strengthens any argument for furthering environmental human rights in Appalachia and beyond.”

The report’s impact will be much greater if the UN General Assembly passes a resolution linking environmental rights and human rights, Stump said. “It could spur courts around the world to interpret existing laws in new ways, improving environmental protection. It would bolster the case for establishing this right in local and state legal frameworks,” in places that lack them, such as his native West Virginia.

Knox hopes the UN General Assembly will recognize the human right to a healthy environment, as it did the right to water and sanitation in 2010.

The assembly meets this fall, but first, the UN Human Rights Council must decide how fervently to back the report. “The council is negotiating over what verb to use, and whether to refer to specific elements of the report such as the number of states that already recognize the right to a healthy environment in their domestic legal system,” said Sébastien Duyck, Senior Attorney for the Climate and Energy Programme at the Center for International Environmental Law. CIEL and other groups advocated for the creation of Knox’s office, and are pushing for the council to adopt the strongest language possible during its current session, which runs through March 23. “They need to make an explicit recognition as soon as possible that the right to a healthy environment is not simply embedded in other rights, but it is a right on its own sake,” he said.

He said hopes that Framework Principles’ inclusion of the rights of environmental defenders “will help ensure that the Human Rights Council continues to address this particularly important issue in the future.”

Knox said the mistreatment of environmentalists around the world—197 were killed in 2017, according to data by Global Witness—has driven this work. “The real change is being driven by people working on environmental protection, often at the local level,” he said. “If we can’t protect the rights of the people who are at the front lines of protecting the environment, then we can’t protect human rights,” he said.

While Knox cannot be reappointed when his mandate ends this summer due to term limits, he hopes the Human Rights Council will renew the mandate when it meets in June.

“I think this is one of the most important issues in the world today. We have to find a way to have a harmonious relation to the natural ecosystems on which we depend,” he said. “We can’t enjoy our human rights without a healthy environment. And we must exercise our human rights to protect our environment.”