The United Nations could recognize a safe climate and environment as a human rightThe United Nations should consider a right to a healthy environment, the special rapporteur on human rights argues. Photo credit: John Moore/Getty Images

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By Ucilia Wang

David Boyd stood in front of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City on Thursday as the new special rapporteur on human rights and the environment and he argued the global organization should recognize the right of people to live in a healthy environment.

“Climate change is one of the top priorities because it threatens the human rights of billions of people in the world, because of declining water supplies and changing agricultural production patterns and increasing storms throughout,” said Boyd, who is also law professor at the University of British Columbia in Canada.

The idea that everyone deserves a clean and safe environment may seem lofty, but many argue that a formal resolution from the U.N., 193-member assembly of virtually every nation in the world, would produce concrete results, swaying policies and legal opinions on a wide range of environmental issues, including climate change.

Boyd, former executive director of the advocacy group Ecojustice, became the special rapporteur in August. He could play a critical role in highlighting potential human rights abuses as nations struggle to cut emissions, replant forests, electrify transportation and replace fossil fuels with renewable energy. That energy transformation would need to happen in the next 12 years to minimize catastrophic impacts of global warming, according to the latest report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Boyd is only the second person to hold the job. He will become a globetrotter over his three-year term as he visits countries to assess governmental actions and investigate environmental harm as human rights violations. He reports to the U.N. Human Rights Council.

The opportunity to address the General Assembly was made possible by a change in the job mandate earlier this year, reflecting a sharper focus by the international community on the responsibility of governments and corporations to safeguard the environment and people’s fundamental rights.

“David has been an incredible advocate of environmental rights. He’s also incredibly kind and very down to earth. I was really happy when I found out he was going to become the special rapporteur,” said Katherine Lofts at the Law, Society and Governance Lab of the McGill University Faculty of Law in Montreal, Canada.

“He’s stepping into this role at a pivotal moment, when addressing the environmental harm from climate change is more urgent than before.”  

The role of the special rapporteur has evolved from a position called the independent expert on the human rights and the environment. It was a three-year post created in 2012 and assumed by John Knox, a professor at the Wake Forest School of Law in North Carolina, who continued for three more years as the special rapporteur before term limits ended his appointment this summer.

As an independent expert, Knox’s primary task was to identify how human rights concerns had been considered by countries or intergovernmental groups in assessing environmental problems. When his title changed to special rapporteur, he became responsible for promoting compliance, conducting country visits and report on conflicts or abuses.

“Clarifying the relationship between human rights and the environment was my proudest accomplishment,” Knox said. “I really tried to amplify the voices of people fighting on the frontline, often at the greatest risk to themselves. “On average, four people are killed every week for their work.”

Knox first advocated for U.N. recognition of a healthy environment as a human right in a report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva in March.

A resolution to connect human rights to a healthy environment could be used to exert public pressure and compel countries to address problems from air pollution to violence against environmental advocates.

The explicit right to a healthy environment is absent in major global human rights agreements. The language does exist in regional treaties in Latin America, Africa, Europe and the Caribbean. The Paris Climate Agreement also included language on human rights.  

The General Assembly did pass a resolution in 2010 that recognizes the rights to clean water and sanitation and called on its members to provide money and technology to help countries that lack the resources to provide them.

For the General Assembly to take action on Boyd’s request, a member country must put forth a resolution for a vote. Boyd and other environmental advocates will lobby countries to sponsor the action, a process that can take a year or more.

Boyd will hope to find a sponsor from among the 100 countries that recognize the right to a healthy environment in their constitutions. Notably, the U.S. is not among those countries. Boyd, a noted scholar on this topic, said he’s found that 80 percent of those countries also strengthened their environmental laws to carry out that guaranteed protection.

He’s also come across lawsuits in 50 countries so far, including Costa Rica, Argentina and the Philippines, that seek to enforce the right to a healthy environment. One suit in the U.S., Juliana v. United States, features 21 young people suing the government for fostering an energy system that exacerbates climate change and has led to a U.S. District Court judge declaring a safe climate as a Constitutional right. It was stayed by the Supreme Court before the trial even began.

The Commission on Human Rights in the Philippines is currently investigating whether 47 fossil fuel, cement and coal companies violated the human rights of Filipinos.

Lawsuits have also emerged in recent years to hold governments responsible for addressing climate change as a human right. One of them is the landmark Urgenda case in the Netherlands, where an appeals court recently upheld the ruling the government must cut emissions more aggressively.

Boyd said he’s looking forward to traveling the world in his new job. He’s scheduled to visit Fiji in December at the invitation of the government. Some countries will welcome his visit and use it to raise concerns and seek help from the international community, he said.

“Fiji is a small island state and provides an opportunity to shine a spotlight on the impact of climate change,” Boyd said.

He’ll also work on a report, due for delivery next spring, that will focus on air pollution, which kills 7 to 8 million people per year worldwide.

“John described the role as the amazing experience of his career, and that was a good endorsement from someone whose judgement I trust. I’m just thrilled to have the opportunity,” Boyd said.