[John H. Knox is the UN Independent Expert on Human Rights and the Environment, and the Henry C. Lauerman Professor of International Law at Wake Forest University School of Law.]
In 2012, the Human Rights Council appointed me to be its first Independent Expert on human rights and the environment, and asked me to clarify the human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a healthy environment. To that end, I oversaw an extensive research project that surveyed a very wide range of sources, including the major human rights treaties (as interpreted by their treaty bodies), regional human rights tribunals, UN Special Rapporteurs, and international environmental instruments.
Today, I present the results of this mapping project to the Council. The sources surveyed have reached remarkably coherent conclusions about the application of human rights norms to environmental issues, making it easy to summarize the principal conclusions.
First, there is no longer any serious question that environmental harm can interfere with the enjoyment of human rights: not only the right to a healthy environment, which is widely but not universally accepted, but also human rights that are universally accepted, such as rights to life, health, food, and water.
Second, the sources agree that States must adopt certain procedural safeguards in order to protect against environmental harm to these rights. In particular, they must assess environmental impacts on human rights and make environmental information public, facilitate participation in environmental decision-making, and provide access to effective remedies. The obligation to facilitate public participation includes duties to safeguard environmental defenders’ rights to freedom of expression and association against threats, harassment, and violence.
Third, States must adopt legal and institutional frameworks that provide substantive protections as well as procedural ones. Although States have discretion to strike a balance between environmental protection and other legitimate societal interests, the balance cannot be unreasonable or result in unjustified, foreseeable infringements of human rights. And States must protect against harm caused by corporations and other non-State actors.
Finally, States have a cross-cutting requirement of non-discrimination in the application of environmental laws, and additional obligations to members of groups particularly vulnerable to environmental harm, including in particular women, children, and indigenous peoples.
The report concludes:
Human rights obligations relating to the environment are continuing to be developed in many forums, and the Independent Expert urges States to support their further development and clarification. But the obligations are already clear enough to provide guidance to States and all those interested in promoting and protecting human rights and environmental protection. His main recommendation, therefore, is that States and others take these human rights obligations into account in the development and implementation of their environmental policies.
I now turn to identifying and compiling good practices in the use of human rights obligations for environmental protection. I would be interested to hear any thoughts or questions you might have on that, or on the conclusions of the mapping report!