Closing the gap between theory and reality: implementing policies to ensure the global community protects and realizes right to a clean environment

By Carly Klein
By Carly Klein, Geneva-based Communications Intern

At the Human Rights Council’s 31st Session’s Side Event “Implementing Human Rights Obligations Relating to the Environment,” I noticed a keen awareness of the link between human rights and the environment within the walls of the UN, but no concrete progress in implementing this connection through policy. Despite what may appear as progress, lofty rhetoric isn’t enough to make our planet a clean, safe, habitable place; it’s time we made real strides towards implementation.

How, then, can we break down the barrier between the world of ideas and real progress on the ground? If UN actors realize the obligations and procedures that they must apply in order to address the pressing environmental issues that endanger the citizens of the world, the next step must be transforming theory into reality, ideas into practice.

John Knox, the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, drafted implementation report (A/HRC/31/53) containing concrete recommendations. The event’s discussion focused on examining his mandate and the suggestions in the report.

Drawing input from a variety of sources and a public consultation, the Special Rapporteur’s report “describes possible methods of implementing human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a healthy environment.” The methods include, but are not limited to:

  • Better dissemination of information about the human rights norms relating to the environment;
  • Capacity-building;
  • Protection of the rights of those who are most vulnerable; and
  • Strengthening cooperation between different actors.

CIEL’s Human Rights & Environment Program Director Marcos Orellana participated in the event, and started by reiterating how several of the norms and standards in the field are clear enough to enable implementation. He then discussed the crucial nature of codifying the right to a healthy environment, from the international level down to the state level. Some states are still hesitant to do so; therefore, we need to reverse the trend of reluctance. Marcos also spoke about how civil society must have the power to act as a watchdog and draft communications to initiate investigation into compliance by states with multilateral environmental agreements. Expanding civil society participation is a crucial step in breaking down the UN barrier, influencing policies on the ground, and promoting transparency in discussions on human rights and the environment.

One pressing issue in need of specific focus is protection for environmental defenders. The Special Rapporteur’s mandate stresses that, “those who are working on the front lines of environmental protection are most at risk of threats, violence and murder.” According to Global Witness, two environmentalists are murdered every week. The murder of Honduran environmental and human rights activist Berta Cáceres on March 2nd is a tragic reminder of what’s at stake and the urgency of this situation. How many more leading voices will state and corporate forces silence before policymakers make and implement meaningful policies to protect frontline activists and communities?

Since the adoption of the of 2030 agenda on sustainable development and the conclusion of the Paris Agreement on climate change, the conversation on human rights in relation to the environment should not become static when it must be dynamic. Looking forward, we must make the Special Rapporteur’s suggestions a reality by examining all feasible recommendations and finalizing implementation strategies. One area of this work is at the national level in arenas such as green tribunals, National Human Rights Initiatives (NHRIs), and civil society watchdogs. The second meeting of the United Nations Environment Assembly in May 2016 provides an opportunity to inject new life into the discussion and realize these goals.

Related: Take Action to demand justice for the murder of Berta Cáceres and security for the key surviving witness Gustavo Castro.


Originally posted: March 14, 2016