In late March, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution that calls for a human-rights-based approach to conserving and restoring natural spaces. We speak with the Acting Director of the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP’s) Law Division, Arnold Kreilhuber, to find out how the resolution will help safeguard the environment and contribute to sustainable development.
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP): The Human Rights Council adopted its first resolution on human rights and the environment in 2011. What has changed since then and how is this resolution different?
Arnold Kreilhuber (AK): Since 2011 we have seen important developments regarding the undeniable link between human rights and the environment, which are reflected in this resolution (46/L.6.Rev1).
First, the human rights obligations on states relating to the environment have become clearer and more accepted. More than 155 states have now recognized some form of a right to a healthy environment in international agreements or their national constitutions, legislation, or policies.
Second, the resolution notes and advances the need for a human-rights-based approach in the context of conserving, restoring and sustainably using biodiversity, particularly in the context of the ongoing post-2020 biodiversity framework negotiations and the One Health initiative. Third, all the resolutions adopted by the Human Rights Council on human rights and the environment over the last decade have, step-by-step, paved the way for the possible global recognition of the right to a healthy environment. The last decade of action on this topic resulted in a statement by states in which they commit to proceeding with negotiations towards adopting a resolution proclaiming the right by the UN.
UNEP: How will the resolution affect the work of UNEP and how could it contribute to the achievement of global environmental and human rights goals?
AK: The resolution is a strong vote of confidence in UNEP’s work on environmental rights. It welcomes UNEP’s work, particularly in the implementation of the UN Secretary General’s Call to Action for Human Rights. It will help advance our ongoing partnership on environmental rights with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and other key partners.
The resolution explicitly recalls the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly in February 2021, where Member States endorsed UNEP’s Medium-Term Strategy. This is an important acknowledgement of UNEP’s commitment to work on advancing human rights obligations related to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.
UNEP: The resolution calls on states to take a rights-based approach to biodiversity-related matters. What does this mean in a practical sense?
AK: This is a very important and timely call as the world is preparing to adopt a new Global Biodiversity Framework in 2021. The integration of environmental and human rights would be key to ensuring a healthy, biologically diverse and sustainable planet for present and future generations and in supporting the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
To assist states and other stakeholders in taking a rights-based approach, UNEP and OHCHR published key messages on biodiversity and human rights. The messages set out ways of incorporating a rights-based approach to biodiversity-related matters, which include practices related to participation in land and resource governance, accountability, cooperation at all levels, education, and the protection of indigenous peoples and environmental human rights defenders engaged in biodiversity-related protection activities.
UNEP: States also signed a joint statement, expressing their intent to proceed with discussions for a resolution on the right to a healthy environment. What is the significance of this statement and what issues will be discussed?
AK: This is a remarkable outcome. The joint statement, signed by 69 states, represents an unprecedented level of support for the global recognition of the right to a healthy environment and a commitment to proceed with the process of formalising this recognition. A number of states in the past have expressed their support for the global recognition of the right but an explicit, strong intent signed by 69 states has never before been accomplished.
Such a statement helps to accelerate the momentum built around the recognition of the right to a healthy environment. This has the support of the UN Secretary-General, heads of UN agencies, including the Executive Director of UNEP, 15 UN entities as well as over 1,100 civil society and indigenous organizations who signed a pledge calling for the recognition of that right.
The next steps will depend on states as it will be an inter-governmental negotiation with the participation of other stakeholders. We expect that states will discuss procedural aspects of the resolution and substantive aspects of the right, including the scope and content of the resolution. UNEP is fully committed to supporting states in achieving this goal.
UNEP: What are the benefits of the global recognition?
AK: UNEP sees several benefits of the recognition of the right to a healthy environment. Among others, UNEP expects that the global recognition of the right to a healthy environment will serve as a catalyst in addressing a triple planetary crisis: climate change, loss of biodiversity and pollution.
Evidence shows that the recognition of the right to a healthy environment has contributed to stronger environmental laws and policies, improved implementation and enforcement of those laws and policies, increased levels of public participation in environmental decision-making and has enhanced access to information and access to justice. In short, it has contributed to improved environmental outcomes.
The recognition of the right to a healthy environment at the global level will support efforts to address environmental crises in a more coordinated, effective and non-discriminatory manner, help achieve the SDGs, provide stronger protection of rights and of the people defending the environment, and help create a world where people can live in harmony with nature.
UNEP: Do UN resolutions make a difference? Is there any evidence of that from the past?
AK: Studies show that UN resolutions have made a difference. An example can be drawn from the process of the formal recognition of the right to water and sanitation as an independent human right by the UN General Assembly Resolution (64/292) in July 2010. The recognition spurred the inclusion of the right to water and sanitation in national constitutions, laws and policies and resulted in positive effects on global water governance and outcomes. Since the adoption of the resolution, countless people have gained access to safe drinking water and sanitation, creating a transformative change in their lives. We expect the UN resolution on the right to a healthy environment would have an important and positive impact on the lives of people on the ground.
UNESCO ‘eDNA’ initiative to ‘unlock’ knowledge for biodiversity protection
To understand the richness of biodiversity across World Heritage marine sites, the UN scientific organization launched on Monday a project to protect and preserve biodiversity, based on the study of environmental DNA – cellular material released from living things into their surroundings.
Launching the new programme, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) said that scientists and local residents would take samples of genetic material from fish waste, mucous membranes or cells, eDNA, to monitor species.
“Marine World Heritage sites play a critical role in protecting marine ecosystems of exceptional universal value and provide opportunities for the public to appreciate and preserve marine environments”, reminded UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Culture, Ernesto Ottone Ramírez.
Species under threat
UNESCO said that the two-year initiative would help measure the vulnerability of marine biodiversity to climate change and its impact on the distribution and migration patterns of marine life across World Heritage sites.
The eDNA project, which involves collecting and analyzing samples from the environment – such as soil, water and air – rather than an individual organism, will also better monitor and protect endangered species included in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.
“Climate change is affecting the behaviour and distribution of underwater life and we must understand what is happening so we can adapt our conservation efforts to evolving conditions”, explained the UNESCO official.
Beneath the waves
UNESCO’s marine World Heritage sites are recognized for their unique biodiversity, outstanding ecosystems, or for representing major stages in Earth’s history.
In the context of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030), the project was launched to contribute to the understanding of global trends and knowledge to preserve marine ecosystems.
Since 1981, when Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was inscribed at UNESCO’s first marine site, a global network of 50 others are now included as “beacons of hope for healing the ocean”, according to the UN agency.
Guided by expert support, the eDNA project will engage local citizens to gather material, so samples such as particles gathered through water filtering, can be genetically sequenced in specialized laboratories, without having to disturb animals themselves.
Implemented by UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) and World Heritage Centre, IOC chief Vladimir Ryabinin described the project as “a step toward the Ocean Decade’s vision of unlocking the knowledge we need to create the ocean we want by 2030”.
Breaking new ground
The use of eDNA in ocean monitoring and data collection is still in its infancy and standard protocols for sampling and data management will be streamlined in UNESCO’s groundbreaking eDNA project.
For the first time, it will apply a consistent methodology across multiple marine protected areas simultaneously, helping establish global standards, data monitoring and management practices while making that information available to the public.
All data will be processed and published by the Ocean Biodiversity Information System (OBIS), the world’s largest open-access data system on the distribution and diversity of marine species, maintained and collectively supported by a worldwide network of scientists, data managers and users.
The project works to advance the world’s understanding of life in the ocean, and establish conservation and management policies indicators.
“eDNA sampling can provide an innovative, affordable, and long-awaited capacity to better understand the ocean ecosystems, their composition and behaviour, and to start managing ocean resources more sustainably”, said Mr. Ryabinin.
Act Urgently to Preserve Biodiversity for Sustainable Future — ADB President
The world must act urgently to preserve ecosystems and biodiversity for the sake of a sustainable future and prosperity, Asian Development Bank (ADB) President Masatsugu Asakawa said at the opening of a global event on biodiversity here today.
“The world is at a critical turning point. If we are to reverse the alarming decline in nature, we must respond with urgency and coordinated action,” Mr. Asakawa said. “These efforts are needed to ensure the survival of our ecosystems, and for the sake of our shared future and prosperity.”
Asia and the Pacific is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world—home to 17 of the 36 global biodiversity hotspots, 7 of the 17 megadiverse countries, and the greatest marine diversity. “If restored and well-managed, these natural capital assets can help to mitigate global climate change and biodiversity loss in a cost-effective and impactful manner,” Mr. Asakawa said in his opening remarks at the Ecological Civilization Forum at the 15th Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15) in Kunming, the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
The event is cohosted by the PRC’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment, Yunnan provincial government, and the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Participants include high-level representatives from governments, the private sector, development agencies including ADB, and civil society.
ADB is committed to helping accelerate and increase nature-positive investments in Asia and the Pacific. “Through our ADB Nature-Positive Investment Roadmap, we are working with partners to scale up finance, develop knowledge of natural capital, and generate financially sustainable projects that deliver on biodiversity and healthy ecosystems,” Mr. Asakawa said.
At COP15, ADB is launching a new publication, Greening Development in the People’s Republic of China, which outlines how ADB and the PRC have successfully partnered to promote green development and ecological restoration in a way that complements economic and social priorities.
In partnership with the Chinese Academy of Science and Stanford University, ADB is sharing progress on its new Natural Capital Lab due for launch in 2022. This will be a digital platform for sharing methods for valuing biodiversity and ecosystems, and for building knowledge, capacities, and alliances across the region.
In addition, ADB with partners will be launching the Regional Flyway Initiative that will conserve ecosystem services that support people and critical habitats for more than 50 million migratory waterbirds.
Greenpeace Africa reacts to DRC President’s decision to suspend illegal logging concessions
The President of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Félix Tshisekedi, ordered on Friday, October 15th, the suspension of all dubious logging concessions, including the 6 granted in September 2020. Greenpeace Africa, one of the civil society organizations that denounced these concessions, applauds the decision taken by the Head of State and encourages him to remain vigilant and ensure its effective execution by Deputy Prime Minister Ms. Eve Bazaiba.
Greenpeace Africa reiterates its call for maintaining the moratorium on new industrial logging concessions to prevent a human rights and climate catastrophe. This logging sector, characterized by bad governance, favors corruption and remains out of touch with the socio-economic needs of the Congolese people and the climate crisis we live in.
Irène Wabiwa Betoko, Head of the International Congo Basin Forest Project of Greenpeace: “The decision of H.E. President Tshisekedi against the illegal actions of former Minister Nyamugabo sends an important message to the Congolese people and their government. It is also a red light for the plans of Ms. Ève Bazaiba, current Minister of the Environment, to open a highway to deforestation by multinational logging companies through lifting the moratorium on new industrial concessions.”
The President asks to “Suspend all questionable contracts pending the outcome of an audit and report them to the government at the next cabinet meeting.” Greenpeace Africa maintains that the review of illegalities in the forest sector must be transparent, independent, and open to comments from civil society organizations.
Ms. Wabiwa adds that “Both the protection of the rights of Congolese peoples and the success of COP26 require that the moratorium on granting new forest titles be strengthened. We again call on President Tshisekedi to strengthen the 2005 presidential decree to extend the moratorium.”
Ms. Wabiwa concludes that “instead of allowing new avenues of destruction, the DRC needs a permanent forest protection plan, taking into account the management by the local and indigenous populations who live there and depend on them for their survival.”
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