At least 155 states recognize their citizens have the right to live in a healthy environment, either through national legislation or international accords, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Despite those protections, the World Health Organization estimates that 23 per cent of all deaths are linked to “environmental risks” like air pollution, water contamination and chemical exposure.
Statistics like that are why the United Nations Human Rights Council recently passed a resolution reaffirming states’ obligations to protect human rights, including by taking stronger actions on environmental challenges.
Here are some of the ways that a compromised planet is now compromising the human right to health.
1. The destruction of wild spaces facilitates the emergence of zoonotic diseases.
The alteration of land to create space for homes, farms and industries has put humans in increasing contact with wildlife and has created opportunities for pathogens to spill over from wild animals to people.
An estimated 60 per cent of human infections are of animal origin. And there are plenty of other viruses poised to jump from animals to humans. According to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, “as many as 1.7 million unidentified viruses of the type known to infect people are believed to still exist in mammals and waterfowl. Any one of these could be the next ‘Disease X’ – potentially even more disruptive and lethal than COVID-19.”
2. Air pollution reduces quality of health and lowers life expectancy.
Across the globe, nine in 10 people are breathing unclean air, harming their health and shortening their life span. Every year, about 7 million people die from diseases and infections related to air pollution, more than five times the number of people who perish in road traffic collisions.
Exposure to pollutants can also affect the brain, causing developmental delays, behavioural problems and even lower IQs in children. In older people, pollutants are associated with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
3. Biodiversity loss compromises the nutritional value of food.
In the last 50 years alone, human diets have become 37 per cent more similar, with just 12 crops and five animal species providing 75 per cent of the world’s energy intake. Today, nearly one in three people suffer from some form of malnutrition and much of the world’s population is affected by diet-related diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
4. Biodiversity loss also reduces the scope and efficacy of medicines.
Natural products comprise a large portion of existing pharmaceuticals and have been particularly important in the area of cancer therapy. But estimates suggest that 15,000 medicinal plant species are at risk of extinction and that the Earth loses at least one potential major drug every two years.
5. Pollution is threatening billions worldwide.
Many health issues spring from pollution and the idea that waste can be thrown “away” when, in fact, much of it remains in ecosystems, affecting both environmental and human health.
Water contaminated by waste, untreated sewage, agricultural runoff and industrial discharge puts 1.8 billion people at risk of contracting cholera, dysentery, typhoid and polio. Methylmercury – a substance found in everyday products that contaminate fish – can have toxic effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems when consumed by humans. And a growing body of evidence suggests that there is a cause for concern about the impact of microplastics on marine life and the food web.
Even medicines can have a negative impact as they infiltrate ecosystems. A 2017 UNEP report found that antibiotics have become less effective as medicine because of their widespread use in promoting livestock growth. About 700,000 people die of resistant infections every year.
6. Climate change introduces additional risks to health and safety.
The last decade was the hottest in human history and we are already experiencing the impacts of climate change, with wildfires, floods and hurricanes becoming regular events that threaten lives, livelihoods and food security. Climate change also affects the survival of microbes, facilitating the spread of viruses. According to an article published by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, “pandemics are likely to happen more frequently, spread more rapidly, have greater economic impact and kill more people.”
Myanmar coup: ‘No sign’ of end to brutal crackdown on all fronts
One hundred days since the Myanmar military seized power, the “brutal” repression of protesters has continued, despite all international efforts to end the violence, the UN rights office (OHCHR) said on Tuesday.
“The military authorities are showing no sign of letting up in their brutal crackdown on opponents in a bid to consolidate their hold on power”, spokesperson Rupert Colville told journalists at a media briefing.
According to credible reports, as of 10 May, at least 782 people have been killed as security forces used unnecessary, disproportionate and lethal force, to suppress demonstrations and other forms of public participation, since the military coup on 1 February.
“While much of the world’s attention has been on the number of peaceful protesters and bystanders killed by the security forces, the authorities continue to commit other gross human rights violations against the people of Myanmar”, added Mr. Colville.
The OHCHR spokesperson called for greater international involvement to prevent the human rights situation there from deteriorating further.
In particular, he urged the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to “react quickly and to intensify its actions” to ensure Myanmar’s military leadership adheres to the commitments it made in the five-point plan agreed at the regional bloc’s meeting of leaders on 24 April, in Jakarta.
The five-point consensus agreed to an immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar and that dialogue should be held among all parties to seek a peaceful solution in the interests of the people.
‘Daily raids’ on homes and offices
Mr. Colville went on to note that there are daily raids on private homes and offices, with more than 3,740 people currently in detention, including many in situations that may amount to enforced disappearances.
“Of those in custody, the vast majority have not been brought before a judge, while most of the 86 people prosecuted thus far have been tried in secret, with limited or no access to any form of legal counsel”, he said.
“Military tribunals and courts martial have been established in several townships in which martial law was declared. At least 25 individuals have received the death sentence to date – some 20 of whom were tried in absentia.”
Military ‘taking relatives’
Over the past month, the military leadership has issued more than 1,561 arrest warrants against civil society activists, trade unionists, journalists, academics, public personalities and online voices, driving the vast majority of them underground.
“To intensify pressure, the military authorities have resorted to taking relatives of wanted people into custody to force them to turn themselves in to the police”, Mr. Colville said, adding that there is also increasing pressure on civil servants to go back to work.
In recent weeks, more than 3,000 civil servants – nearly 70 per cent women – have been dismissed, removed, or suspended by the coup leadership. Those suspended also include 990 university professors, researchers and assistants.
In addition, there are reports that up to 11,000 more workers in the education sector were suspended on Monday.
‘Deeply concerned’ for those fleeing persecution
The OHCHR spokesperson also voiced “deep concerns” for the people fleeing persecution, especially human rights defenders and journalists.
The people seeking safety outside Myanmar must receive such protection and support from Myanmar’s neighbours, Mr. Colville urged, adding that while it can take time to decide whether an individual fleeing the country is a refugee or not, “at the very least they should be treated as an asylum seeker and not forced to go back”.
“This is particularly important for people with jobs as sensitive as journalists and those active in the civil disobedience movement, opposing the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military).”
UN chief express deep concern over East Jerusalem violence
The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, and senior UN officials have expressed their deep concern over confrontations between Palestinians and Israeli security forces in East Jerusalem, particularly those which began on Friday evening, and continued into Sunday night. Several Palestinian children are among the wounded.
The violence on Friday has been described as some of the worst seen in Jerusalem for many years. Some 200 Palestinians and 17 Israeli Police were reportedly injured in fighting around Haram Al-Sharif/Temple Mount. On Saturday, protesters reportedly threw stones at police, who responded with stun grenades, rubber bullets and water cannons and, on Sunday, fighting continued in East Jerusalem, ahead of a planned march by an Israeli group through the Old City.
The official spokesperson for Mr. Guterres, Stéphane Dujarric, said in a statement published on Sunday evening, that Israeli authorities must exercise maximum restraint and respect the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.
“All leaders have a responsibility to act against extremists and to speak out against all acts of violence and incitement”, the statement continued. “The Secretary-General reiterates his commitment, including through the Middle East Quartet, to supporting Palestinians and Israelis to resolve the conflict on the basis of relevant United Nations resolutions, international law and bilateral agreements”.
The Envoys of the Middle East Quartet (from the European Union, Russia, the United States, and the United Nations), released a press statement on Saturday, in which they expressed their alarm at “the provocative statements made by some political groups, as well as the launching of rockets and the resumption of incendiary balloons from Gaza towards Israel, and attacks on Palestinian farmland in the West Bank”.
Imminent risk of eviction
The Quartet representatives went on to declare their concern regarding the possible evictions of Palestinian families from homes, in which they have lived in for generations, in two neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem – Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan – and their opposition to “unilateral actions, which will only escalate the already tense environment”.
This is a reference to a court case involving several Palestinians who face eviction due to a legal challenge by the Nahalat Shimon settler organization. The risk is considered to be imminent for four of the families.
The UN has called for on the Israeli Government to halt all forced evictions and on Thursday, Rupert Colville, the spokesperson for the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR), warned that, if they take place, the evictions in the Sheikh Jarrah case would violate Israel’s obligations under international law.
Saturday’s fighting took place on Laylat-al-Qadr, the most holy day in the Muslim month of Ramadan, after large numbers of worshippers had prayed at the Haram Al-Sharif/Temple Mount compound. In their statement, the Quartet
Envoys called on the Israeli authorities to exercise restraint and to avoid measures that would further escalate the situation during this period of Muslim Holy Days.
“We call on all sides to uphold and respect the status quo at the holy sites”, the statement continues. “All leaders have a responsibility to act against extremists and to speak out against all acts of violence and incitement”.
The statement concluded with a reiteration by the Quartet Envoys of their commitment to a negotiated two state solution.
37 Palestinian children injured and arrested
On Sunday, the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, urged the Israeli authorities to refrain from using violence against children and release all those children detained.
In a joint statement, Ted Chaiban, UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, and Lucia Elmi, UNICEF Special Representative in the State of Palestine, noted that 29 Palestinian children have been injured over the past two days, and a further eight arrested. “A one-year-old toddler was among those injured. Some children were taken for treatment at hospitals, with injuries in the head and the spine. This comes amid reports that nearly 300 people were injured in the area”.
The senior UNICEF officials said that the agency had received reports of ambulances being restricted from arriving on location to assist and evacuate the injured, and that an on-site clinic was reportedly hit and searched.
The statement called for all children to be protected from violence and kept out of harm’s way at all times, for families’ rights to access all places of worship to be preserved, and for those injured to be assisted without restrictions.
UN: Stop evictions in East Jerusalem neighbourhood immediately
The UN’s human rights office (OHCHR), on Friday, called on Israel to immediately halt all forced evictions, including those in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem, as well as to exercise maximum restraint in the use of force while ensuring safety and security there.
Eight Palestinian refugee families residing in Sheikh Jarrah are facing forced eviction due to a legal challenge by the Nahalat Shimon settler organization, with the risk “imminent” for four of the families, according to the office.
“Given the disturbing scenes in Sheikh Jarrah over the past few days, we wish to emphasize that East Jerusalem remains part of the occupied Palestinian territory, in which International Humanitarian Law applies. The occupying Power must respect and cannot confiscate private property in occupied territory, and must respect, unless absolutely prevented, the laws in force in the country.”
He went on to note that Israel cannot impose its own set of laws in occupied territory, including East Jerusalem, to evict Palestinians from their homes.
On Thursday, Tor Wennesland, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, also urged Israel to stop demolitions and evictions in the neighbourhood, in line with its obligations under international humanitarian law.
Prohibited under international law
“In addition, the Absentee Property Law and the Legal and Administrative Matters Law are applied in an inherently discriminatory manner, based solely on the nationality or origin of the owner”, OHCHR spokesperson Colville said.
“In practice, the implementation of these laws facilitates the transfer by Israel of its population into occupied East Jerusalem. The transfer of parts of an occupying Power’s civilian population into the territory that it occupies is prohibited under international humanitarian law and may amount to a war crime”, he added.
Violation of right to adequate housing
The OHCHR spokesperson also said that forced evictions could violate the rights to adequate housing and to privacy and other human rights of those who are evicted.
“Forced evictions are a key factor in creating a coercive environment that may lead to forcible transfer, which is prohibited by the Fourth Geneva Convention and is a grave breach of the Convention.”
Mr. Colville also called on Israel to respect freedom of expression and assembly, including of those who are protesting against the evictions, and to exercise maximum restraint in the use of force while ensuring safety and security in East Jerusalem.
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