Environment threats ‘greatest challenge to human rights’: UN

GENEVA: The UN rights chief warned Monday that environmental threats were worsening conflicts worldwide and would soon constitute the biggest challenge to human rights.

Michelle Bachelet said climate change, pollution and nature loss were already severely impacting rights across the board and said countries were consistently failing to take the necessary action to curb the damage.

“The interlinked crises of pollution, climate change and biopersity act as threat multipliers, amplifying conflicts, tensions and structural inequalities, and forcing people into increasingly vulnerable situations,” Bachelet told the opening of the 48th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“As these environmental threats intensify, they will constitute the single greatest challenge to human rights of our era.”

The former Chilean president said the threats were already “directly and severely impacting a broad range of rights, including the rights to adequate food, water, education, housing, health, development, and even life itself”.

She said environmental damage usually hurt the poorest people and nations the most, as they often have the least capacity to respond.

Bachelet said recent months have unleashed “extreme and murderous climate events”, citing the fires in Siberia and California, and floods in China, Germany and Turkey.

She also said drought was potentially forcing millions of people into misery, hunger and displacement.

Bachelet said that addressing the environmental crisis was “a humanitarian imperative, a human rights imperative, a peace-building imperative and a development imperative. It is also doable.”

She said spending to revive economies in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic could be focused on environmentally-friendly projects, but “this is a shift that unfortunately is not being consistently and robustly undertaken”.

She also said that countries had “consistently failed to fund and implement” commitments made under the Paris climate accords.

“We must set the bar higher — indeed, our common future depends on it,” the UN rights chief said.

Bachelet said that at the 12-day COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, set to begin on October 31, her office would push for more ambitious, rights-based commitments.

Bachelet said that in many regions, environmental human rights defenders were threatened, harassed and killed, often with complete impunity.

She said economic shifts triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic had apparently prompted increased exploitation of mineral resources, forests and land, with indigenous peoples particularly at risk.

“In Brazil, I am alarmed by recent attacks against members of the Yanomami and Munduruku peoples by illegal miners in the Amazon,” she said.

In her opening global update, Bachelet touched on the human rights situations in several countries, including Chad, the Central African Republic, Haiti, India, Mali and Tunisia.

On China, she said no progress had been made in her years-long efforts to seek “meaningful access” to Xinjiang.

“In the meantime, my office is finalising its assessment of the available information on allegations of serious human rights violations in that region, with a view to making it public,” she said.

Rights groups believe at least one million Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim minorities have been incarcerated in camps in the northwestern region, where China is also accused of forcibly sterilising women and imposing forced labour.

Beijing has strongly denied the allegations and says training programs, work schemes and better education have helped stamp out extremism in the region.

UN declares access to a clean environment a human right

GENEVA: The UN Human Rights Council on Friday recognised access to a clean and healthy environment as a fundamental right, formally adding its weight to the global fight against climate change and its devastating consequences.

The vote passed with overwhelming support, despite criticism in the lead-up from some countries, notably the United States and Britain.

The resolution, first discussed in the 1990s, is not legally binding but has the potential to shape global standards. Lawyers involved in climate litigation say it could help them build arguments in cases involving the environment and human rights.

“This has life-changing potential in a world where the global environmental crisis causes more than nine million premature deaths every year,” said David Boyd, UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, who called the decision a “historic breakthrough”.

The text, proposed by Costa Rica, the Malpes, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland, was passed with 43 votes in favour and 4 abstentions from Russia, India, China and Japan, prompting a rare burst of applause in the Geneva forum.

Britain, which was among the critics of the proposal in recent intense negotiations, voted in favour in a surprise, last-minute move. Its ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Rita French, said the UK was voting ‘yes’ because it shared supporters’ ambition to tackle climate change but added that states would not be bound to the resolution’s terms.

The United States did not vote since it is not currently a member of the 47-member Council.

Costa Rica’s ambassador, Catalina Devandas Aguilar, said the decision will “send a powerful message to communities around the world struggling with climate hardship that they are not alone”.

Critics had raised various objections, saying the Council was not the appropriate forum and citing legal concerns.

Environmental defenders had said Britain’s earlier critical stance was undermining its pledges ahead of the global climate conference it is hosting in Glasgow next month.

John Knox, a former U.N. special rapporteur, said ahead of the vote that those who had criticised the resolution were “on the wrong side of history”.

The World Health Organization estimates that some 13.7 million deaths a year, or around 24.3% of the global total, are due to environmental risks such as air pollution and chemical exposure.

Another proposal led by the Marshall Islands to create a new special rapporteur on climate change was also approved by the Council on Friday.