The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UN Human Rights Office have prioritised efforts to promote and protect environmental and human rights with the recent signing of a new cooperation agreement.
They resolved to do this because threats to individuals and communities defending their environmental and land rights have intensified in many parts of the world, according to a statement by UNEP.
UNEP is the leading global voice on the environment. It provides leadership and encourages partnership in caring for the environment by inspiring, informing, and enabling nations and peoples to improve their quality of life without compromising that of future generations. UNEP works with governments, the private sector, civil society and with other UN entities and international organizations across the world.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is the leading UN entity on human rights, with a unique mandate to promote and protect the human rights of everyone everywhere. It assists governments — which bear the primary responsibility for protecting human rights — to fulfil their obligations, and carries out advocacy on the full range of civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights.
The heads of the two UN bodies agreed that although more than 150 countries have recognised the human right to a healthy environment in their constitutions, national laws and jurisprudence, or through regional agreements, significantly more work is needed to inform policy-makers, justice institutions and the public on the various ways they can take action to uphold this right.
Strengthened cooperation between UNEP and the UN Human Rights Office will aim to drive better protection of environmental human rights defenders and their families, who frequently face violence – including killings and sexual violence, smear campaigns, and other forms of intimidation.
The partnership will also encourage greater acceptance by leaders and governments of the human right to a healthy environment pursuing efforts toward its global recognition. It will seek to increase support to national governments to promote human rights-based policies, particularly in terms of sustainable management of natural resources, development planning, and action to combat climate change.
The two organisations will now work more closely to monitor threats against environmental rights defenders; advocate for better protection; urge more effective accountability for perpetrators of violence and intimidation; develop networks of environmental human rights defenders and promote meaningful and informed participation by rights defenders and civil society in environmental decision-making.
“A healthy environment is vital to fulfilling our aspiration to ensure people everywhere live a life of dignity. We must curb the emerging trend of intimidation and criminalisation of land and environmental defenders, and the use of anti-protest and anti-terrorism laws to criminalise the exercise of rights that should be constitutionally protected,” UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen said at the signing in Geneva.
“UNEP and the UN Human Rights Office are committed to bringing environmental protection closer to the people by assisting state and non-state actors to promote, protect and respect environmental and human rights. In doing so, we will move towards a more sustainable and just planet,” she added.
“Our planet is being recklessly destroyed, and we urgently need stronger global partnerships to take action to save it,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet. “We call on leaders and governments to recognise that climate change and environmental degradation severely undermine the human rights of their people, particularly those in vulnerable situations – including the generations of tomorrow.”
“We encourage every State to develop and enforce national legal frameworks which uphold the clear linkages between a healthy environment and the ability to enjoy all other human rights, including the rights to health, water, food – and even the right to life,” she added. “We also strongly encourage greater recognition that the actions and advocacy of environmental human rights defenders are deeply beneficial to all societies. They must be better protected against the threat of violence and intimidation.”
More than three defenders were killed across the world every week in 2018, according to the latest report by Global Witness. The latest death toll highlights the ongoing dangers facing those who are defending their environmental and human rights in the mining, logging, and farming sectors as well as other extractive industries.