“UN should recognise that human rights and the environment are closely linked and in fact interdependent” – Interview with Mr John Knox

Mr. John Knox, the first UN Independent Expert on human rights and the environment appointed by the Human Rights Council in 2012, recently proposed that the UN should officially recognise that the right to a healthy and clean environment is a human right. He spoke to Antonis Mavropoulos, President of ISWA, about the importance of UN's acknowledgement of a healthy environment as a basic human right. ISWA is already working to raise support for this proposal and recognise the importance of sound waste management for a healthy environment.

11 Jul 2018 -

Last February Mr John Knox proposed 16 Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment, the first two of which interlock human wellbeing and ecological wellbeing, the result of more than five years of investigations into human rights and the environment. The President of ISWA spoke to Mr Knox about his report and the obstacles countries will face when it comes to implementation of a legal framework for establishing the right to healthy environment as a basic human right.


Antonis Mavropoulos: I have discussed the right to healthy environment with several people, and some people don't really see this as a major issue. They perceive it as a legal issue, as a legal detail that has to be managed. I would like to ask you how this report and your suggestion for linking directly human rights and environment are helpful.


John Knox: I think one of the great success stories of international relations after the Second World War was to identify the major human rights that all people are entitled to, simply because they are human beings. And as human rights many of them are very familiar to us: the rights of freedom of expression and freedom of association, the right to not be arbitrarily arrested, the rights to be free from torture, slavery and so forth. But it's also important to remember that the human rights include the economic, social and cultural rights, such as the right to the highest attainable standard of health and the right to an adequate standard of living.  While it's clear that the states can take into account their economic situation, they are not expected to necessarily deliver immediately on rights such as right to food and health and clean water and so forth.


It is quite important that we have agreed that the states have these obligations to work towards the full enjoyment of these rights. The environment is just as important as many of these other aspects of human well-being. It's as important to our ability to live lives in dignity, quality and freedom, but it wasn't included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and in many subsequent human rights treaties. The reason for that I think is simply historical, that is the modern environmental movement really didn't take off until the late 1960s - 20 years after the Universal Human Rights Declaration. Since the 1970s, we see recognition of the importance of a right to a healthy environment at the national level - more than 100 countries now include it in their national constitutions. When we talk about why it's important, it's important for exactly the same reasons that it's important to recognize other human rights. The ability to enjoy a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is fundamental to human well-being. It's fundamental to human dignity, equality and freedom and it's fundamental to our ability to enjoy all of our other rights. Recognizing that at the international level, at the global level is the way of rectifying this gap that existed in the international human rights law now for almost 50 years.


Antonis Mavropoulos: That brings me to my second question: What are the consequences of this gap? What were the specific cases that were the drivers for your suggestions? 


John Knox: The most important consequence has been the fact that we have over-prioritized economic development at the expense of a healthy environment. Development is obviously important but as we recognized at least since the late 1980s - early 1990s, the development must be sustainable. A right to a healthy environment helps to make that point in human rights’ terms that sustainable environment is not only a good idea, it's not only the best way to have sustainable development, it's a fundamental requirement for us to be able to live the lives of basic human dignity. As you know yourself from your work with solid waste, people who are living near solid waste dumps simply are unable to enjoy their basic human rights, they are not able to enjoy their rights to health because they live next to a source of an enormous harm to them. Making it clear that states have obligations to address that harm and to protect people from that kind of harm, just as they have obligations to protect people from other types of harm to their human rights, is of a fundamental importance. 


I don't want to say that if we had recognized the right to a healthy environment we would not have had any environmental problems. Obviously, more has to be done than simply recognizing a right -  the history of human rights is full of rights that are recognized but violated. But I do think that recognizing a right is an important step towards implementing it. Until we know what our goals are, it's hard to know what we should be working towards.   Recognizing the human right to a healthy environment, one of the most important aspects of that is simply that it's a commitment on a national or regional or, now hopefully, global basis to achieve this goal.


Antonis Mavropoulos: At first, do you think that the UN General Assembly will adopt your suggestion, do you expect that this will happen? Is it easy to have such a global commitment? Secondly, what will be in this case the consequence not only globally but also on the domestic level? Do we expect that countries will follow on that?


John Knox: Regarding the first question the UN General Assembly could recognize this right in two ways. It could start negotiations for a new treaty. In fact, the government of France has proposed the global pact on the environment and its first article would recognize the right to a healthy environment. They proposed that last autumn at the General Assembly. Certainly, one possibility is that the General Assembly could decide to take that up and negotiate an agreement.


I have suggested in my report that a second possibility would be easier and that's for the General Assembly to adopt a resolution recognizing a right to a healthy environment. They did this in the context of the right to water, which like the right to healthy environment is of fundamental importance but was not included specifically in the foundation of the human rights instruments. The General Assembly adopted a resolution in 2010 that recognized the human rights to water and to healthy sanitation. In that case when the General Assembly recognizes this right, it doesn't have a legally binding effect the same way a treaty does. However, it does clarify human rights law, which already incorporates the elements of this right. By giving the right a name it makes it easier for a lot of things to happen. For one thing, United Nations human rights’ mechanisms find it easier to focus resources and attention on that right. Secondly, people who are familiar with the UN Human Rights system become aware that this is a major human right and therefore organizations like the UN Environment Program, the UN Development Program, organizations interested in implementing the sustainable development goals and so forth take this more seriously.


Finally, it can have a beneficial spillover effect on the national level. As I said many countries already do recognize a right to healthy environment in their international constitutions, but many of the countries that recognize it, don't really implement it. They don't have the resources or sometimes, they don't even give their courts jurisdiction to hear cases involving the right. So, one benefit of recognizing the right as a global effort is that it gives more urgency to countries to recognize it at a national level. And that would include countries that haven't even recognized the right because there are still many countries that have not formally recognized the right to a healthy environment at a national level. Having it recognized at a global level would provide additional consideration to doing so at the national level.


Antonis Mavropoulos:  I have seen from other works of the rapporteurs, even 10 years ago,  a number of violations of human rights related to waste mismanagement. Mainly in terms of hazardous waste. ISWA is now working on raising the awareness of the biggest dump sites of the world, that they must be considered as a health emergency and not just an environmental problem because this is misleading. I would like to hear your comments about how your suggestions to recognize health and environment as a human right affects the poor waste management practices in the developing world.


John Knox: There are two or three aspects of how human rights apply to environmental issues that are particularly relevant to waste management.


One aspect is that human rights make it clear to the people, who are most directly affected by environmental problems, that they have the right of information, of participation in the decision-making and to effective remedies. In terms of solid waste, that would mean that people should be able to find out the facts about solid waste and dumpsites, what kind of waste is being deposited in dumpsites and  what are the effects of waste on human health  as well as the environment. They should be able to participate in decision-making, that means there should be avenues for people who are affected by, for example new solid waste sites or management of the existing solid waste sites, to have their voices heard in the decision-making process, where those waste sites are located, how they are developed overtime and then finally they should have their right to seek legal remedies for harms that result from these dumpsites. They should be able to go to court or have access to other administrative remedies and seek damages and injunctive relief that are effective in addressing the consequences of the harm to them. All that is one aspect of human rights.


Another aspect of course is that while countries do have some discretion in how to balance environment protection against other social goals, they can't strike a balance that is unreasonable or that discriminates against certain groups or that ignores the human rights of those that are directly affected. Your question focuses on the very worst dumpsites and so these dumpsites cannot possibly be justified - continuing to expand them will continue to worsen the problem, which cannot possibly be justified. States should be working as you suggest, to closing them and to protect those most directly affected by them and their consequences.


And then finally, I already touched on this but just to elaborate, I think that human rights perspective emphasizes something that is often overlooked, which is that the consequences of environmental harm certainly including dumpsites are predominantly experienced by those who are already in vulnerable situations. This could be either because they are living in extreme poverty or they are part of marginalized communities. Often women and children, the elderly are much more affected. In terms of human rights, this is unacceptable; you have to protect those who are most at risk, you can't ignore cases where they are concerned for the benefit of others.


Taking into consideration those three ways, all of these three ways, I think that human rights’ perspective is valuable in general but in particular with respect to waste sites.


Antonis Mavropoulos: That was very comprehensive, thank you very much. I have the last question regarding the potential barriers you face in terms of major international disagreements. Barriers in terms of readiness of some countries to hear about this. I'm speaking mainly of policy barriers.


John Knox: It is certainly true that some countries are uneasy talking about a human right to a healthy environment. Those countries include for example the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, also China and Japan, which don't have as much history with the right to a healthy environment either. They are certainly some important countries, some large economies, some large populations that don't recognize this right at the national level and have been uneasy about it at an international level. So, to that degree, I think part of the opposition is simply that they are unfamiliar with the right because they don't have a history with it and they are not comfortable with its implications. What I have tried to do with my work over the last 6 years is to explain how human rights that they do recognize, like the rights to life and health, already require states to take steps to protect a healthy environment. So, in many ways the right to healthy environment it's not a new concept; it's a new way of describing an existing concept and the existing concept is that states have obligations and their human rights law to protect the environment. That's one kind of opposition and I am hopeful that that opposition is waning, that it's disappearing over time as the relationship of human rights and the environment is recognized.


When I presented the report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, over 80 states co-sponsored the resolution that came out of the report, so I think there is quite a bit of support at the state level for recognizing that human rights and the environment are really closely linked and in fact interdependent.


There is another kind of obstacle which is much more difficult in a way. It is the same obstacle that I think that environmental protection always faces and that is simply recognizing the importance of putting adequate resources into efforts to protect the environment. I think it's always easy for states, not always but it's often too easy for states, to seek short-term economic or political gains instead of taking into account long-term causes, which are often disastrous in the end but might not be as obvious. The environmental cause, in particular, include long-term problems, which are often felt over time and so it's easy to opt in for short-term economic gains and ignore the long-term environmental cause. Obviously waste sites are a great example of this as you have to put your waste somewhere, you want it disposed in the cheapest possible way and in short-term but these causes ignore the long-term consequences. Really, you're storing up the worst problems for yourself if you don't put the necessary resources to address the waste disposal in the best possible way. Those obstacles are much more difficult to address but I do think that again recognizing that a healthy environment is of fundamental importance is an important first step towards building the political will to take into account these long-term effects.


Antonis Mavropoulos: John, what can we do to help you for pushing for these suggestions, apart from encouraging ISWA’s Members to support you? 


John Knox: I think that actually is quite important, especially when the support comes from broad based organizations like ISWA. I think showing that this cause has support from people in organizations based in many different countries is really important. I also think that simply referring to the right is important -- that is, we do not have to wait for the General Assembly to officially recognize this right to begin talking about it and relying on a right to healthy environment. Obviously, it already is recognized. So, in this respect I think showing that people already believe in the human right to a healthy environment is of really great importance.


The Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment Annual Report submitted by John H. Knox can be found online here. 

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