UNEP Launches Environmental Rights Initiative
UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré
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The UN Environmental Rights Initiative will seek to improve people's understanding of their rights and how to defend them, and will help ensure that governments better safeguard environmental rights.

The Environmental Rights Initiative seeks to, inter alia: engage governments to strengthen institutional capacities to develop and implement policies and legal frameworks that protect environmental rights; work with the media to improve coverage of rights issues and promote environmental rights; and support the dissemination of information on environmental rights.

6 March 2018: The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has launched an initiative to combat the ongoing threats, intimidation, harassment and murder of environmental defenders around the world. The UN Environmental Rights Initiative, which was launched on 6 March 2018, in Geneva, Switzerland, during the 37th session of the UN Human Rights Council, will seek to improve people’s understanding of their rights and how to defend them, and will help ensure that governments better safeguard environmental rights.

Environmental rights have grown more rapidly than any other human right, are enshrined in over 100 national constitutions, and courts in at least 44 countries have issued decisions enforcing the constitutional right to a healthy environment. Despite this, approximately four environmental defenders are killed per week, with the actual total likely higher, according to Global Witness. Many more are harassed, intimidated and forced from their lands. Approximately 40-50% of the 197 environmental defenders killed in 2017 came from indigenous and local communities. Between 2002 and 2013, 908 people were killed in 35 countries defending the environment and land.

In addition to this, some countries are limiting the activities of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). For example, between 1993 and 2016, 48 countries enacted laws restricting the activities of local NGOs receiving foreign funding, and 63 countries adopted laws restricting the activities of foreign NGOs.

The Environmental Rights Initiative seeks to: engage governments to strengthen institutional capacities to develop and implement policies and legal frameworks that protect environmental rights; work with the media to improve coverage of rights issues and promote environmental rights; support the dissemination of information on environmental rights through a web portal; and support the establishment of networks through which environmental defenders can connect, as well as develop and implement environmental protection strategies. UN Environment is also urging the private sector to move beyond a culture of compliance to one where environmental rights are championed.

In remarks during the launch, UNEP Executive Director Erik Solheim lamented that those who struggle to protect the planet and people are paying a heavy price with their safety and sometimes their lives. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein underscored: the impact of extractive industries and climate change on individual rights; the responsibility of states to prevent and punish rights abuses committed by private corporations within their territory; and the obligation of businesses to avoid infringing on human rights. UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment John Knox proposed to the UN Human Rights Council that the UN should join countries in recognizing a global right to a healthy environment, noting that, in many ways, the UN needs to “catch up” to national countries in this regard. [UNEP News Story] [UN Press Release] [UNEP Environmental Rights Landing Page] [UN Environmental Rights Initiative Website]

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