COVID-19: Biodiversity and Climate Crises Need Human Rights Solutions

By: Claudia Ituarte-Lima,

Biodiversity, climate and COVID-19 crises need coupled human rights solutions, by Claudia Ituarte-Lima , Affiliated Senior Researcher at RWI.

The impacts of COVID-19 and nature crises are interconnected. Only concerted multilateral action and solidarity in line with human rights, will enable us to address these unprecedented challenges and to become more resilient for the benefit of present and future generations.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made me more aware of valuing nature in my everyday life: waking-up energised in the morning by opening the windows, breathing fresh air and hearing spring birds sing; smelling and tasting family cooked food and drinking fresh and clean water, receiving kind messages from family, friends, and colleagues wishing continued health for me and my close ones. When reflecting on who are my close ones, my mind and heart goes to many different parts of the world, the locations in three continents where I have lived, studied, played and worked. Furthermore, adopting a sustainability and human rights lens helps me see that we are all connected, we are all “close ones” despite or possibly even more in these turbulent times of social distancing.

While both the climate and biodiversity crises have already shown concrete ways in which all living and non-living beings are connected, I find that COVID-19 has made it even more tangible. One question that I ask myself is if humanity is capable to a level of solidarity between all people commensurate to the ‘glocal’ scale of the combined “biodiversity, climate, COVID-19 crises” which I term as “bc3”?

Seventy-two years ago, in December 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which set out the fundamental rights of all peoples, of all nations. After two world wars and a broad range of other crises, this legal instrument is evidence that countries can come together after tragic experiences to recognise the inherent dignity of all human beings and set, and reaffirm at that time, the basis of international human rights law.

Human rights principles are at the heart of international agreements and of the United Nations. However, human rights are increasingly under threat by bc3. UN Special Rapporteurs view COVID-19 as a serious international challenge but also a “ wake-up call for the revitalization of universal human rights principles”. Jamison Ervin from UNDP highlights the importance of preventive action and considering tipping points to address the COVID-19 and nature crises: “early actions have exponential benefits, late actions are exponentially more difficult, and actions beyond the point of no return may have little or no benefit at all”.

The global unsustainable natural resource extraction that degrades the ecosystems on which humanity relies is now combined with COVID-19. In relatively remote areas such as in the Amazon, people are especially at risk of COVID-19 not only individually but collectively, as peoples. By the early 17th century, some estimate that as much as 90 percent of the indigenous population in the Americas died by flu and measles, among other diseases, brought by Europeans. Indigenous people such as the 100 isolated indigenous groups in Brazil are highly vulnerable.

The stakes with bc3 are especially high for environmental human rights defenders, individuals and collectives, many of them in the Global South, who risk their life for healthy ecosystems and biodiversity upon which we all depend. In 2019, Global Witness found that more than three people were murdered each week, as a direct consequence of their actions to defending their land and our environment. Risks increase that life-sustaining ecosystems are sacrificed in the name of supporting the economy without due diligence on environmental and social impacts. At the same time, environmental inspections in the field by governmental officials and on-site participatory environmental monitoring such as those in the context of mining cannot be carried out properly in contexts of COVID-19 lockdown measures. In order to avoid long term irreversible harm, rather than granting permissions with solely short term economic considerations in mind, moratorium on permissions of activities that may harm the environment should be put in place.

Because the measures to address effectively COVID-19 and safeguard nature are vital,  it is important generating and sharing information about the interconnected ways these crises affect peoples’ human rights. The newspaper The Guardian reports about the risks of being an environmental human rights defender in the COVID-19 times, not only in remote areas but also in cities. In Colombia, death squads taking advantage of COVID-19 lockdown murdered three activists. Human Rights Watch has documented arrests of 17 critics for sharing information about COVID-19, including a 14-year-old girl who expressed fears about rumours of coronavirus cases at her school and in her province in social media. Environmental rights defenders need to cope with these challenges and the fact that media coverage is focusing on COVID-19 at the expense of other topics.

But environmental human rights defenders including many indigenous peoples and local communities are not passive victims in the context of COVID-19, they are actively seeking ways to activating collective action through their own grassroots organizations as well as through global environmental and human rights organizations and UN agencies. Hence, innovative ways of accessing and sharing information, participation in environmental matters including by and among youth, are more than ever needed.

Children and youth are often framed as vulnerable groups, but many of them are also environmental human rights defenders, agents of change increasingly making their voices heard. While often a safe climate of the right to a healthy environment is highlighted in youth rights, healthy ecosystems and biodiversity is also one of the elements of the right to a healthy environment. Youth are often calling for a new relationship with the Earth for today and in the future, which entails addressing the climate and biodiversity crises. Just as older people are disproportionately vulnerable to COVID-19, young people and future generations are disproportionately vulnerable to the effects of climate change, biodiversity loss and the degradation of ecosystems. As highlighted by Jamie Margolin, youth are making strong sacrifices in terms of schooling, fun and freedom during COVID-19 for the benefit of all, especially for elder people who are in vulnerable situations.

In the context of the Anthropocene, the COVID-19 pandemic is teaching us that transformative changes by duty-bearers and right-holders that were deemed impossible by many are indeed possible. Just as the United Nations General Assembly was able to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 72 years ago, I am optimistic that humanity can come together to apply human rights to the biodiversity, climate, COVID-19 crises now that threats and possibility of world collective action are becoming more tangible. When COVID-19 has passed, instead of continuing to reinforce patterns that destroy nature and a safe climate, let’s learn from this turbulent period and transform our economic and legal systems in a way that ensures that today’s and tomorrow’s children, youth and other living beings can thrive.

Claudia Ituarte-Lima, Affiliated Senior Researcher at RWI.

This is a series of updates regarding the Coronavirus from Human Rights Experts

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