On the 20th of September 2022, the Raoul Wallenberg Institute (RWI) organised, alongside the University of Stirling (UK) and the Global network for Human Rights and Environment, a symposium on ‘Recognising the Right to a Healthy Environment’ (R2HE).
This event aimed to reflect on the advocacy efforts which led to the recognition of R2HE by the UN General Assembly (GA) on the 28th of July 2022, in resolution A/76/L.75.
Discussions were separated into two parts, followed by a Q&A with attendees.
In the first part, moderated by Andrea Schapper (Stirling University), the panel reflected on the process and the actors involved in the recognition of R2HE. Reflections were heard from Chiara Liguori (Amnesty International), Kristen Cordero (Children’s Environmental Rights Initiative) and Benjamin Schachter (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights).
Chiara Liguori opened the discussions by talking about the lead up to the UN GA resolution. She mentioned the importance of the presentation of a joint report by John Knox and David Boyd to the GA. Furthermore, other turning points were the recognition of R2HE by Slovenia, Morocco, Switzerland, Maldives, and Costa Rica and the joint call for recognition at the HRC achieving an impressive 1350 signatures, signaling a global support for recognition.
Kristen Cordero examined in more detail the strategies relied on by the coalition. She highlighted the need for a unified, inclusive, and positive messaging which could be utilised by all willing organisms and would portray a united front. She referred to the ‘tweet storm’ planned during the 46th HRC, which reached more than 4000 tweets in a single day, leading to the call for the recognition of R2HE trending worldwide. This was pivotal and contributed to 69 states supporting the call for recognition put forward by the coalition at the HRC. Kristen also underlined the ‘need to make allies rather than enemies’. She pointed at the importance of including all stakeholders in the process, including businesses, which took a leading role by putting out a statement calling for R2HE
‘each stakeholder was really able to use their own unique powers and influences within this campaign and this movement.’ Kristen Cordero (Children’s Environmental Rights Initiative).
Benjamin Schachter (OHCHR) began by emphasising that the GA recognition was the culmination of years of advocacy and developments at national and regional levels. Significant turning points included the ESCAZU agreement and Aarhus convention as well as the signing in 2019 of a memorandum of understanding by OHCHR and Unit. Mechanisms for UN interagency collaboration facilitated more and more UN advocacy and support for recognition and were central in the process. The High Commissioner and Executive Director of UNEP issued a press release calling for universal recognition of R2HE, and the two agencies, with UNDP, co-chaired the secretary general’s call for action for human rights and the UN Environment Management Group. The OHCHR took a leading role, making a strong case for recognition HRC 48, leading to the tabling of resolution 48/13, through organising thematic discussion and expert group meetings.
Opening the second part of the symposium, on ‘Challenges, Reflections and Way Forward’, moderator Claudia Ituarte-Lima (RWI), highlighted the need to take a moment to appreciate the achievements of the recognition of R2HE. Her introduction was followed by interventions from Astrid Puentes, (Independent consultant on human rights, climate and the environment), Robert Kibugi (University of Nairobi), Tuti Alawiyah (RWI) and Soo-Young Hwang (United Nations Environment Programme).
Astrid Puentes opened the discussion by offering insight on the civil society perspective. Referring to the centrality of inclusivity she stated that as a global issue, it was important that actors everywhere were aware of the process of recognition. The global perspective, if rewarding, could be challenging in the need to ensure individuals from every area felt included and that the messages were developed considering different perspectives and interests. One key aspect was language, as many will be excluded from conversations only held in English. A point which was later emphasised by Tuti Alawiyah (RWI).
Robert Kibugi, representing the University of Nairobi, spoke of the need to clarify the meaning of R2HE. He pointed out that the right had been present under various forms in African Constitutions. He also underlined the importance of horizontal cooperation and peer level partnerships, the process being about leaning ‘from each other at all levels, whether in government, academia, civil society, private sector and finally, from the global perspective’
Insight on the participation of RWI, particularly the RAPP was offered by Tuti Alawiyah. In a 2019 study on ten countries study on disaster displacement, followed by a statement on the importance of recognition, it was exposed that critical issues such as gender equality remained a challenge in finding how to integrate, inspire, healthy environment in everyday life. Civil society play a fundamental role in this case : ‘In one hand, actually working with communities with women to provide services to help with the environmental issues.’, and ‘helping hold the government accountable’ by applying ‘pressure to government to implement the laws.’
Finally, Soo-Young Hwang focused her intervention on what would follow recognition of R2HE. There is a lot of positive. The UNGA recognition pushes regional agencies such as the CoE and the EU to take their environmental agenda forward and was the result of an effective multi-stakeholder approach. However, a lot remains to be done. Importantly, clarity still needs to be found, on the scope of the right, as well as the meaning of healthy environment.
The symposium continued with a Q&A, panelists answering questions from the attendees.
Answering whether there was a need for a legally binding document.
‘Human rights are indivisible, interdependent, and the right to healthy environment is evidence of that. In most of the world the right healthy environment is already binding, through the link to the right to life’. Claudia Ituarte-Lima (RWI)
Highlighted as well, was the prospects of a general comment on children’s rights, environment and climate change which would be binding on all states which have signed the Convention on the Rights of the child.
The second question concerned how to ensure the involvement of a diversity of youth.
‘I think it’s critical to not just create platforms for young people, but actually having them be decision makers in this process’. Kristen Cordero (Children’s Environmental Rights Initiative)
Several strategies were put forward notably by RWI such as encouraging youth to lead activities, own workshops, and campaigns.
Watch the full symposium: