Mary Robinson

Sustainable Development and Environmental Protection - Sept. 1, 2002

Mary Robinson
September 01, 2002— Johannesburg, South Africa
Civil Society Workshop on Human Rights
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Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for the invitation to address the opening session of your workshop on human rights, sustainable development and environmental protection. It is a great pleasure to be with many of our civil society partners with whom I have worked on a number of human rights issues in the past. My thanks also to the organisers for their considerable efforts to arrange this important workshop.

The Triangle: Human Rights – Environment – Sustainable Development

The interdependence of human rights, environment protection and sustainable development has been described using the metaphor of a triangle. Although sustainable development is the overarching goal, it cannot be achieved without also respecting human rights and protecting the environment. Each side is linked to, and mutually supports the others. Without one, effective realisation of the other two is not possible. Together, these three goals take us towards what the Earth Charter refers to as 'a sustainable global society'. To talk of interdependence is not to deny the differences between each of these goals. Each is an end in itself rather than merely a means of supporting and furthering the others. Each has a different focus and places the emphasis on different values. As such, the image of the triangle suggests the intersection not the integration of these three goals.

Sustainable development and environment

The links between pursuit of the goals of sustainable development and environmental protection are the most widely understood and recognised. At Rio, ten years ago, the international community explicitly acknowledged these links and set down a blueprint to reinforce them. The task of the Summit here in Johannesburg has been to return to the commitments made at Rio and to look for new ways to strengthen the implementation of those commitments, especially those contained in Agenda 21.

The human rights aspects of sustainable development are many and varied. Poverty, health, indigenous peoples, food: many of these issues which are central to sustainable development are also central to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I have already spoken on human rights and sustainable development in my address to the plenary of the Summit. There is also an OHCHR background paper in circulation that explores this linkage. Today, I would like to focus on the other side of the triangle, that links human rights and the environment.

Human rights and environment

Unfortunately, this side of the triangle was largely missing in Rio. Ten years on it continues to be hidden from view. The essential role of human rights promotion and protection in securing environmental protection is still not fully recognised or accepted.

We might ask why this is the case. It should be difficult to deny the relevance of human rights. As far back as 1972, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment declared that:

'[M]an's environment, the natural and the man-made, are essential to his well-being and to the enjoyment of basic human rights--even the right to life itself.'

There has been a steadily growing awareness of the human rights implications of policies and programmes that are aimed at environmental protection and sustainable development. That awareness is reflected in the references and language on human rights in the draft Plan of Action of the Summit, some of it agreed some remaining in brackets.

Since the Stockholm Conference in 1972, awareness of the impact of environmental factors on the promotion and protection of human rights has become progressively more clear. So, too, has the role of human rights abuses in environmental degradation. This awareness has led to a number of initiatives aimed at both protecting human rights through protecting the environment, and (vice-versa) protecting the environment through the promotion of human rights.

As many of you will know, an Expert Seminar convened by my Office and the United Nations Environment Programme in Geneva, took stock of these initiatives in January this year. The two agencies convened the seminar, in following up a resolution of the Commission on Human Rights, with the aim of reviewing and assessing progress achieved since Rio and Agenda 2I, in promoting and protecting human rights in relation to environmental questions. The seminar brought together 27 experts from all regions of the world tasked to review developments since Rio and to draw from those developments some preliminary assessments of the existing links between human rights and the environment. The Experts' Conclusions were then debated with representatives of member states, international organisations and civil society. A pamphlet on the experts' conclusions has published jointly by OHCHR and UNIP for this Summit.

Reading the Conclusions it is striking how, at every level – international, regional, national – there is now a greater appreciation of the nexus between human rights and environmental themes, especially when considered in the context of sustainable development.

Let me outline briefly the salient points.


At international level a number of important human rights treaties take into account the environmental dimensions of human rights. Examples are, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the ILO Convention 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries. Similarly, a number of international organisations have addressed the connection between human rights and the environment in their organizational structures and activities, particularly in terms of access to information and public participation in decision-making. The UN treaty bodies have also increased their recognition of the impact of environmental factors on the application of their respective conventions.


At the regional level, a number of instruments have addressed the linkages, again with an emphasis on information and participation. I would single out the 1998 Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters as an example of how the human rights-environment relationship is a two way relationship. Procedural rights to information and participation help protect human rights and the environment at the same time. Mention should also be made of the experience of the European and Inter-American human rights systems which have interpreted environmental degradation in human rights terms.


It is at the national level, however, that some of the most striking developments have taken place. The right to a healthy environment has been recognized formally in over 90 national constitutions enacted since 1992. Often the right is made expressly justiciable. In other countries, especially in South Asia and Latin America, constitutional rights to life, health and family life have been interpreted as embracing environmental factors. These developments suggest that the role of the judiciary and lawyers in elaborating links between human rights and the environment has become a significant one. One conclusion of the Expert seminar underlined the need to sensitize and provide further training to judges, lawyers and public officials.


Assessing these developments around the world lead the experts to draw a number of conclusions, which provide a valuable starting point for your workshop. They will be useful for the goal of the workshop which is to provide participants with the information and tools necessary to enable them to use human rights principles and protections in their work after Johannesburg. Their Conclusions are set out in the pamphlet but let me refer to two of them ...

Respect for human rights is broadly accepted as a pre-condition for sustainable development, that environmental protection constitutes a pre-condition for the effective enjoyment of human rights protection, and that human rights and the environment are interdependent and inter-related. These features are now broadly reflected in national and international practices and developments.

And a second:

The experts noted the broad recognition that poverty is at the center of a number of human rights violations and is at the same time a major obstacle to achieving sustainable development and environmental protection.

These and other Conclusions of the Experts are not speculative. They cannot be read as making untenable proposals for the future. Rather they are firmly based in the concrete developments of the past decade: developments in illustrating the link between human rights and environmental issues which cannot be denied. In the light of the Geneva Seminar, and the experiences of many of you in this room, it must seem incredible that the draft Political Declaration before the Summit dealing with environmental protection and sustainable development has, as yet, no reference to human rights. I hope that that will change as discussions proceed.

The Future: Linking Two Fields, Two Communities

Nevertheless, I would not wish to underestimate the challenges that face a coming together of the human rights and environmental approaches. They remain very distinct areas with distinct communities of practitioners. As I mentioned at the outset, it is not a question of a total integration of theses two fields. They remain focused on separate goals. What workshops such as this should strive to do is to show each community how it can benefit from interaction with the other. Environmentalists must come to realise that the language and framework of human rights provides another tool in their struggle to protect our environment. At the same time, human rights advocates need to look to the significant role that environmental degradation - in all its forms - has on the enjoyment of individual rights not alone for those living today but for future generations.

It is fair to say that many of the delays in bringing the human rights and environmental agendas together have arisen from misunderstandings between the two communities. Their goals, are not as conflicting as some would have us believe. The idea that the human rights community is only concerned with individual's standards of present day living, and that the environmental community is only concerned with protecting the environment is an oversimplification and ultimately false.

I speak for the human rights community. Human rights is not about arming individuals with claims that can be pursued without regard to other issues, for example environmental protection. A rights based approach seeks to balance the competing interests of individual's and of groups by using a framework which focuses on human dignity and well-being. It is through this balancing process that many of our fundamental rights are realised: freedom of speech, the right to food, the right to housing and others. In understanding that the environment plays a role in this balancing exercise when relevant, we will see that environmental degradation should never be justified as necessary for human well-being. Similarly, the value attached to the environment by individuals and communities around the globe is something to which a human rights approach is sensitive. The value of environmental protection was not as well appreciated when the Universal Declaration on Human Rights was adopted as it is now, but the dynamic nature of human rights ensures that new and evolving aspirations of peoples are taken into account.

Thus, human rights are not by nature environmentally unfriendly. The right to safe drinking water is not the right to waste drinking water. The right to housing does not support the destruction of forests essential in both ecological and human health terms. The goals of protecting the earth for future generations and of ensuring the dignity of those living at the present time are inextricably entwined.

Where To Go From Here?

We are, however, at an early stage of understanding and operationalising these links. As I said earlier, it is striking that this should be the case. It leaves us with a full agenda for the future; for the post-Johannesburg world, which is the focus of this workshop.

Even by saying this I am identifying the prime goal for the immediate future: to promote a deeper understanding of the links between human rights and environmental protection. It will involve a significant effort on the part of both human rights and environmental practitioners to come to grips with the values, methodologies and comparative advantages of each other. It will also involve a continued effort on the part of institutional actors - such as my Office and the United Nations Environment Programme – to foster this understanding. The draft Plan of Action has paragraphs that call for further co-operation between UNEP and OHCHR. I call for the final adoption of those paragraphs.

When we turn to the issue of putting these links into practice, the Expert Seminar showed us that much has been achieved to date, especially at the national and regional levels. As I have said, you start toward the future from a solid base of achievements in the decade since Rio. The next goal is to share and replicate the experience at the national and regional level with other parts of the world.

In this respect I would highlight the issue of what are called "procedural" rights relating to the environment: rights to environmental information, participation in decisions relating to the environment affecting them, and the right to complain about environmental degradation. Effectively functioning procedural rights such as these are a crucial basis for future progress. This was recognised in Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. In many countries and regions where the rights-environment link has been formally recognised, the first step has been the recognition of these procedural rights. I hope to see this trend continuing.

In concluding, I would like to leave you some simple messages to keep in mind during your workshop. The first is that the links between human rights the environment and sustainable development have already been established, and we have our simple image of the triangle to remind us of this. The second is that the challenge of the future in linking human rights and the protection of the environment lies as much in bringing these two communities together as in gaining formal recognition of the links. And lastly, this is not a zero sum game: increased protection of human rights does not mean less protection for the environment. The human dignity of an individual is intimately linked to their environment. This applies to the current generation and to the generations to come for whom we hold this world in trust.

Thank you.

World Summit on Sustainable Development News, issue 10 (E).