By Chris D’Angelo
The extinction crisis has “grave and far-reaching implications for human well-being,” writes law professor John Knox.
For the first time, a United Nations report has recognized biodiversity and healthy ecosystems as essential to human rights.
The report, authored by U.N. Special Rapporteur John Knox, a human rights expert and professor of international law at Wake Forest University, comes amid a biodiversity crisis that many scientists have pegged as the beginning of Earth’s sixth mass extinction event.
“Biodiversity is really necessary for the full enjoyment of rights to food, water, health — the right to live a full and happy life,” Knox told The Huffington Post on Thursday. “Without the services that healthy ecosystems provide across the board, we really can’t enjoy a whole range of human rights. And healthy ecosystems really depend on biodiversity.”
The assessment, which Knox presented to the U.N.’s Human Rights Council at a meeting this month in Geneva, Switzerland, concludes that, “in order to protect human rights, states have a general obligation to protect ecosystems and biodiversity.”
The U.N. has not taken a formal position on the matter. The Human Rights Council is considering whether to adopt a resolution recognizing the relationship of biodiversity and human rights. Knox said a decision is expected by the end of the month.
Law professor John Knox, a U.N. special rapporteur, says, “Without the services that healthy ecosystems provide across the board, we really can’t enjoy a whole range of human rights.”In many ways, the rate of species extinction — which humankind has sped up roughly 1,000 times, according to a 2005 assessment — is as much of a crisis as climate change, Knox says. Yet it gets far less attention. As he notes in the report, the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity found in 2010 that nations have failed miserably in meeting adopted targets to reduce biodiversity loss.
Had the international community met its goals, Knox told HuffPost, it would have gone a long way toward protecting the variety of life on Earth.
“I’m not saying I’m the great expert on what needs to happen on biodiversity,” he said. “I’m saying that the people who are the experts have spoken and states have agreed with them on what needs to happen on biodiversity, and [they’re] not living up to that commitment.”
Ultimately, biodiversity loss has “grave and far-reaching implications for human well-being,” Knox writes. Those implications include reduced fishery and agriculture yields, depleted sources of medicine, and increased infectious diseases and autoimmune disorders. Most vulnerable are the indigenous communities that directly depend on healthy ecosystems for food, water and even culture.
Knox calls on nations to minimize damage to ecosystems and biodiversity, both from private entities and government agencies, as well as recognize and protect those most vulnerable, including indigenous populations.
Inger Andersen, director general of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, was among those who praised the report.
“People have the right to benefit from nature for their livelihoods and for rewarding and dignified lives,” Andersen said during a human rights panel event last week. “This includes, for example, the right to food for all, for present and future generations; the right to water; the right to housing; the right to health and many other social, economic and cultural rights. All of these depend on functioning ecosystems and biodiversity.”
Knox said he has a hard time understanding how this issue, with all of its effects on human health, doesn’t get more attention. And he finds the conversation taking place in the U.S. troubling.
President Donald Trump has proposed deep budget cuts across the executive branch, including slashing the Environmental Protection Agency’s funding by 31 percent and the Interior Department’s by 12 percent. Trump has also repeatedly called climate change a “hoax” and promised to pull the U.S. out of the historic Paris climate agreement.
“We should really be ramping up our support for greater protection of biodiversity, not stepping back from it,” Knox said. “Climate change is making the biodiversity crisis much much worse. As the Trump administration seems to be pulling back from commitments to deal with climate change, among the other serious problems with that for the environment, it’s also going to have really disastrous effects to biodiversity.”
Late last year, a report by the World Wildlife Fund warned that up to 67 percent of Earth’s wildlife could vanish by 2020.
Read Knox’s full report here.
This article was published on the Huffington Post's website on March 17, 2017.
Human rights and environment
In recent years, the recognition of the links between human rights and the environment has greatly increased. The number and scope of international and domestic laws, judicial decisions, and academic studies on the relationship between human rights and the environment have grown rapidly.
Many States now incorporate a right to a healthy environment in their constitutions. Many questions about the relationship of human rights and the environment remain unresolved, however, and require further examination.
As a result, in March 2012 the Human Rights Council decided to establish a mandate on human rights and the environment, which will (among other tasks) study the human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, and promote best practices relating to the use of human rights in environmental policymaking.
Mr. John Knox was appointed in August 2012 to a three-year term as the first Independent Expert on human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. His mandate was further extended in March 2015 for another three years as a Special Rapporteur.
The resolution 16/11 adopted by the Human Rights Council on 12th of April 2011 entitled “Human Rights and the environment” requested the Office of the High Commissioner “in consultation with and taking into account the views of States Members of the United Nations, relevant international organizations and intergovernmental bodies, including the United Nations Environment Programme and relevant multilateral environmental agreements, special procedures, treaty bodies and other stakeholders, to conduct, within existing resources, a detailed analytical study on the relationship between human rights and the environment” (para.1).
See also the Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes
Human rights and climate change
In its 5th Assessment Report (2014), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) unequivocally confirmed that climate change is real and that human-made greenhouse gas emissions are its primary cause. The report identified the increasing frequency of extreme weather events and natural disasters, rising sea-levels, floods, heat waves, droughts, desertification, water shortages, and the spread of tropical and vector-borne diseases as some of the adverse impacts of climate change. These phenomena directly and indirectly threaten the full and effective enjoyment of a range of human rights by people throughout the world, including the rights to life, water and sanitation, food, health, housing, self-determination, culture and development.