‘I’m not afraid to point a finger’: UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment

David Boyd during a country visit in December 2018 to Fiji, where he met with children from the archipelago. (UNICEF)

The UN Human Rights Council renewed this week the mandate of the special rapporteur on human rights and the environment. As per tradition, the current mandate holder, David Boyd, will stay on in his role for another three years. His plan: continue to call out those who egregiously violate human rights and give credit to those who protect them.

All the way from Vancouver, over Zoom, David Boyd conveys how excited he is to be able to carry on with what he considers “a labour of love”. The Canadian environmental lawyer who teaches at the University of British Columbia, has been highly critical about governments not protecting their citizens from the harmful effects of pollution, climate change and other environmental challenges. 

He has thrown his weight behind landmark cases such as the one filed by Torres Strait Islanders before the UN Human Rights Committee against Australia in 2019 for failing to reduce carbon emissions.

Between writing reports, receiving and sending communications – essentially letters of complaint from victims of human rights abuses –, participating in panel discussions around the globe and planning country visits, the voluntary job of a special rapporteur is a full-time one. 

It’s been 10 years since the Human Rights Council adopted the resolution on human rights and the environment. What has been the impact of your work and that of your predecessor John Knox?

John Knox, who did this position for six years between 2012 and 2018 really did a fantastic job of building the connections between human rights and the environment, which at the time we started were not widely recognised. I was at one of his early consultations and it was shocking to hear people from human rights organisations say they didn't really think they had an interest in environmental issues. And I think now, 10 years later, we're in a much better position where a far wider range of people understand that not only are these issues connected but the connections are critically important. 

How does this affect people on the ground?

The ultimate goal is to improve air quality, to ensure that people have access to safe and sufficient water and to healthy and sustainably produced food, to protect the planetary climate system, to protect ecosystems and biodiversity, and to ensure everyone has the opportunity to live, work, study and play in non toxic environments. 

Everything that John Knox and I have done is geared towards trying to achieve those outcomes, and the tools that we use are the promotion of a rights-based approach to all aspects of environmental protection, and in particular, one of my top priorities has been securing global recognition of the right to a healthy environment, which is already recognised in 80 per cent of countries, and we know that when countries recognise this right, it is a catalyst for the types of changes that do result in those improved outcomes for people on the ground. 

In what way can this right encourage change?

The recognition of the right to healthy environment is a catalyst for stronger environmental laws and policies, for improved implementation and enforcement of those policies, for higher levels of public participation for greater accountability, and most importantly, we have clear scientific evidence that recognition of this right leads to faster reductions in air pollution, faster reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and higher levels of people with access to safe, clean drinking water. 

How do you plan on working towards that goal for the next three years?

The right to a healthy environment has procedural aspects that are already well known and well established in international human rights law: access to information, public participation, access to justice and non discrimination. But the substantive elements are not as well known and so I'm doing a series of six reports that will provide greater clarity on what needs to be done. 

I did one on clean air, one on safe and sufficient water, one on a safe climate, one on healthy ecosystems and biodiversity. I'm currently working on a report on healthy and sustainably nutritious food and the sixth and final report will be on non toxic environments. If you look at the very first one of those on air quality, I laid out seven steps that all states should be taking to protect human rights from air pollution, and states really appreciate that kind of clear roadmap as to what they should be doing. 

How can you make sure that countries are applying your recommendations?

I'm planning to write a letter to every one of the 193 countries, asking them to provide me with information on what they've done to implement those recommendations because I think that a weakness of the special procedure system is it's really challenging to follow up. 

Another more controversial tool that special procedures can use is to engage in precedent-setting lawsuits where human rights are jeopardised by government actions. I'm currently involved in two lawsuits in Indonesia and in South Africa, where local citizens have filed lawsuits against their own governments, saying that through their failure to reduce air pollution and improve air quality, they’re violating their constitutional right to live in a healthy environment. Those two cases in different parts of the world have the potential to set important precedents.

 We have the carrot and the stick. The carrot is, if you do things well you can be highlighted in a good practices report. If you're not fulfilling your obligations, then you can end up in the courtroom.

Is the Human Rights Council doing enough regarding human rights and the environment and the climate crisis?

I think that it’s doing more than it used to do but I don't think it’s doing enough. The critical test will be: will the Human Rights Council respond to the global environmental crisis by passing a resolution, recognising the right to a healthy environment? This is a right that has been discussed at UN human rights bodies for 25 years. And there's no more reasons for delay. 

Read also: UN closer to recognising the right to a healthy environment

Do you see the resolution passing in September as some are hoping it does?

I'm cautiously optimistic. I love the leadership that the core group that supports my mandate has been providing – Costa Rica Slovenia, the Maldives, Morocco and Switzerland. And it's great to see other countries also supporting, so the joint statement with over 60 countries from this current session of the Council. There’s even signs in places like the United States where a bill was just introduced in Congress this week called the Environmental Justice for All Act, which includes recognition of the right to a healthy environment.

Does calling out states or companies come with pressure from those actors?

Yeah, it's unavoidable. When are we living in a climate emergency, when seven million people are dying every year because of air pollution, when two billion people don't have access to safe and sustainably managed water, when we are losing species and ecosystems at a rate that the scientists consider like the sixth mass extinction in the multi billion year history of the planet, there have to be some people, countries or corporations you point the finger at. I'm not afraid to point a finger. 

I'm in hot water with the Government of Colombia right now because of a communication related to a massive open pit mine that has been damaging the human rights of the Wayuu indigenous people in Colombia for decades. It absolutely boggles my mind that you can have a massive extractive operation that has produced billions of dollars in wealth for private investors and for the government of Colombia and right next door you have indigenous people who are living some of the most extreme poverty that I've witnessed in my life. That was a message not taken kindly by the companies or the government but those are situations that need to be highlighted and international attention will hopefully result in changes that advance the situation.