UN rights chief reveals new initiative to protect environmental defenders

Greenpeace protested against climate change during the goverment meeting in Helsinki, Finland, 8 September 2021. (Credit: EPA/KIMMO BRANDT)

UN rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, put environmental and climate “threat multipliers” at the heart of the Human Rights Council, announcing a new environmental rights initiative.

The UN human rights commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, announced on Monday a new environmental rights programme as she opened the 48th session of the Human Rights Council. The project, which will be jointly launched with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), will make it safer for environmental human rights defenders to pursue their work, incorporate the right to a healthy environment in UN processes, and support capacity building at the national level.

There are high hopes that the council will recognise the human right to a healthy environment in the coming weeks. Discussion awaits a draft resolution on the topic that Switzerland, Costa Rica, the Maldives and Morocco have submitted.

The initiative’s announcement follows the call to action for human rights, issued on Friday by UN secretary general António Guterres, which includes climate justice.

‘The greatest challenge in our era’

The tone Bachelet set at the opening of the council made clear that environmental and climate considerations are at the heart of this session of the council.

She framed all items on the council’s agenda in relation to the triple planetary crises of climate change, pollution and nature loss.

“The interlinked crises of pollution, climate change and biodiversity act as threat multipliers – amplifying conflicts, tensions and structural inequalities, and forcing people into increasingly vulnerable situations. As these environmental threats intensify, they will constitute the single greatest challenge to human rights in our era,” she said in opening remarks.

Bachelet highlighted the triple crises’ ongoing and impending impact, region by region, pulling non-exhaustive examples from countries around the world.

Natural disasters, climate extremes, pollution and biodiversity loss are stripping many of their health, livelihoods and even lives. Natural disasters are seven times more devastating on economies than 50 years ago, a World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and UN Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) report revealed earlier this month.

Read also: ‘Weather extremes are rising, but fewer people are dying: UN report’

Many are forced to leave their homes as nature degrades. “Humanitarian visas should be considered when adaptation in countries of origin is not possible; any returns must comply with the principle of non-refoulement, and should be guided by voluntariness, safety and sustainability,” she urged.

Environmental rights defenders also need better protection. Indigenous people and women and girls face particular danger, she said.

The unbalanced gender impact of climate and environmental deterioration, as well as Covid-19, means that 118 women for every 100 men between the ages of 25 and 30 will fall under the extreme poverty line by the end of the year, according to a UN Development Programme report.

Bachelet reiterated that the Covid-19 recovery will prove crucial. However, only 18 per cent of pandemic recovery spending from the 50 largest economies meet sustainability standards, according to a UNEP and International Monetary Fund (IMF) multi-partner report.

Assistance to developing countries must underpin climate action, she said, particularly in light of past exploitation.

Environmental, climate, and nature considerations will shape deliberations throughout this session.

“Addressing the world's triple environmental crisis is a humanitarian imperative, a human rights imperative, a peace-building imperative and a development imperative,” Bachelet said.

“It is also doable.”