The United Nations Human Rights Council declared that the environment must be clean, healthy, and sustainable. a human right. (The US does currently not have a place on the Council. China and India, Japan, and the Russian Federation also abstained from voting. A second Council resolution also established the post of Special Rapporteurwas established to promote human rights in light of climate change. Many environmental advocates hail these resolutions as revolutionary. But what concrete results are we to expect from these resolutions. With the world running out time to reduce the impact of extreme climate change on the planet, can the United Nations assert that humanity has the right to a healthy environment? Can it push the worlds countries to take serious action?
This interview features TRNN contributor David Kattenburg discussing these UN resolutions and their implications for humanity’s fight against climate catastrophe. He is joined by Todd Howland, Saher Rashid Baig. Todd Howland, who helped to draft these UN resolutions, is the chief of Development, Economic and Social Issues Branch, United Nations Human Rights Office. Saher Rashid BagIs a youth, environmental and human rights advocate, based in Karachi Pakistan. He is involved with the Climate Change Virtual Conference of Youth. YOUNGOA global network of young activists aiming to empower youth voices in shaping global environmental policies.
David Kattenburg, Pre-Production
Studio/Post Production: Cameron Granadino
David Kattenburg: We are glad to have you here at The Real News Network. Im David Kattenburg. Clean air, clean waters, biodiversity, fertile land are the foundation of human development. A stable climate is the same. 11,000 years ago, human civilization began as the ice sheets receded and the Earth’s climate became stable and temperate. A stable climate is vital for the prosperity of nations. Scientists are aware of this and so is the United Nations Human Rights Council. In a unanimous vote, the council declared that a healthy, clean, and sustainable environment was a human right. The Russian Federation, China, India, Japan and Japan abstained. The United States is not represented on the UN Human Rights Council. By a vote of 42 votes to 1, the Special Rapporteur position was created to promote the rights of human beings in the context of climate changes. Russian Federation opposed this resolution. China, Eritrea (India), and Japan abstained.
Todd Howland (Chairman of the Development, Economic and Social Issues Branch of the United Nations Human Rights Office) and Saher Rashidbaig (Secretary) will be speaking with me about these landmark resolutions. Todd Howland heads the Development, Economic and Social Issues Branch, United Nations Human Rights Office. He was instrumental in the development of these two UN Resolutions. Saher Baig is an environment and human rights advocate, based in Karachi. Saher is involved in a Climate Change Virtual Conference of Youth as well as the YOUNGO, which is a global network of young activists aiming to empower youth voices and shape global climate policies. Welcome to The Real News, Todd Howland and Saher Baig. I am so grateful that you are here with me. Todd, I’m going to start with your. Could you tell me more about these two resolutions. Can you give me a quick overview of their drafting history and what a Special rapporteur is?
Todd Howland David, I am very grateful for your time and for inviting me to the show. The Human Rights Council selects the Special Rapporteur, an independent expert. The Human Rights Council is comprised of 47 member states from the 93 countries that make up the United Nations. A Special Rapporteur, an independent expert, is someone who has been assigned. For example, there are 45 Special Rapporteurs for each theme and 13 for countries. Their role is to look at the country or theme and to report to the Human Rights Council. They also visit countries often to examine the progress of this particular theme.
So it is important to note that when a Special Rapporteur is created, it usually means that the country or the theme needs attention. So, in this particular case, at the 48th Human Rights Council session in October, the Special Rapporteur for climate change and human right was created. It is an important development as it shows that member states now recognize that climate change is a matter of human rights. A second benefit is that the UN system will have an independent expert who can continuously provide information about climate change, human rights, and other issues.
David Kattenburg: Let me tell you about this other resolution. There was another resolution that declared a healthy and safe environment to be an essential human right. Todd Howland, tell us about that resolution.
Todd Howland David, this is a landmark. This is perhaps because the Human Rights Council clarified the fact that the environment is under and of concern by both the Human Rights Council (UN) and the United Nations. It has been a long time coming. It can be traced all the way back at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which declared that human rights should apply to all aspects of society. It can be traced back to the Stockholm Declaration of 72 which is a sort of the start of the international environmental movement.
As you can see, 155 countries around the world had already recognized the rights to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment before the Human Rights Council actually passed the resolution. The recognition by the Human Rights Council was in many ways a recognition of the fact that there are roots in many different environmental rights and human rights laws. It also relates to developments that take place in different regions or countries. It was also a significant political development, as the core states who supported this had more than 1000 NGOs supporting them and pushing to make this a reality. This resolution was supported by 15 United Nations agencies. This recognition was achieved by many people, in many different organizations around the world.
David Kattenburg: It was a significant landmark, but the idea that humans have a right for a healthy environment has been ingrained in international public law. While you mentioned the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there is also the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and a variety of economic, social and cultural rights. It is a complicated topic and international legal law is extensive. Without going into detail, incredible details, could you please provide a quick scan of the canonical and legal instruments that confirm that we have a right for a healthy, safe environment and stable climate?
Todd Howland Sure. David, I believe that the Universal Declaration contains the global common values. There are two major covenants that emerge from the Universal Declaration. The Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, are the first two. Both covenants can be linked to issues related the climate change and the environment. One example is the right of health. The right to health is affected by pollution, toxic dumps, and trans-boundary contamination. You can see a direct link between the environment we live in, and the health we enjoy. This is a clear connection. We have also seen an increase in the number of people dying from cancer caused by environmental pollution.
We have seen scientific evidence that demonstrates the increasing scientific understanding of the effects of certain toxins in the environment, and how they can impact the health, wellbeing, and even the life of people. You can then access the right of life that is contained in some political rights. You can find many aspects of this in different parts of the covenants. For example, the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, which dates back to 1981, outlines the belief that everyone should have the right of a general, satisfactory environment that is conducive to their development. It is evident in the Arab Charter on Human Rights, 2004. You can also see it in the Protocol to the San Salvador Declaration to the American Convention on Human Rights, 98. As a result, you can see that different member states and regions are increasingly understanding the relationship between healthy environments and human rights.
David Kattenburg: Saher Baig, the right of a healthy environment is immediately accessible to marginalized communities and rural youth across the Global South. We would love to hear about your experiences from Karachi, Pakistan. Tell me what environmental rights issues you think should be addressed in the immediate future.
Saher Baig Thanks, David. First of all, thank you for having me. It was extremely informative even for me to come here and hear all of these things. Todd has mentioned that there are some major issues that we can discuss in my region or in other countries. There are many diseases that are caused by pollution, extreme weather events or environmental factors. We can list some of the problems that we see, such as desertification. Water scarcity would mean that there is not enough clean water available for everyone. This would include people from marginalized communities and all people who are affected by the pollution caused by the landfills. Urban flooding is another problem, as extreme weather events and floods caused by climate change are not limited to rural areas.
Also, urban areas are most affected. I am a city example. Every year we don’t have any pleasant rain, but we have a lot of rainfall at one time, which causes urban flooding. Even if you are a wealthy person, you can’t even leave your home. I mean, these are some of the problems that are affecting people’s lives. We can see that they’re serious about planting trees. I’m referring to the fact that I have been involved in the negotiations or in major climate policies. [dynamics]I don’t think this is an area that should be our main focus.
I believe that the right for a healthy environment declaration is a significant step in the right direction. I know it was a long process, but it is definitely a big step. There are many other things happening, but David I would like to ask you permission to discuss that first. You wanted me to list all of the disasters. But I mean yes. These are the impacts that I see every day as a Global South person. I see a farmer suffering, and a fisherman is suffering. I see how droughts can impact one’s life. Extreme weather events can cause death, and I’m not referring to just one person. Normal summers, which are fun for people living in the Global North can kill someone and ruin their entire families.
This is why I am passionate about working more for the rights and wellbeing of young people. We are also working towards the rights and rights of future generations. Because we must give them a sustainable future, we are also doing it for the next generations. So I have been working.
David Kattenburg: Let me quickly jump in. Can you tell me more about this Declaration on Children, Youth, and Climate Action, which you’ve been working on.
Saher Baig Yes, exactly. This is where I was heading. So I’ve been working on the Declaration on Children, Youth, and Climate Action. This intergovernmental declaration was launched at COP25 Madrid 2019. UNICEF and Childrens Environmental Rights Initiative are two of the UN agencies that I have been working on this Declaration. Also, the Constituency State that I am a part of, called YOUNGO, is the UNFCCC’s official Children and Youth constituency. The declaration contains seven key demands or key questions that member states must consider and implement in order to ensure that every young person and future generation has a healthy environment. We have 30 countries that have signed this declaration. We have been working on it for the past two years and want it to be the first ever UNFCCCs COP decision to focus on children and young people. We find it really sad that some basic rights are so important for a healthy environment.
It is really, I mean, everyone can clearly see how young people and future generations are protected. But until today, there has not been a COP decision that was focused on them. This declaration is crucial. At COP26, we also established a network for champion governments. These are the governments that have signed the declaration. We don’t need only signatures. But that is not enough. We also need to see results. We also need them putting their ambition into practice, to make their words real, to take action, and to show that they are doing something. This declaration is extremely important, and I hope that everyone who is able to see it right now and can link with their government will sign it. We need to have as many member states possible.
David Kattenburg: Let’s now discuss next steps. Michelle Bachelet, UN Rights Commissioner, has called on member countries to take bold actions to ensure that the right to a healthy and safe environment is protected. She also called for governments to adopt transformative economic and social policies that will protect both people and nature. Todd Howland is working on a concrete action program. What time will a Special Rapporteur be appointed?
Todd Howland David, it’s a complicated question. There are 193 UN member countries and each state is at a different stage in their development relative to climate change awareness and action. You can see the difference in policies and leadership by some states. You can even see the business sector as an area that is too often considered a zone of human rights violation. Many business leaders are critical in thinking about how they can conform their business models and practices to human rights standards. It is still a very young effort in relation to the magnitude of the problem we are facing. The recognition we have from the Human Rights Council gives activists and politicians an advantage. It gives them an extra arm for advocacy. We still have a lot to do before we can achieve bold action as the high commissioner calls it. But that is what is needed if we are going to save the planet and peoples lives.
David Kattenburg: What about logistically? Is there a point, a nexus, or a place or office that has an action agenda for the UN Human Rights Area? A short list of possible actions has been created by someone who was tasked with it.
Todd Howland Absolutely. Yes. Part of our role is to identify good practice. You will see that there will soon be reports to Human Rights Council that will be looking for those good practices. Before the resolutions, there was a Special Reporteur on the environment and rights. There is now a Special Rapporteur for climate change and rights. Together, you will see an increasing effort from both the Human Rights Council and where both are highlighting potential solutions and problems.
David Kattenburg: Saher, youve spoken about your declaration. Can you speak a little bit about the specific plans or actions being implemented by youth groups and coalitions around world that seek to protect the environment’s rights? Could you please talk about the specific actions currently being taken?
Saher Baig In other words, the declaration is an attempt to mobilize young people at grassroots levels. Because every country is unique. As Todd mentioned, every push gives us a stronger arm to push further and create more momentum. We are working to mobilize grassroots advocates, trying to explain why this declaration is so important and how they can help move this forward. We have also launched the UN climate change dialogue 2020 an open letter inviting all young people to send in their governments to sign the declaration and to suggest other actions. The concrete and practical actions.
Saher Baig We also need to consider the security risks young people face when advocating. This is because they are advocating at a decision-making table, at negotiations tables, or on roads. Despite this, the young people have demonstrated that there are many other practices that can be included in the policies. We are not here to play blame games, but rather to work with those who are already in the decision-making process. We advocate for our voices to be heard meaningfully, because we are offering them solutions and how this can be achieved. We have great examples of young people not letting policy die, even during the pandemic.
The YOUNGO virtual conference of youths is a great example of that. It included the voices from young people from marginalized communities and gave them the freedom of expression in the wider consultations. This was the whole Global Youth Statement consultations that was handed to the COP president. It was also included as a cover decision. The countries are also noticing how young people want more youth-inclusive policies. New Zealand, for example, made this clear at COP26. There are also other initiatives taken by young people to make climate action more linguistically inclusive, so that Indigenous communities are not left behind. We are not abandoning the people who are working, and who are actually being impacted. But they cannot be included because the whole conversation is so rigid linguistically.
It seems like everyone speaks six languages at the UN or English. If we don’t want to leave anyone behind, we must consider the linguistic diversity that exists. These are the small details that make the change more inclusive. This is something I’m proud to be a young man. I believe that we should all be heard and I was glad to hear what Todd had to say. They understand that the actions and push of the young people on the roads or at the negotiations tables are crucial. We are reminded that we must leave a sustainable planet for future generations.
David Kattenburg: Todd, any thoughts? Are you willing to respond to the comments of Saher?
Todd Howland I believe that human rights changes are rarely a gift. Human rights change is a collaborative effort. This is because there are powerful interests. The mobilization of youth networks, environmentalists, as well as those who are interested in socially-responsible actions, is essential. This is because the powerful interests make money out of the current situation. It is important to understand that there are other interests. To bring those interests into political discussions and to highlight the importance to make the right decisions. These right decisions are based on what are the current human-rights standards. The current human rights standards suggest that economic policies should reflect the world’s values as defined by the Human Rights Council. This would include the right for a healthy and sustainable environment.
David Kattenburg: A final point. If we humans have a legal right to clean air and water as well as healthy soils and biodiversity and a stable climate, then we should be allowed to pursue these rights in the courts. A recent and interesting example of these issues before the courts is the German Constitutional Court’s decision in spring regarding Germanys climate protection law. The court ruled that the act failed to take into consideration Germanys international obligations as well as future generations. According to my knowledge, the German government modified its climate change law in accordance with the decision of the Constitutional Court.
And I think about the Norwegian activists who are taking the Norwegian government before the European Court of Human Rights over oil and gas exploration off the Norwegian Coast. Is it possible to enforce environmental health as a human rights now that it has been declared? Todd and then Saher? This is a difficult one. It is one thing to develop normative guidelines. However, it is quite another to give them legal teeth. This isn’t Yes. Todd, what are your thoughts?
Todd Howland What we can see are similar efforts made by the Human Rights Council international. One of these was the Ruggie Principles, which states that human rights can be applied to business. Although it took some time, today you can see different countries applying the Human Rights Council’s standards in domestic litigation. Many countries already have economic, cultural, and social rights. [inaudible]. South Africa is an excellent example of this, as there is already a lot of litigation related to the right to health. I believe this is a growing trend. It will take time for each country to recognize these international standards. Some countries may not be able to do so for a while. But I am certain that Saher and her fellow activists around the globe will make use of every bit of the Human Rights Council material to advocate for change.
David Kattenburg: Saher?
Saher Baig Thanks. That thought is something I truly believe in. The Human Rights Council and its work are providing us with hope and giving us tools to advocate for what we believe. I have a great example. I didn’t realize this question was coming. But I’m so happy it did. First of all, it is true. That’s absolutely right. Young people are taking matters into their own hands and suing their governments. I have a great Jamaican environmentalist friend who said, “Why aren’t you doing enough?” Because it is our basic right to a healthy environment. You have a basic duty to protect the environment and to prevent climate change in the country. Why aren’t you doing enough? This is frustrating. However, there are young people who are mobilizing themselves. I have briefly worked with Worlds Youth for Climate Justice.
They are young people from different parts of this world who are taking on the whole climate crisis problem. They are taking it to the International Court of Justice. Why? We believe justice can be served. This is a legal issue, and we believe we can solve it if we all work together. It is not about one young person doing all of the work. Instead, we are all joining forces from around the globe to bring this issue to the International Court of Justice. I don’t know how this will go. It is my hope that it will all work out. As Todd said, I hope it works out.
It will take time for people to realize this is a serious problem, as well as for us and future generations. There are other countries that do a great job of including their young people. This is something we should not forget. It is not enough, but it is important. It inspires us to keep moving forward, as our voices are included. David, I believe that you should ask how young people actually do those implementable bits. I think that Worlds Youth for Climate Justice has been working since before the right to a healthy climate was adopted. We believe in the UN as an entity that can help us and the Human Rights Council as a resource that can give us the tools we need to protect our fundamental rights. This is a great thing. We all need to work together and I hope we can make a better tomorrow.
David Kattenburg: I’ve had the opportunity to speak with Todd Howland, Head of the Development, Economic and Social Issues Branch, United Nations Human Rights Office, and Saher Baigh, a youth environment and human rights advocate based in Karachi, Pakistan. Todd and Saher, we are so grateful for having you with us. Before you go, please dont forget to subscribe to The Real News YouTube channel and head over to therealnews.com/support to become a monthly Real News sustainer. Your contributions will ensure we continue to bring you important news and conversations like this. We are so grateful that you have watched. Goodbye.