Dear participants to the Athens Democracy forum,
Thank you very much for inviting me to participate in this important event.
I very much wanted to be with you in Athens, but as you may know, we are holding the 4th part-session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe this week, attended by parliamentarians from our 47 member States, but also Observer States and partners for Democracy.
Today our Parliamentary Assembly is holding an unprecedented all-day debate, discussing and voting on 7 reports, dealing all with environment and tackling this issue from various angles including:
One key demand is that the right to “a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment” is recognized as such by an additional protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights or other standard-setting activity.
Other proposals include more government regulation to strengthen corporate environmental responsibility, changes in criminal and civil liability to give greater protection to the biosphere, boosting participatory democracy as environmental concerns rise up the political agenda, and better harnessing the rule of law to tackle the climate crisis.
Linking environment to human rights is one of the top political priorities of my agenda as President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
This priority is rooted in the understanding that global developments whether it is with regard to artificial intelligence or about challenges arising from global warming, have accelerated the emergence of a new generation of human rights and the need for legal standards to address them.
For me, the right to live in a healthy, clean, sustainable and safe environment is one the most important of this generation of rights and I believe that it should be part of the universal corpus of fundamental human rights.
What we need is a paradigm shift – one that deals with the issue of environment as a matter of substantive human right, a matter of principle and not simply as a policy matter.
Jointly agreed legal standards would create a uniform and solid foundation for the protection of the right to a healthy, clean, safe and sustainable environment for the benefit of the 840 million European citizens who we serve.
Or in other words, if governments fail to protect their citizens from the impact of a degrading environment and climate change, they could take their case to national courts and all the way to the European Court of Human Rights and seek justice and legal remedies.
It would give an additional political push to the governments and the parliaments of member States to take concrete action and develop “green” policies and legislation, thus contributing to the global efforts to address the environmental challenges.
Agreed standards would also strengthen accountability for actions that potentially harm the environment.
The past decade has witnessed a steady process of “greening” of human rights, with environmental litigation. The European Court of Human Rights for example has adopted a progressive approach to interpret the Convention as a living instrument adapting it to new challenges. However environmental litigation is not the solution in the long term when it comes to protecting the right to a healthy, clean and safe environment.
We need to seize the political momentum that has been created. Build on what has clearly become an urgency – the need to act and act now to address climate change and environmental issues.
And to do so, we need to have all stakeholders on board. In this regard, we are working to build partnerships and join forces with our national, regional, and international partners, notably the UN. The high-level panel on environment and human rights that we are organising this afternoon, will hear from the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, the President of Hungary, the Speaker of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, the Portuguese Minister for Environment and Climate Action, our own Secretary General, the representative of the European Court of Human Rights and a representative of the young activists working for real change to protect our environment.
Ladies and gentlemen,
A healthy environment is essential for all of us – but it must become a legally-enforceable right if we are to make progress and the damage to our planet becomes irreversible.
As I said in my opening speech of the autumn session on Monday, we have to do what the whole Council of Europe is supposed to do, namely set standards in a multilateral way to the benefit of all of the citizens in our 47 member states and even beyond that by being an example. And if you ask me the question “to lead or not to lead” I say we should lead.