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HELP 2021 annual conference on “Human Rights responses to global challenges”

Topical special event: Environment and Human Rights – Welcoming remarks by Rik Daems

Ambassador Kuneva,

Ladies and gentlemen,

Linking environment to human rights has been a political priority for me since the beginning of my mandate in January 2020

Climate change and environment is probably one of the biggest challenges of the century. Effects of inaction are destructive for the wellbeing of current and future generations, and we have to act now before the effects of inaction become irreversible.

Global developments in artificial intelligence and challenges arising from global warming have accelerated the emergence of a new generation of human rights.

For me, the right to live in a healthy, clean, sustainable and safe environment is the most important of this new generation of rights and I believe that it should be part of the universal corpus of fundamental human rights.

We need a paradigm shift – one that deals with the issue of environment as a matter of substantive human right, and not as a simple policy matter.

To achieve it:

  • environment as a human right imbedded in legally binding standards.
  • Additional Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights concerning the right to a healthy environment.

How to get there?

  • Holistic approach grounded on both policy and human rights law.
  • Address environmental emergency, especially climate change from a policy perspective.
  • Framework: international agreements such as the Paris Agreement, which sets specific targets and international commitments to be respected by the participating states.

A three-step plan:

  • draft a recommendation (soft law) by the Committee of Ministers to the member States on human rights and the environment;
  • a possible convention (legally binding) on this issue setting out standards;
  • an addition Protocol to the Convention on Human Rights.

Having such a legal foundation would:

1. Create a uniform and solid legal foundation for the protection of the right to a healthy, clean, safe and sustainable environment for the benefit of 840 million European citizens. Or in other words, if governments fail to protect their citizens from the impact of a degrading environment and climate change, they can take their case to the European Court of Human Rights and seek justice and legal remedies.

2. It would give an additional political push to the governments and the parliaments of member States to further develop “green” policies and legislation, thus contributing to a global effort to address the environmental challenge.

3. Thirdly, it would strengthen accountability for actions that potentially harm the environment.

The PACE has already lobbied in the past in favour of extending the rights enshrined in the ECHR, which led to the adoption of a number of additional protocols to the ECHR, guaranteeing inter alia the right to free and secret elections, to individual property, and to be free of discrimination.

The past decade has witnessed a steady process of “greening” of human rights, with environmental litigation.

This is what is happening already at national level as well as in Strasbourg: national Courts of law as well as the ECtHR are developing a steady growing case-law on issues relating to environment and HR.

We all know the Urgenda landmark decision where the Dutch Supreme Court recognised a positive obligation of the State under articles 2 and 8 of the ECHR to take action to mitigate the effects of climate change. There is also the Heathrow expansion case in the UK, the case of export of dangerous plant protection products in France.

The Assembly appreciates the Court’s progressive approach to interpret the Convention as a living instrument adapting it to new challenges. However environmental litigation is not a sustainable way to protect the right to a healthy, clean and safe environment.

We need uniform guidance and standards, and we have therefore to consolidate our common legal framework.

Cooperation with all stakeholders:

To seize the political momentum, I believe that we need to have all stakeholders on board.

Intergovernmental level:

The next World Forum for Democracy, with the theme “Can Democracy save the Environment?” in November will debate on this issue and will come forward with new ideas for tackling the environmental crisis.

Important intergovernmental work, carried out by the Steering Committee of Human Rights (CDDH-ENV) and by the Working Group on the Environment and Criminal Law of the European Committee on Crime Problems (CDPC-EC).

CM level:

I welcome the commitment of four successive CM Chairmanships: Georgia, Greece, Germany and now Hungary, to keep environment and Human Rights in the focus.

The Athens declaration of the Session of the Committee of Ministers in November 2020 even stated that “we also bear in mind that life and well-being on our planet is contingent on humanity’s collective capacity to guarantee both human rights and a healthy environment to future generations and recognize that the role of the Council of Europe in this respect has become more important than ever”.

UN Level:

I have personally raised this issue with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres when I met him in New York. He has firm views on the need to act urgently on climate change.

The UN Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development and its targets incorporate environmental concerns provides a good framework for further work and action but not enough to tackle the emergency we face.

Neither the Universal Declaration of Human Rights nor the European Convention on Human Rights establish the link between human rights and environment – and this is a gap we need to address.

PACE:

The Parliamentary Assembly has been underlining the link between environment/climate change and human rights by calling for increased attention by the Council of Europe in this regard. And already in 1999, the Assembly recommended to the Committee of Ministers “to work on an environmental component to the European Convention on Human Rights”.

The PAE September part-Session will see a whole-day special event dedicated to climate change, and ways to address it from our point of view.

Members of our 47 national parliaments but also our partners for Democracy will debate on 7 reports, focusing on:

  • More participatory democracy to tackle climate change;
  • The climate crisis and the rule of law;
  • Anchoring the right to a healthy environment: need for enhanced action by the Council of Europe;
  • Addressing issues of criminal and civil liability in the context of climate change;
  • Combating inequalities in the right to a safe, healthy and clean environment;
  • Climate and migration;
  • Research policies and environment protection.

We aim at having high-level personalities to address our Assembly on this occasion, like we just did for the high-level event on the Istanbul Convention and Violence against Women. We also aim at creating awareness-raising among parliamentarians about the urgency to tackle the issue.

We aim to deliver, through a broad-based coalition. With those who are responsible for policy and legal action; those who are directly impacted by climate change; those who care about the right to a healthy, clean and safe environment.

Conclusion:

Climate emergency is real. In the face of it, we need to join forces and create a momentum for real and sustainable change. The Assembly’s September environment debate will provide a platform for cooperation, coordination and synergies with our national, regional and international partners, including the global lead organisation, the United Nations.

I believe that politics should be judged by what they achieve. We need to have a significant impact on the daily lives of the 840 million citizens within our 47 member States. The connection between human rights and the environment is becoming an ever-more vital issue.