Clean Air as a Human Right

Human Wrongs Watch

10 December 2019 (UN Environment)*If you’re reading this from a city in a high-income country, you have about a one in two chance of breathing in air that exceeds World Health Organization guidelines for air pollution. That’s worrying enough, but if you live in a city in a low- or middle-income country, the chances of breathing in clean air are much slimmer still—97 per cent of cities in these countries do not meet air quality guidelines.


Photo by Andy Maluche, Flickr

Most of the global population is exposed without their consent to hazardous substances and wastes that increase their likelihood of developing diseases and disabilities throughout their lives. In some cases, it has the potential to be a human rights violation.

It could be worse. For example, informal recyclers are people who collect and transform recyclable materials outside of the formal waste management system.

They are one of the most forgotten demographics who tend to work with inadequate equipment in unhealthy and even dangerous conditions, and often face risks such as an unstable income and social exclusion. They are some of the people most at risk from the hazardous effects of pollution.

The World Health Organization estimates that 23 per cent of all deaths worldwide—a total to 12.6 million people in 2012—are exposed to environmental risks. Low- and middle-income countries bear the brunt of pollution-related illnesses, with a disproportionate impact on children, women and the most vulnerable. Air pollution alone kills an estimated seven million people worldwide every year.

In response to this, the United Nations Human Rights Council established a mandate on human rights and the environment in March 2012, to study the human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, healthy and sustainable environment. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) works closely with the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, David R. Boyd.

What would the world look like if the enjoyment of a healthy environment was indeed universally recognized as a fundamental human right?

Initiatives around the world are pushing for an end to water and soil pollution, but air pollution is often forgotten. Photo by Karen, Flickr (Photo posted here from UN Environment’s story)

First and foremost, the sound management of chemicals and waste would have to be prioritized, according to UNEP. Without the sound management of chemicals and waste across the world, it would be impossible to achieve equality, justice and human dignity for all.

While chemicals contribute to our everyday development, the unsound management of chemicals and waste can create dangerous sources of pollution for our societies and environment.

Second, knowledge and information sharing on these topics would have to improve, as well as how engagement of vulnerable people. Environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens. In other words, properly informing and empowering those who are most affected by chemicals and waste is key.

Additionally, worker’s rights must be protected. Workers have a need for, and a right to, information about the chemicals they use at work. UNEP advocates for the need to ensure that not just informal recyclers, but all workers who help to provide the world with necessary chemical products and waste management services are treated with gratitude and respect.

These workers and their families—especially their children—should not be indirectly punished for their work with ill health and the environmental degradation of their homes.

This means that everybody must have access to environmental information. The UN Environment Programme’s Bali Guidelines on Access to Information, Public Participation and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters establish, amongst others, that “States should ensure that any natural or legal person who considers that his or her request for environmental information has been unreasonably refused … or in any other way not handled in accordance with applicable law, has access to a review procedure before a court of law … to challenge such a decision, act or omission by the public authority in question.”  Similar provisions are embedded in two legally binding regional agreements, the Aarhus Convention and the Escazú Agreement.

Third, the right to an effective remedy would have to be emphasized, in the case that the damage has already been done. The right to an effective remedy is well established under international human rights law.

For example, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantees victims of human rights violations an effective remedy. This has been interpreted to include environmental wrongs that adversely affect human rights. Most national constitutions and domestic legal frameworks also provide for these rights.

Fourth, systems would have to be put in place that support these efforts in all parts of the world and all sectors of the global economy. The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Toxicshas expressed a deep concern regarding the double standards that currently exist in chemicals and waste.

For example, although many pesticides are banned or restricted in the European Union due to their hazardous effects, some businesses continue to produce them, sometimes specifically for export to non-European countries that lack adequate legislation or enforcement of existing laws on the matter.

As a result, UNEP calls for a more comprehensive global framework that protects people from a toxic environment and addresses injustices worldwide resulting in risks to human health. Solutions exist to eliminate and reduce exposure to toxic pollution, but strong international cooperation is required to ensure that these solutions lead to sustainable development and the protection of human rights.

Multilateral environmental agreements call for action for the sound management of chemicals and wastes and other aspects. The UNEP Implementation Plan “Towards a Pollution-Free Planet” and recent United Nations Environment Assembly resolutions call for ambitious efforts to fight pollution.

Regional agreements on access to information, access to justice, and the right to participate in environmental decision-making are all part of global efforts to address environmental injustice and promote environmental democracy.

UNEP and the United Nations Office for Human Rights recently signed a memorandum of understanding to collaborate on environment and human rights and to promote greater protection for people defending these rights.

“Action is needed by decision-makers, the private sector and other key stakeholders to, on one hand, address pollution in its various forms, and at the same time, advance the promotion, protection and respect for environmental human rights,” said Maria Cristina Zucca, Head of UNEP’s Pollution and Health Unit of the Chemicals and Health Branch.

“These issues are intimately intertwined and must go hand in hand. We need to keep this in mind in our efforts to implement the 2030 agenda for people and the planet.”

Placing human rights at the core of environmental issues would be beneficial for everyone, no matter what their job is or what city they live in. We would all benefit from cleaner air, water and soil, as will the generations that come after us. Ensuring that the most vulnerable people in society are protected will ensure the protection of the entire global community.

*SOURCE: UN Environment. Go to ORIGINAL.

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