States Have These 13 Duties When It Comes to Biodiversity and Human Rights

6 July 2021 (UNEP)* — Unprecedented biodiversity loss, pollution, climate change and the rise of zoonotic diseases have showcased the symbiotic relationship between humans and nature.



Unsplash / Markus Spiske / 05 Jul 2021

The human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, as well as other human rights, can only be realized where biodiversity thrives and ecosystems are healthy.

State obligations at the intersection of human rights and biodiversity come from international human rights laws, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

According to these commitments and the responsibilities they encompass, states are obliged to do 13 key things.

1. Address biodiversity and habitat loss and prevent their negative impacts on human rights.

Because of their negative impact on human rights, states must take urgent action to address biodiversity loss, habitat loss and species extinction.

This includes ending deforestation; protecting and conserving lands and oceans; moving to sustainable patterns of production and consumption; combatting climate change and pollution; preventing the introduction of invasive alien species; and protecting land tenure and resource use of indigenous peoples, local communities, women and girls.

2. Guarantee equality and non-discrimination.

Because it affects some more acutely than others, biodiversity loss can widen inequalities that already exist between individuals, groups and even generations – with future generations inheriting the irreversible results of environmental degradation.

Actions to address biodiversity and habitat loss must therefore consider age, gender and vulnerabilities – such as poverty, disability or marginalization – and not exacerbate existing disparities.

3. Protect the rights of indigenous peoples.

Because of their close relationship to nature, indigenous peoples are both heavily affected by biodiversity loss and among those best-positioned to prevent it. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) affirms the right of indigenous peoples to conserve and protect their lands, territories and resources.

This means that conservation actions with potential impact on human rights should be taken in consultation with indigenous peoples and with their free, prior and informed consent, and should support their participation in the management and ownership of corresponding efforts.

4. Protect environmental human rights defenders.

Those who take action to protect biodiversity, wildlife, habitats and the human rights and livelihoods that are dependent on a connection to nature have been subject to threats, violence, criminalization and retaliation, with particular impacts on women and girls and indigenous defenders.

Instruments including the ICCPR and the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defendersrequire states to respect, protect and fulfill the rights of environmental human rights defenders to participation, access to information, freedom of expression, assembly and association.

States are also obliged to take action against threats to lives or wellbeing of environmental defenders; provide access to justice and effective remedy when their rights are violated; and conduct timely investigations, prosecuting those responsible for violence and intimidation.

5. Ensure equity in actions to address biodiversity loss and in the use of the benefits of biodiversity.

Actions must take into account the needs of children, youth and future generations – who have played little or no part in driving biodiversity and habitat loss but have no choice but to live with its consequences.

The CBD and the Nagoya Protocol emphasize that the benefits of biodiversity should be shared in a way that is equitable, transparent, and accountable. That takes into account the equal rights and differing needs of indigenous peoples, local communities and all persons, regardless of their gender.

6. Ensure meaningful and informed participation, including inland and resource governance.

The right to free, active, meaningful and informed participation in public affairs is guaranteed by the ICCPR, the UN Declaration on the Right to Development and other international instruments, multilateral environmental agreements, and national laws and policies.

This means that states should provide public information about biodiversity in an accessible language and format; provide for and facilitate public participation, bearing in mind the barriers faced by indigenous peoples, local communities, children, persons with disabilities and those in marginalized situations; and carry out all related policy-making in a manner that is transparent and accountable.

7. Ensure accountability and effective remedy for human rights harms caused by biodiversity and habitat loss.

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights articulate states’ obligations to guarantee access to justice and effective remedies when human rights violations or abuses occur, including those by business enterprises.

Regional agreements including the Aarhus Convention and the Escazú Agreement specifically address access to justice in environmental matters. As well, nation-level accountability mechanisms should ensure access to justice and remedy for biodiversity loss and associated harm to human rights.

Globally, environment-related human rights harms should be included in UN Treaty Body reviews, the Universal Periodic Review process, the work of Special Procedures and rights-based reviews of state compliance with the CBD and related agreements.

8. Protect against business-related human rights harms from biodiversity loss.

As reflected in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, all business enterprises have a responsibility to respect human rights. This includes avoiding their infringement through biodiversity loss and facilitating remediation of any harms caused or contributed to in this way.

Under international law, states are obligated to protect against human rights abuses by businesses and should require assessment of all social, environmental and human rights impacts of proposed projects that may affect biodiversity.

When human rights abuses do occur – including those resulting from biodiversity and habitat loss – states must hold businesses accountable and ensure that those affected have access to effective remedy.

9. Ensure regional and international cooperation.

Effective protection of biodiversity requires international cooperation and solidarity. Instruments including the UN Charter, the ICESCR, the ICCPR and the UNDRIP require states to cooperate on the realization of all human rights, addressing gaps in protection and trans-border and extraterritorial harms.

In addition, the ability of developing countries to implement their biodiversity commitments depends on sharing of resources and technology transfers from developed countries.

States should therefore establish and strengthen mechanisms and resources for addressing transboundary causes and impacts of biodiversity and habitat loss.

10. Effectively mobilize adequate resources to prevent human rights harms caused by biodiversity loss.

The ICESCR requires states to devote maximum available resources to the realization of economic, social and cultural rights. This includes the protection of biodiversity, because biodiversity is necessary to ensuring healthy ecosystems, and healthy ecosystems are necessary to ensuring the rights to life, health and livelihoods of billions of people around the world.

States are obliged to act both individually and collectively, making international cooperation and financial assistance imperative.

11. Guarantee that everyone enjoys the benefits of science and its applications.

Under the ICESCR, everyone has the right to enjoy the benefits of science and its applications. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change affirms the value of traditional knowledge systems and holistic approaches.

The CBD commits states to respect and maintain the knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities toward the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity.

In particular, states should support the use of traditional knowledge with consent of the indigenous peoples concerned, ensuring that any economic benefits are equitably shared; and support the transfer of methods and technology for an effective international response to biodiversity loss.

12. Ensure education with respect for nature.

The ICCPR guarantees the right of everyone to information and the Convention on the Rights of the Child calls for education to foster respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and the natural environment.

Understanding human rights and the environment is essential to ensuring human dignity, wellbeing and survival; and requires the informed participation of all people. States must therefore ensure the right of all people to education – with respect for nature at its core – and to the information necessary to protect it.

13. Respect and protect nature for all its values.

Living in harmony with nature by 2050 requires the total transformation of humanity’s relationship with nature. The diverse values of nature and the relationship between biological and human cultural and linguistic diversity must be better understood and duly reflected in policy.

A thriving natural environment along with human diversity is not only the best long-term recipe for resilience and human survival. It is a prerequisite to living with dignity and the full realization of human rights.


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