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UN Draft Guidelines on Human Rights and the Environment - Suggested Revisions

On October 10, 2017, Professor John Knox, the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment released a newsletter where  comments on the Draft Guidelines on Human Rights and the Environment were solicited

I was honored to produce and submit a commentary together with Professor Larry Catà Backer, under the auspices of the Coalition for Peace and Ethics. The executive summary of a much longer commentary on the Draft Guidelines on Human Rights and the Environment, and a table of our suggested revisions to the Draft Guidelines are reproduced below.

ILVA Steel Plant - Taranto (Italy). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Executive Summary

The Draft Guidelines on Human Rights and the Environment are based on articles 4, 5, and 7 of Resolution 31/8, and articles 5, 6, and 7 of Resolution 34/20 (Human Rights and the Environment). They summarize the basic human rights obligations of States on environmental matters.

The adoption of the Draft Guidelines on Human Rights and the Environment will provide an important opportunity to seek to advance the conception of the environment from its current status as one of the many variables in human rights protection, to its ontological status as the single factor that allows human life to be lived on the planet.

The potential of the Draft Guidelines on Human Rights and the Environment goes beyond providing a much needed framework for the basic human rights obligations of States on environmental matters. The Draft Guidelines on Human Rights and the Environment could place themselves at the very forefront of the most recent developments in unfolding the moral obligations implicit in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by incorporating notions about the duties of corporate actors.

Violations of environmental rights, and environmental harm, ignore distinctions of ethnicity, gender, age, social or economic status. They occur independent of any attribute of human beings, and to not admit or allow for human agency. All victims of environmental harm may, however, enjoy a greater measure of empowerment if they had a possibility to identify themselves as members of a vulnerable population, and to petition for protection under national and international law within their jurisdiction.


It is with these considerations in mind that we suggest to the Special Rapporteur the following additional revisions for his consideration.



Suggested Revisions to the


Draft Guidelines on Human Rights and the Environment




Article 1

Every State has a general obligation to prevent, reduce and remedy environmental harm that interferes with the full enjoyment of human rights.
Suggested Revision

Every State has a general obligation to prevent, reduce and remedy environmental harm that interferes with the full enjoyment of human rights.

All states have a duty to enforce obligations under their own domestic law, including all international obligations written into their domestic legal orders.
Article 2

Every State has an obligation to respect, protect and fulfil human rights in actions it undertakes to address environmental challenges.
Suggested Revision

Every State has an obligation to respect, protect and fulfil human rights in actions it undertakes to address environmental challenges.

Every State has a commitment to apply the United Nations Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights in a way that recognizes that environmental harms are human rights wrongs to those individuals and communities affected.
Article 4

Every State has an obligation to provide for the assessment of environmental impacts that may interfere with the full enjoyment of human rights.
Suggested Revision

Every State has an obligation to provide for the assessment of environmental impacts that may interfere with the full enjoyment of human rights.

Such obligation includes the obligation to assess the operations of government and those of all economic activity within its national territory. States may extend that obligation to include the activities of its instrumentalities and enterprises chartered or controlled by it with respect to their worldwide operations.


Article 5

Every State has an obligation to provide for public access to environmental information.
Suggested Revision

Every State has an obligation to provide for full, timely, and free public access to environmental information.


Article 7

Every State has an obligation to provide for a safe and enabling environment in which individuals, groups and organs of society that work on human rights and environmental issues can operate free from threats, hindrance and insecurity.
Suggested Revision

Every State has an obligation to provide for a safe and enabling environment in which individuals, groups and organs of society that work on human rights and environmental issues can operate free from threats, hindrance and insecurity.

Such obligation includes a strong commitment to observe its own criminal law, and to fully prosecute violations.

States are encouraged to develop multilateral cooperation to enhance their respective abilities to comply with the multilateral normative obligations specified in Article 10.
Article 8

Every State has an obligation to provide for effective remedies for violations and abuses of human rights relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
Suggested Revision

Every State has an obligation to provide for effective remedies for violations and abuses of human rights relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

Such remedies should include judicial and non-judicial remedies compatible with the Third Pillar duties and responsibilities of States under the United Nations Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights.
Article 8

Every State has an obligation to establish, maintain and enforce an effective normative framework for the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, including:

(a) substantive standards, including with respect to air quality, water quality, the global climate, biological diversity, waste and toxic substances, that are non-retrogressive and consistent with relevant international environmental, health and safety standards; and

(b) effective legal and institutional mechanisms to regulate the activities of public and private actors in order to prevent, reduce and remedy environmental harm that interferes with the full enjoyment of human rights
Suggested Revision

Every State has an obligation to establish, maintain and enforce an effective normative framework for the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, including:

(a) substantive standards, including with respect to air quality, water quality, the global climate, biological diversity, waste and toxic substances, that are non-retrogressive and consistent with relevant international environmental, health and safety standards; and

(b) effective legal and institutional mechanisms to regulate the activities of public and private actors in order to prevent, reduce and remedy environmental harm that interferes with the full enjoyment of human rights

(c) effective mechanisms to monitor, assess, and evaluate the degree of compliance by public and private actors with relevant national and international standards, and with obligations to prevent, reduce and remedy environmental harm

Article 12

States have an obligation to ensure that projects supported by international financial mechanisms respect, protect and fulfil human rights relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
Suggested Revision

States have an obligation to ensure that projects supported by international financial mechanisms respect, protect and fulfil human rights relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

In connection with this obligation States should reaffirm and center efforts to avoid corruption in all of its forms and to seek such technical assistance as may be necessary for states to meet their obligations.
Article 13

Every State has an obligation to identify those within its jurisdiction who are most vulnerable to different types of environmental harm, who may include women, children, indigenous peoples, older persons, persons with disabilities, and the extremely poor, among others.
Suggested Revision

Every State has an obligation to identify those within its jurisdiction who are most vulnerable to different types of environmental harm, who may include women, children, indigenous peoples, older persons, persons with disabilities, and the extremely poor, among others.

All States recognize that vulnerability is contextual and, subject to ¶ 14, may relate specifically to the forms and patterns of environmental harms. States are encouraged to ensure that vulnerable populations have the opportunity to self-identify and to petition for protection under national and international law within their jurisdiction.



















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