The Future of Human Rights Forum, based in Geneva, Switzerland, marked International Human Rights Day, aka the 65th anniversary of the UN General Counsel’s adoption of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with a special event: its inaugural forum. The event is meant to bring together various experts, civil society organizations, journalists and members of the public to discuss innovation in response to issues of concern regarding human rights.
As a Geneva-based journalist learning about water and reIated environmental concerns, I attended the forum’s opening remarks and this morning’s discussion, entitled “Placing the Environment on the Human Rights Agenda.” It was interesting to hear the first speaker of the day drop a tantalizing tidbit in anticipation of the panel. John Pace, former head of the Research and Right to Development Branch of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, referred to the relationship between environmental issues and human rights as “a bit of a hot potato for some of us.”
Listening to the panel discussion that followed, I could understand why the topic is controversial, and why it stands to remain so for some time. There is a lot of history behind human rights development and documentation, and finding the best ways to include environmental issues will be tricky. How central can environmental issues be to human rights in general? How do experts get the language right, when modifying documentation, to ensure clarity? Can the the concept of “ecocide” as a crime gain urgency behind a public mandate and become part of the law in more countries?
The panelists: moderator Nicola Spafford Furey, vice president of Earth Focus Foundation; Polly Higgins, chairwoman, Eradicating Ecocide Global Initiative; Gonzalo Ovideo, senior advisor for social policy, International Union for Conservation of Nature; Jorge Vinuales, Harold Samuel Professor of Law and Environmental Policy at the University of Cambridge.
This blog is focused on water, which was not a main topic of the discussion, but it was used as an example that gives a sense of the scope of some of the issues discussed regarding the overlap of environment and human rights. Oviedo, echoed by Vinuales, mentioned two schools of thought: (1) people who want to protect humans from negative environmental impacts, such as toxic waste, and (2) people focused primarily on procedural environmental rights developed in the past 20 years (e.g., through the Rio Conventions).
“Something in the middle is missing,” Oviedo continued. “I think what is missing is a stronger, better way of understanding the way in which the environment is really at the bottom, is the basis of, human rights. Think of the right to water. Water comes from the function of ecosystems. If the ecosystems that ensure the cycle of water are lost, what are we going to do with the right to water? I feel we have the tools at hand today to make the environmental agenda stronger. We just have to use [them] in a more creative way.”
The focus of much of the discussion, as well as audience questions, was on Higgins’ area of expertise, the Eradicating Ecocide Environmental Initiative. It’s an intriguing idea, that destruction of ecosystems could become an international crime. In fact, it’s on the books in 10 countries, Higgins said. The term itself, first coined in a 1972 research paper, still seems little-known, but could be poised for greater fame. Read more about its history, existing laws, and more on the initiative website.
Image: The Future of Human Rights Forum