A new UN report says biodiversity is essential for human rights

A new United Nations report has recognised biodiversity is essential for the ecosystem to support “the full enjoyment of human rights.” These rights include the rights to life, health, food, water and culture.

Mar 31, 2017

By Anil Netto
Ever felt the urge to get away from the hustle and bustle of urban life and retreat to a more natural setting to commune with Nature, perhaps a walk in the park or a hike up a forested hill?

Well, you may be on to something in your bid to recharge your batteries.

A new United Nations report has recognised biodiversity is essential for the ecosystem to support “the full enjoyment of human rights.” These rights include the rights to life, health, food, water and culture.

The report comes in the wake of Laudato Si, the Bishop of Rome’s encyclical to care for the environment, following in the footsteps of Francis of Assisi.

The report was written by United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment John Knox.

In his report presented to the UN Human Rights Council in March, Knox describes the importance of ecosystem services and biodiversity for the full enjoyment of human rights.

He shows how human rights obligations should be applied to protect the biodiversity of the planet and outlines the application of human rights obligations in this endeavour.

Knox, a professor of international law at Wake Forest University, said nations are obliged to protect ecosystems and biodiversity, which are being rapidly degraded. This destruction has far-reaching implications for humanity around the world.

Closer to home, we have witnessed how logging and plantation companies have cleared forests in Sarawak. The hills around Cameron Highlands have been scarred.

Think of Bukit Kiara, one of the last few green lungs around Kuala Lumpur now under threat by developers. Or perhaps take a look at Tasik Chini in Pekan, a lake which is now a pale shadow of its former glory.

The historical green lung of Pulau Jerejak in Penang too is at risk of finding much of its flat land allotted for high-rise homes, luxury hotels and a theme park. Meanwhile massive land reclamation for property development projects on the peninsula have gobbled up fish breeding grounds or areas where fisherfolk used to work — thus affecting our food security.

Knox’s report shows how the loss of diversity undermines our wellbeing and our enjoyment of a broad range of our basic human rights. The human rights angle he uses highlights the urgent need to protect biodiversity and to come up with policies for conservation and the sustainable use of biodiversity.

The report calls on governments to carefully assess the social and environmental impact of all projects especially those that could undermine biodiversity.

Information about the biodiversity should be made available to the public in easily understandable language. The people should be allowed to participate in decisions that have any impact on biodiversity.

Those people speaking up to defend biodiversity from threats should be considered to be human rights defenders and their safety should be guaranteed. For us in Malaysia, the recent murder of Sarawak land rights activist Bill Kayong is fresh on our minds.

Governments should also come up with legal and institutional frameworks to protect biodiversity and regulate against any harm to it.

They should also adopt and implement standards to protect biodiversity in non-discriminatory ways. Although governments have done some work in line with the Convention on Biological Diversity, this has not been enough and many nations are not on track to meet targets.

Knox points out that states must do more to respect and protect the rights of those most vulnerable to degradation and loss of biodiversity, especially indigenous people. For them, often the land is their life, and in the case of ancestral land, the land is sacred to them.

But it is not just indigenous communities who are vulnerable. “States should recognise that members of non-indigenous minority communities that have separate cultural traditions and close material and cultural ties to their ancestral territories have rights,” he writes.

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