Ecojustice Blog – Special Update Posted on October 19, 2020 (updated: October 19, 2020)

People around the world deserve the right to a healthy and safe environment

Photo by Sebastian via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

David R. Boyd was appointed as the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment for a three-year term commencing August 1, 2018. He is an associate professor of law, policy, and sustainability at the University of British Columbia. David is also a former executive director of Ecojustice.

The world is going through dual crises.  The COVID-19 pandemic rages while environmental collapse continues unabated. As governments around the world continue to battle a virus that has already claimed more than 1 million lives, the impacts of environmental degradation have not gone away. In fact, there is growing evidence that pollution increases the impacts of COVID-19 on those who contract the virus.

In a time of great global threats, it is more important than ever that the human right to a safe and healthy environment is recognized and protected by all governments. This means everyone having access to clean air, a safe climate, healthy ecosystems and biodiversity, being able to live and work in a non-toxic environment with clean water and sanitation and having access to healthy and sustainably produced food.  By enshrining and upholding the right to a healthy environment, the most vulnerable have the ability to hold those in power accountable.  

It has been twenty-two years since I was an Ecojustice lawyer and in that time the organization has been at the forefront of winning many important environmental law battles. But a key fight continues – the fight for a clean, safe and healthy environment for everyone in Canada. 

Now there is a chance to affirm the right to a healthy environment in Canadian law. The federal government has committed to reform the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), the country’s cornerstone environmental law. CEPA hasn’t been updated in over 20 years and has never included the right to a healthy environment despite promises to do so when the law was being drafted in the 1980s.

The Liberals recommitted to reforming CEPA in the Speech from the Throne in September.
What’s critical though, is that these reforms include legislating the right to a healthy environment. This would bring Canada into alignment with the majority of countries around the world that already recognize that right. 

The lack of a recognized right to a healthy environment and its lasting consequences on Canadians’ lives was documented by former United Nations Special Rapporteur on hazardous substances and wastes, Baskut Tuncak. Last year, Tuncak toured Canada to witness firsthand how pollution was impacting on communities and people’s lives.

In September of this year, he delivered his report to the UN – and his recommendation was clear, to right injustices and to protect Canadians from pollution, climate change and other forms of environmental degradation, Canada must legislate the right to a healthy environment.

His report outlined how the lack of a legal right to a healthy environment has a direct impact on communities, especially Indigenous and racialized groups across Canada. The Aamjiwanaang First Nation near Sarnia, Ont., suffers the health impacts of petrochemical facilities that spew toxic pollution and poison into the air. In Nova Scotia, garbage dumps are disproportionately situated near Black communities. The expansion of the Alberta tarsands has coincided with an acceleration of cancer rates in the Indigenous communities of Fort Chipewyan. 

Since my time as an Ecojustice lawyer, I have become the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment and am taking the fight for a healthy and sustainable environment for all to the global stage.  Right now, I am pushing for a pair of UN resolution on the right to a healthy environment, from the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly.  Ecojustice is a signatory to a letter sent to the UN by almost one thousand civil society organizations across the world.

The right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment has appeared in constitutions and legislation in many countries since the 1970s. Today 156 of 193 UN Member States recognize this right through constitutions, legislation, court decisions and regional treaties.

Even though the majority of countries around the world recognize the right to a healthy environment, a resolution from the UN Human Rights Council is an important step. Global recognition of this right would increase accountability and require that every country do their part to protect their people from the devastating impacts of pollution, toxic substances, climate change and biodiversity loss.

Crucially, it would also spur on the remaining 37 counties, including Canada, to legislate for the right to a healthy environment.

UN resolutions can make a difference in people’s lives. A decade ago, the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council passed pioneering resolutions on the human right to water and sanitation. These resolutions encouraged governments around the world to improve their laws regarding water and sanitation and mobilized billions of dollars in investment to improve water infrastructure. By 2017, an additional 1.8 billion people around the world gained access to basic drinking water.

UN resolutions can make a difference in people's lives. A resolution on the human right to water and sanitation helped bring safe drinking water to an additional 1.8 billion people.

The evidence shows that recognizing the legal right to a healthy environment improves the lives of many people. Decades of experience from countries that have recognized this right shows that it has led to stronger environmental laws and policies, improved enforcement of laws, greater public participation in environmental decision-making, increased access to justice and fewer incidents of environmental injustice.

As the world faces the dual challenges of environmental degradation and a global pandemic, it is more important than ever that all countries play their role in creating a toxic-free environment and upholding human rights.

On October 27th, I will tell the UN General Assembly that “Employing a rights-based approach could serve as a catalyst for accelerated action to protect nature. History demonstrates – through the progress achieved by abolitionists, suffragettes, civil rights activists and Indigenous peoples – the powerful role of human rights in sparking transformative societal changes.”

In his recent address to the UN General Assembly, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said “we have an opportunity to build a better tomorrow for our children and our grandchildren.” I couldn’t agree more. Now is the time for Canada to legislate the right to a healthy environment in its own laws and support UN resolutions confirming this right for all peoples of the world.

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