As world leaders meet in Rio to discuss ways to move to a green economy, UN Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has called for a new approach that integrates human rights and environmental protection.
Delegates from Germany and other EU nations at the Rio+20 UN Summit on Sustainability are mainly pushing for agreement on ways to put the world economy on a more sustainable path. That would mean all 193 participating nations committing themselves to concrete measures to protect the environment and climate and lower their use of energy and resources.
The countries of the global South aren't rejecting these goals outright. But they're worried that their right to development and their fight against hunger and poverty aren't being sufficiently acknowledged by rich, industrialized nations.
The realization that all these issues are closely linked to each other and can only be achieved within the framework of "sustainable development" was a crucial result of the landmark UN conference held in Rio in 1992.
Right to development
Even UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has voiced fears that this integral concept of sustainable development is being taken apart at the Rio+20 conference underway in Brazil.
Speaking at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva this week, Pillay said that delegates should commit themselves to ensuring full coherence between efforts to advance the green economy and their binding obligations to protect human rights.
"They should recognize that all policies and measures adopted to advance sustainable development must be firmly grounded in and respectful of all internationally agreed human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right to development," she said.
Human rights at the heart of all issues
In an open letter to the governments of all UN member states at the end of March, Pillay warned that sustainability goals, no matter how well intended, could achieve just the opposite without explicit protection of human rights.
Pillay listed several concrete examples to drive home her point. Agricultural land for growing food crops is increasingly being sacrificed to produce biofuel plants, she wrote; the building of dams and other large infrastructure projects has often led to people being displaced from their homes; and women continue to be shut out from many political and economic decisions.
All this, Pillay wrote, is the opposite of sustainable development. She reminded governments of a resolution dating back to the UN Global Human Rights Conference in Vienna in 1994 which defined human rights as a cross-section task for the entire UN system that needs to be considered in all issues.
"Bearing in mind the immense tasks confronting the Rio Conference, it is important to recall the cross-cutting nature of human rights," Pillay said in Geneva.
No green economy without human rights
She went on to say that a green economy could only be achieved if efforts for economic growth were in step with respect for human rights and social issues.
If this link is ignored, Pillay warned, economic goals would not be reached and the planet's future would be placed at risk.
Pillay has been backed by 22 UN special envoys led by Olivier de Schutter, the UN's special rapporteur on the right to food. The group has also written a letter to all 193 UN member states. It includes proposals to strengthen human rights in the final declaration of the current Rio summit. Like Pillay, the group of UN rapporteurs has called not just for the right to food and clean drinking water for all but also for the right to education and health.
"The persistence of poverty and wide disparities across regions and within countries continue to present a formidable human rights challenge that has sparked the events of the Arab Spring and civil society mobilizations across the world," Pillay said. "Against this backdrop, the imperative to respect, protect and fulfill economic, social and cultural rights acquires even greater urgency, in order to respond to genuine demands of people across the globe."
Pillay and the UN group of rapporteurs have also called for setting new global sustainability goals, which should continue and complement the UN Millennium Goals which were agreed in 2000 and run through 2015.
Author: Andreas Zumach, Geneva / sp
Editor: Michael Lawton