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States must fulfil human rights obligations in protecting biodiversity, UN expert urges

Governments around the world are being urged by a United Nations expert to fulfil their human rights obligations to protect the world’s irreplaceable plants and animals.

Speaking ahead of World Wildlife Day on Friday 3 March, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, John H. Knox, said: “The rapid loss of biological diversity around the world should be setting off alarm bells.

“We are well on our way to the sixth global extinction of species in the history of the planet, and States are still failing to halt the main drivers of biodiversity loss, including habitat destruction, poaching and climate change,” Mr. Knox stressed.

“What is less well understood,” he added, “is that the loss of biodiversity undermines the enjoyment of a wide range of human rights, including rights to life, health, food and water.”

The appeal by Mr Knox followed publication by him of the first-ever UN report (*) addressing the relationship between human rights and biodiversity. In the report, the Special Rapporteur describes the importance of ecosystem services and biodiversity for the full enjoyment of human rights, and outlines the application of human rights obligations.

“People cannot fully enjoy their human rights without the services that healthy ecosystems provide.” Mr. Knox emphasized.  “And protecting biodiversity is necessary to ensure that ecosystems remain healthy and resilient.”

Among its many negative effects, the loss of biodiversity decreases the productivity and stability of agriculture and fisheries, undermining the right to food. It destroys potential sources of medicines, increases exposure to certain infectious diseases, and restricts the development of human immune systems, undermining the rights to life and health. It also removes natural filters from the water cycle, undermining the right to water.

“While the loss of biodiversity affects everyone, the worst-off are those who depend most closely on nature for their material and cultural life,” Mr. Knox stated. “Even when cutting down forests or building dams have economic benefits, those benefits are usually experienced disproportionately by those who did not depend directly on the resource and the costs are imposed disproportionately on those who did.

“Biological diversity and human rights are interlinked and interdependent. The two must go hand-in-hand,” Mr. Knox added. “States’ obligations to fulfil their human rights obligations include a duty to protect the biodiversity on which those rights depend. In addition to that general duty, States have specific duties, which include public information about measures that adversely affect biodiversity, providing for the participation of citizens in biodiversity-related decisions and providing access to effective remedies in cases of biodiversity loss and degradation.”

Mr. Knox also stressed the practical benefits of implementing human rights while safeguarding biodiversity.

“Protecting the rights of indigenous peoples and others directly dependent on natural ecosystems is not only required by human rights law, it is often the best way of protecting biodiversity,” he emphasized.

“In this respect, the increasing threats and violence against those who protect biodiversity from poachers, illegal traffickers and illicit business activities are especially troubling,” Mr. Knox said. “Those who risk their lives to protect the biodiversity that benefits all of us are not only environmentalists – they are also human rights defenders. Governments must do more to protect them and honor their work,” the Special Rapporteur urged.

Mr. Knox will formally present his report to the United Nations Human Rights Council on 7 March 2017.


Mr. John H. Knox, Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. The UN Human Rights Council appointed Mr. John H. Knox in 2012 to serve as Independent Expert, and reappointed him in 2015 as Special Rapporteur, on the issue of human rights obligations related to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. The Council requested him, a professor of international law at Wake Forest University in the United States, to clarify the application of human rights norms to environmental protection, and to identify best practices in the use of human rights obligations in environmental policy-making. Learn more, visit:
http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Environment/SREnvironment/Pages/SRenvironmentIndex.aspx

(*) The biodiversity report by Mr. Knox is available here in English French Spanish Arabic Chinese Russian

In 2013, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) proclaimed 3 March, as UN World Wildlife Day to celebrate and raise awareness of the world’s wild animals and plants. 3 March is also the day of signature of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). For more information, visit http://wildlifeday.org/

Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

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