Earlier this month, the recently appointed UN Independent Expert on Human Rights and the Environment, John Knox, presented his preliminary report to the Human Rights Council. For those of us who have worked in the field of human rights and the environment since the early 1990s, the fact that this report is even being presented to the Council is a major advance.
In the early 1990s, the mention of a link between human rights and the environment raised eyebrows in many circles. Today, that’s no longer the case. Instead, the international community and the Independent Expert have moved on to other questions, such as: what is the precise legal relationship between human rights and the environment? In his comments before the Human Rights Council, Knox described an urgent need for such clarification, saying it was necessary “for States and others to better understand what those obligations require and ensure that they are fully met, at every level from the local to the global.”
Within the arena of human rights and the environment, we have seen specific issues gain major traction over the past two decades. Take the right to water. A recent seminar organized with Prof. Mathias Risse of Harvard Kennedy School and Sharmila Murthy of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy shows just how many disciplines (law, philosophy, urban planning, geography, engineering, public health and economics) today think about the right to water. We designed the seminar to provoke debate and discussion around four themes: nature of the rights to water and sanitation; content of the human rights to water and sanitation; strategies for accountability; and community perspective and bottom-up critique of human rights. It did just that. Our final report from the seminar shows just how far the discourse around human and the environment has come.