Paris, France (October 24, 2014)- The visit of the United Nations Independent Expert on human rights and the environment, John Knox, ended today with the presentation of his preliminary findings and conclusions.
Knox’s visit, which lasted from 20 to 24 October 2014, surveyed a wide range of issues, and included meetings with a large number of representatives of public institutions and civil society organizations.
At the closing press conference, the Independent Expert recognised France as having been in the forefront of linking human rights and environmental protection.
He said, “I sought to visit France because its adoption of an Environmental Charter at the constitutional level is an innovative and important way to link human rights with environmental protection, which might serve as an inspiration to other countries”.
The French Charter not only states that everyone has the right to live in an environment that is stable and that respects health; it includes a number of specific rights and duties connected with this right. For example, it incorporates the precautionary principle and states that public policies should promote sustainable development.
Knox added, “The Charter also states that every person has the right to information about the environment and to participate in the development of public decisions with an impact on the environment. This provision reflects and encourages emerging norms in human rights law regarding access to information and participation in the environmental context.”
The importance of public participation in decisions with environmental impacts has been emphasized by his interlocutors throughout the discussions this week, and a number of specific examples have been mentioned.
For example, the energy transition law appears to be a good example of a measure that emerged from an inclusive process that was open to input from civil society, including environmental groups, businesses and trade unions, as well as government officials.
Similarly, the Platform on Corporate Social Responsibility is a multi-stakeholder process that is considering a wide-ranging set of issues in order to develop a National Action Plan to implement the United Nations Guiding Principles on human rights and business.
However, Knox also heard concerns that the system of receiving public input into specific projects has not always worked well. He heard criticisms both that the decision-making process has taken too long, and that decision-makers have provided access to the public too late in the process. He was interested to learn about the proposal to appoint “guarantors” to ensure access to information and participation, and will look at this initiative more closely.
Knox welcomed the decision of the National Assembly on 26 June 2014 to vote in favour of France’s ratification of the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The Optional Protocol gives the expert body created by the Covenant the authority to receive communications from individuals alleging violations of economic, social and cultural rights by those countries that have accepted the Protocol. Once the Senate gives its approval and France completes its ratification process, it will become the largest country to date to have ratified the Protocol.
Knox said, “The Covenant recognizes many rights, such as rights to health, food, and water, that are often jeopardized by environmental harm. Ratification of the Optional Protocol helps to protect these rights. France is taking an important step, one that should be emulated by other countries.”
During his visit, Knox also had many discussions on the relationship between climate change and human rights. This issue is of particular significance to France because of its crucial position in hosting the 2015 Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which has the task of adopting an international agreement.
Knox and over 25 other UN human rights experts recently urged the State Parties to the Convention to recognise the adverse effects of climate change on human rights, including rights to life and health, and to adopt urgent and ambitious mitigation and adaptation measures to prevent further harm.
Knox stated, “Unless we change course very soon, climate change will have disastrous consequences for the enjoyment of human rights all around the world, especially for people living in severe poverty, who have done the least to contribute to climate change but will be affected most catastrophically by it. In my meetings this week, I have been encouraged by the understanding of the French government of the grave threat climate change poses to the full enjoyment of human rights, and its commitment to ensure a successful outcome to the 2015 talks.”
The Independent Expert will prepare a public report with conclusions and recommendations on topics studied during the mission, which will be presented to the Human Rights Council in March 2015.
The UN Human Rights Council appointed John Knox in August 2012 to serve a three-year mandate as the Independent Expert on the issue of human rights obligations related to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
The Council requested Knox, a professor of international law at Wake Forest University in the United States, to clarify the application of human rights norms to environmental protection. In March of this year, he reported to the Council that the obligations of the State to provide environmental information, to facilitate public participation in environmental decision-making, and to provide access to effective remedies to environmental harm, among other duties, are now well-established in human rights law.
The Council also asked Knox to identify best practices in the use of human rights obligations in environmental policy-making. His visit to France is one of a number of country visits and regional consultations he has conducted to obtain more information about good practices and about challenges to the full implementation of such practices.