Healthy ecosystems essential for human rights

Professor Elisa Morgera, Professor of Global Environment Law at the University of Strathclyde
June 12, 2017

The first United Nations report on biodiversity, ecosystems and human rights has been published. It can be a game-changer for ESPA research.

In March 2017, the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, John Knox, published a report on human rights and biodiversity that marks a first for the UN. The report makes clear that ecosystem services are essential for the full enjoyment of human rights. As a result, states must add biodiversity action to the actions they already consider for human rights protection. 
What are the key messages from Knox’s report?
What the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment described as the components of human well-being are recognised in international law as human rights. 
Healthy ecosystems are necessary to enjoy the rights to life, health, food, water and participation in cultural life.
The loss of ecosystem services may violate the right to non-discrimination when it has disproportionate effects on people who are vulnerable for reasons related to gender, age, disability, poverty or minority status, or on indigenous peoples and non-indigenous communities whose way of life depends directly on ecosystems. 
Governments must adopt laws and create institutions that effectively protect against the loss of ecosystem services that negatively impact on human rights.
Governments must protect individuals and communities against the negative impacts of private actors’ ecosystem degradation.
Governments must ensure public information and participation in decisions related to ecosystems, as well as provide access to justice for the loss of ecosystem services.
And what is the relevance of the report for the ecosystem services community?
What Knox’s report reveals is that human rights can provide additional arguments and means to protect ecosystems. Human rights arguments can make environmental policy ones stronger in moral, political and legal terms. 
As several dimensions of poverty (food, health, access to resources, participation, non-discrimination) correspond to the human rights identified by Knox as dependent on healthy ecosystems, the take-up of research findings on ecosystem services and poverty alleviation may be advocated also on the basis of human rights. 
There are of course no guarantees that governments will listen more carefully if human rights language is used, but it will be more difficult for them to disregard these findings. 
In addition, Knox’s report is raising awareness about ecosystem services among the human rights community, thereby paving the way for new partnerships among environmental and human rights advocates for the pursuit of both biodiversity and human rights protection that can contribute to poverty alleviation.
Featured image courtesy of UN Photo/JC McIlwaine. Amokpiny, South Sudan.