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History shows us what can be achieved with enough ambition and political will. BirdLife CEO Patricia Zurita argues the case for embedding nature conservation into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

As a female Chief Executive Officer of a global conservation organisation, and as someone from the global south (Ecuador to be specific), I know that I owe much to the women before me, on whose shoulders I – and we all – stand.

Soon after COVID-19 started disrupting all of our lives in late spring 2020 – it’s hard to believe that’s a year and a half ago already – I was brainstorming with my close friend and colleague Asun Ruiz. Asun is the CEO of our Spanish partner, SEO BirdLife, and we both recognised the need to step up our work to save birds and biodiversity at this time of great adversity.

Beyond the excellent conservation work BirdLife and its partners carry out in local communities around the globe, we knew it was imperative to scale up our broader advocacy to save the planet, and this thinking led us to create the 1Planet1Right campaign. We had followed the work of Dr David Boyd, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, for several years – his Spanish skills alone had caught our ears. We designed our campaign to support his work in trying to get the United Nations to add the right to a healthy environment to the roster of recognised Universal Human Rights.

Digging into the subject, we learned of the seminal role played by former US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt as the first Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights. She was instrumental in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We’ve learned about the many other global women who collaborated with her and especially how this led to a recognition of the right to gender equality – without which I might well not be writing this today.

Let us celebrate, for example, Hansa Mehta from India (on right in photo below): she succeeded in changing the text from “All Men” to “All Human beings are born free and equal”. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948.

Above: US Firsty Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was instrumental in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Photo © FDR Presidential Library & Museum

“Beyond the excellent conservation work BirdLife carries out around the globe, we knew it was imperative to scale up our broader advocacy to save the planet, and this thinking led us to create the 1Planet1Right campaign.”

Patricia Zurita, CEO, BirdLife International

Angela Jurdak (Lebanon), Fryderyka Kalinowski (Poland), Bodgil Begtrup (Denmark), Minerva Bernardino (Dominican Republic) and Hansa Mehta (India), delegates to the Sub-commission on the Status of Women, New York, May 1946 © UN

Asun and I wanted to bring our collective energies and our global BirdLife family to something that many felt initially might be outside the partnership’s remit. But saving the planet is a battle that requires the broadest and most innovative of coalitions. We need to stop preaching to the choir and convince those who are oblivious to the threats facing the planet’s future.

We all depend on the environment in which we live. We are part of nature, one species among millions. A safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is integral to our full enjoyment of a wide range of human rights, including the rights to life, health, food, water and sanitation. Without a healthy environment, we are unable to fulfil our aspirations. We may not have access to even the most basic standards of human dignity.

The blunt reality is that we will also perish if we do not face up to the biodiversity and climate crises – and recognition of a universal right to a healthy environment will be a powerful arrow in our quiver as we fight that fight.

Our lobbying and broader public engagement helped push the UN’s Human Rights Council to officially consider this new human right. October 2021 saw the Council approving the measure, and we are hopeful it will be brought to the entire General Assembly in 2022.

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