22 Jul 2020

Interview with UN rapporteur Dr David Boyd: the power of human rights

Dr David Boyd, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, and a supporter of our #1Planet1Right campaign, speaks to BirdLife on why nature is a human right, the process required to make it so, and whether this ambitious goal is even feasible...

Dr David Boyd at a demonstration in Norway
Dr David Boyd at a demonstration in Norway
By Christopher Sands, Head of Communications, BirdLife Europe

The question has been on the lips of commentators all around the globe: if the world can mobilise so rapidly to respond to COVID-19, why can’t it do so for the even more serious looming threat of climate change?

For Boyd, the discrepancy in action comes as little surprise, and is rooted in inequality. “COVID-19 threatens everyone, including wealthy and powerful people in the global north”, he says. “On the other hand, the effects of climate change are being felt right now by people who don’t have much of a voice and are on the outskirts of the people who run the globe.”

This inequality is at the heart of the challenge of Boyd’s role as the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment. His job, as he sees it, is to amplify the voices of scientists who are saying, yes, there clearly is a connection between the destruction of our planet, and the wildfires, cyclones and pandemics that are hitting communities the world over. In this exclusive two-part interview, Boyd gives his insight into why nature is a human right, and how we can make it happen.


What, exactly, is a UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights & the Environment?

Special rapporteurs are individual human rights experts that are appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to work on specific human rights topics. Our work basically consists of an annual report to the Human Rights Council on a given subject, an annual report to the UN General Assembly on a given subject, and responding to citizens and civil society around the world about instances where they allege that their rights are being violated by states or by governments.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter!

I’m the special rapporteur on the human rights obligations related to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. You’ll notice they don’t actually talk about the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. So I perceive my job as the UN Special Rapporteur as having three main elements. One is to achieve, for the first time, global recognition that every single person on this planet, no matter where they live, no matter what colour of their skin, no matter rich or poor, has this right to live in a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

People have been working on this for decades. And because we are now clearly in an unprecedented planetary environmental emergency, I feel like now is the time to actually put this right into action. So job number one, get it recognised. Number two, clarify what it means. And number three, accelerate the implementation of actions to fulfil this right across the planet.

I think that if we can act fast enough to make this mess so quickly, then we can act fast enough to turn it around quickly. With our billions of people, we have an unprecedented reservoir of human ingenuity, creativity and innovation at our disposal, if we can harness that in the direction which we need to move in.

 Air pollution is responsible for millions of deaths a year © Hung Chung Chih / Shutterstock


What does your role entail?

So pretty much everyone I talk to when I ask: “Do you think that you have the right to live in a healthy and sustainable environment?” They go, yeah, of course.

But do they actually know what that means? Generally, no. So I’m producing a series of six reports for the UN on what I called the substantive elements of the right to a healthy and sustainable environment. The first one was on clean air. I mean, what could be more critical to human survival and wellbeing than being able to breathe clean air?

A safe climate was my second report. The report I’m working on right now is on healthy ecosystems and biodiversity as the third key element of the right to a healthy environment. And nothing has driven that home to people more clearly than the COVID-19 pandemic, which has its roots in our dysfunctional relationship with the natural world. Whether that’s through deforestation, industrial agriculture or the wildlife trade, ecosystem degradation is causing a surge in emerging infectious diseases that leap from wildlife into humans. 

The remaining three reports that I’ll be rolling out over the next couple of years will deal with healthy and sustainably produced food, access to clean water and adequate sanitation, and non-toxic environments in which people can live, work, study and play. So once I’ve completed that series of six reports, hopefully everyone will have a better sense of what the right to a healthy environment actually means.


What is the process to get a human right recognised by the United Nations?

The process is kind of a two-step process. Countries pushing the initiative forward envision that first they’ll go to the UN’s Human Rights Council and pass a resolution there that recognises the right. And then they’ll bump it from there to the United Nations General Assembly.

The theory of change is that, once you have a United Nations resolution that ideally is supported by all of the countries of the world, it serves as a catalyst for change throughout the entire international and national legal systems. So you would see changes at the national level in terms of more countries putting the right to a healthy natural environment into their constitutions. You would see countries strengthening their environmental laws to ensure that they’re able to actually fulfil this right.

If we look back, we can see this is exactly what happened ten years ago after a long-standing effort by civil society around the world. The United Nations recognised for the first time that there is a human right to clean water and to adequate sanitation. We’ve seen this decade that more countries are putting the rights to water and sanitation into their constitutions, and the practical concrete outcome is that we’ve seen literally hundreds of millions of people gain access to safe drinking water and sanitation. These are things that folks in the world’s wealthiest countries just take for granted. Until you’ve met someone who actually spends two, four, six hours a day walking to a distant pump or creek to get water and carrying it physically on their head or on the back of a bicycle, you can’t understand how transformative it is to have a well in your community, to bring water to your home.

And this is where the power of human rights really lies, as it takes something like clean water from being something that governments just think about as an option, to something they must implement.

Nearly a third of Tajikistan citizens get water from canals & ditches © Milosz Maslanka / Shutterstock


Is there global momentum for this movement?

We have some great evidence that proves the right makes a difference. And that evidence is the fact that today over 80 percent of the countries of the world already recognise the right to a healthy environment in law, either in their constitutions, their legislation, through court decisions or through regional treaties that they are parties to.

Academic researchers have studied the implications of this, of the recognition of this right, and they have discovered that it does make a difference. They’ve discovered that countries that recognise the right to a healthy environment have reduced air pollution faster, saving lives in the process. They have reduced greenhouse gas emissions much more quickly than countries that don’t recognise the right.

They have achieved access to safe drinking water and sanitation more quickly than countries that don’t recognise the right and perform better on many other broad metrics of environmental performance.

I could bend your ear all day with stories from countries around the world where the recognition of this right has led to all kinds of amazing changes, stories from Costa Rica, from Norway, from Namibia, you name it. I love to tell the story of Costa Rica: Costa Rica put the right to a healthy environment in its constitution in 1994. They have become one of the greenest countries on earth. 25% of the land of Costa Rica is now in national parks. They’ve got 98%  of their electricity coming from renewable energy sources. They have a plan for 2050 for the complete decarbonisation of their economy.


Why, if this right is present in some fashion in  80% of the countries of the world, are we hurtling towards planetary catastrophe?

There are actually two elements of the answer to that question. Some of the world’s most powerful countries, some of the world’s most polluting countries, do not recognise this right. So the United States, China, Japan, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom are [examples of] countries that do not recognise the right. It’s an interesting situation where this initiative is being led by smaller countries and countries in the global south where they’re saying, wait a minute, we’re fed up with you guys not recognising that your actions are affecting our rights to a healthy planet.

Another thing, which is important is to be clear on, is that despite the fact that 80 percent of UN countries recognise this right in one way or another, in some countries, the actual legal recognition is weak.

And that’s an impediment to its implementation. There are also literally dozens of countries, and I don’t think this will come as a surprise to anyone, that are either embroiled in civil war, are facing extreme poverty, or are being run by authoritarian dictators. And in this subset of countries where the rule of law really doesn’t exist or is extremely weak, the right to a healthy environment is just words on paper, just as all human rights in those countries are just words on paper. And really, for countries in that category, they need to become functioning countries before they can really begin to address these human rights issues.


You closing words?

The right to a healthy planet, as a universally recognized human right, would be a powerful addition to the toolkit for saving the planet. The right to a healthy environment already provides the foundation for much of the progress we are seeing in different nations around the globe. What we need to do now is seize this moment of global eco-crisis to secure United Nations recognition of this right so that everyone, everywhere benefits. The human right to a healthy planet, if recognized by all nations, could be the most important human right of the 21st century. This is why I wholeheartedly endorse the #1Planet1Right campaign.