Degradation of ecosystems erodes human rights

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Governments across the Asia-Pacific region must step up their efforts to prevent human rights impacts from environmental damage amid the Covid-19 crisis with stronger environmental laws and better enforcement, the UN Human Rights Offices for South East Asia and the Pacific said on World Environment Day on 5 June.

The full enjoyment of human rights in the region depends on the ecosystem, and the significant degradation and loss of biodiversity undermines the ability of human beings to enjoy their human rights.

We have witnessed a number of governments in the Asia-Pacific region adjusting or relaxing environmental laws and regulations and fast-tracking required consultations with communities during the global pandemic, risking harmful environmental practices or contravening the principles set out in the UN guiding principles on business and human rights.

“The amendment of national environmental laws and regulations as governments respond to the economic impact of Covid-19 can have an adverse impact on affected communities, including on their ability to engage in meaningful participation in large- scale development or extractive projects,” said Cynthia Veliko, South East Asia representative for the UN Human Rights Office in Bangkok.

Emergency decrees imposed in response to Covid-19 have also exacerbated the situation, leaving many individuals, local communities and environmental human rights defenders unable to fully exercise their rights due to lockdowns, travel restrictions, prohibitions of public assembly, lack of access to online consultations, and emergency powers that can be used to control the flow of information.

“Covid-19 highlights the vital importance of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, especially for those who are already vulnerable to environmental harm, including people living in rural areas, communities whose livelihoods are tied to the land, indigenous peoples, and those living in poverty,” Veliko said. “The voice and rights of local communities and environmental human rights defenders must be heard and protected.”

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The Pacific region is home to some of the richest ecosystems on the planet. Although these ecosystems contribute to the many different cultures that make up Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia and contribute substantially to tourism, they are now being degraded by climate change, pollution, deep-sea mining and coastal development.

“Through the recovery from Covid-19, we can build back better and protect this precious and fragile environment,” said Thomas Hunecke, officer-in-charge of the UN Human Rights Office for the Pacific. “Governments should develop policies that aim to protect though ‘ridge-to-reef’ management and work with local communities to utilise their traditional and cultural knowledge.”

The degradation of ecosystems and the loss of biodiversity have an adverse impact on the full enjoyment of human rights of populations across the Asia-Pacific region, especially those living in conditions of vulnerability and marginalisation. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us the intimate relationship between humans and the environment.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has increased the urgency for governments to step up their efforts to address environmental degradation and to apply the principles of a human rights-based approach – participation, accountability, equality and non-discrimination – more consistently and in practice,” Veliko said.

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