UNHCHR
 

Statement

by

Mary Robinson, 
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

at the
World Summit on Sustainable Development Plenary Session

Johannesburg, South Africa
29th August 2002



The Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro has been an essential reference point for this Summit on Sustainable Development. Rio did produce a conceptual breakthrough in that the natural world was added to the social and economic dimensions of development to
give us the concept of sustainable development.

I should like to recall another reference point which is also important for the Johannesburg Summit deliberations, and that is the World Conference on Human Rights which took place the following year, 1993 in Vienna. The understandings reached at that Conference added new dimensions to the concept of development, namely human rights and democracy. In so doing the Conference was reaffirming core ideas of the 1986 Declaration on the Right to Development. Vienna confirmed an international consensus that economic, social and cultural rights were individual human rights to be given equal weight to civil and political rights and that both sets of rights were universal, interdependent and indivisible. It also declared that democracy, development and respect for human rights were interdependent and mutually reinforcing. Vienna confirmed the recognition that the promotion and protection of human rights in all countries is a legitimate concern of the international community.

These understandings have had a singular influence on development policies and programmes since, as have the commitments at Rio. A human rights approach to development is being adopted increasingly by development agencies and donors as well as in development work. This was reflected in the The Human Development Report 2000, a landmark statement on the human rights based approach to development. As the Report noted:
"Poverty eradication is a major human rights challenge of the 21st Century. A decent standard of living, adequate nutrition, health care, education decent work and protection against calamities, are not just development goals- they are also human rights"

The Report is equally clear on the importance for development of guaranteeing civil and political rights -freedom of speech, association, and participation -to empower poor people to claim their social, economic and cultural rights.

Meanwhile the recognition of the linkage between democracy and development has led to the emphasis in development practice over the last decade on building democratic institutions, the rule of law and effective legal systems that function to protect the human rights of all without discrimination.

What does a human rights approach add to sustainable development ?

Let me ask and try to answer the question-- how does a human rights approach help in achieving sustainable development?

First and foremost a human rights approach adds value because it provides a normative framework of obligations that has the legal power to render governments accountable. The implication is well caught in another passage from the UNDP Human Development Report 2000.

"...to assert a human right to free elementary education is to claim much more than it would be a good thing for everyone to have an elementary education-or even assert that everyone should have an education. In asserting this right we are claiming that all are entitled to a free elementary education and that if some persons avoidably lack access to it, there must be some culpability somewhere in the social system" (page 21)

At the same time the human rights approach is focused on the individual. Thus poverty is seen in terms of the individual's rights to food and clean water, shelter, health and access to work opportunity. Empowerment of the poor flows from the recognition that the poor experience the non fulfillment of their rights. The point of poverty reduction strategies is not alone that the poor have needs but is based on their rights, as entitlements which give rise to legal obligations on the part of others and that guarantees them the freedom to pursue the fulfillment of their rights.

A further contribution to sustainable development comes from the international and the national human rights protection systems. The international system to which I refer comprises the major international human rights treaties, now widely ratified, along with their enforcement and oversight institutions. It also includes the Charter institutions and their mechanisms, namely the Commission on Human Rights and its Sub Commission. Beyond the rhetoric that often attaches to human rights discussions at international level, it is worth emphazising that this international machinery is quietly working away with the co operation of States and civil societies to advance human rights and sustainable development.

At national level the protection system embraces not alone the courts but an array of other bodies charged with the implementation of the international and national human rights obligations of governments.

These systems have reached a considerable maturity in both the analysis of the components of all rights and in identifying what constitutes their violation and what action needs to be taken to remedy violations. A background paper from my Office illustrates these points by reference to several of the topics that are part of the SecretaryGeneral's WEHAB initiative; food, health and water.

A human rights approach is concerned to focus not only on violation but also on prevention. Thus it is a major part of the work of OHCHR to add to the necessary advocacy of accountability and to adopt a promotional approach that seeks to work with governments and civil society through programmes of capacity building and education to prevent violations for the future.

In pursuing sustainable development the next stage should be the integration of human rights into the Millennium Development Goals. That can be best achieved, I would argue, through the drafting of human rights guidelines for the implementation of each development goal. What I envisage can be illustrated by current OHCHR work on one of the Millennium Goals, poverty reduction. Specifically, human rights guidelines are being developed by OHCHR for Poverty Reduction Strategies. The guidelines are developed from an analysis of human rights treaty provisions; the jurisprudence of the human rights treaty bodies, including their general comments and concluding observations; the findings and evaluations of special rapporteurs, and other human rights experts, including their identification of best practices. Similar guidelines could be prepared for the other MDGs. Such guidelines would help strengthen the rights based approach, and place the individual at the centre of sustainable development efforts.

Human Rights and the Environment

I would like now to turn to the relationship between human rights and the environment.

The Rio Declaration and Agenda 21 did not contain many explicit references to human rights. Nor did Vienna have many references to the environment. The Rio Summit in retrospect may have placed too much emphasis on environmental sustainability without regard to the human dimension, while the Vienna World Conference may be faulted for having placed too little. But it is a positive gain to note that in the decade since then, there has been continuous progress in bringing together the human and environmental dimensions within the concept of sustainable development.

An example of that progress was the Expert Seminar convened by my Office and the United Nations Environment Programme in Geneva, in January this year. Its aim was to review and assess progress achieved since Rio and Agenda 21 in promoting and protecting human rights in relation to environmental questions. A pamphlet on the experts' conclusions has been published jointly by OHCHR and UNEP for this Summit.

Reading the Conclusions it is striking how at every level - international, regional, national - there is a greater appreciation than ever before of the nexus between human rights and environmental themes, especially when considered in the context of sustainable development.

At the international level, a number of important human rights treaties take into account the environmental dimensions of human rights.

At the regional level, a number of instruments have addressed the linkages, again with an emphasis on information and participation. I would single out the 1998 Aarhus Convention on Access to Information-Public Participation and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters. It illustrates how procedural rights to information and participation help protect human rights and the environment at the same time. Mention should also be made of the experience of the European and Inter-American human rights systems which have increasingly interpreted environmental degradation in human rights terms.

It is at the national level, however, that some of the most striking developments have taken place. The right to a healthy environment has been formally recognized in over 90 national constitutions enacted since 1992. Often the right is made expressly justiciable. In other countries, especially in South Asia and Latin America, constitutional rights to life, health and family life have been interpreted as embracing environmental factors.

I would identify the prime goal for the immediate future as to achieve a deeper understanding of the links between human rights and environmental protection. It will involve a significant effort on the part of both human rights and environmental practitioners to come to grips with the values, methodologies and comparative advantages of each other. It will also involve a continued effort on the part of institutional actors - such as my Office and of the United Nations Environment Programme - to foster this understanding. The draft Plan of Action has paragraphs that seek further co-operation between UNEP and OHCHR. I call for the final adoption of those paragraphs.

Let me end with words from my friend and colleague, the executive director of UNEP Klaus Topfer.

"The contribution of environmental protection to the realization of basic human rights, and the role of human rights in protection of the environment are undeniable. Substantive rights such as the right to food, health and the right to life itself will not materialize for all of the world's inhabitants unless we maintain a clean and healthy environment with a sustainable base of environmental and natural resources. Certainly, the full potential of human rights cannot be realized when an increasing portion of the world's inhabitants find their human potential constrained by a polluted and degraded environment and are relegated to hopelessness in extreme poverty."

Thank you.