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Joint statement to highlight challenges related to COVID-19 pandemic and the global environment

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, and the Special Rapporteur for Economic, Social, Cultural, and Environmental Rights from the OAS’s Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, today issued a joint statement to highlight challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic and the global environmental crisis.

GENEVA / WASHINGTON (13 August 2020) – Too many countries in the Americas have loosened environmental safeguards in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, when they should be improving them to protect their people’s health, a UN human rights expert and an expert from the Organization of American States (OAS) said today.


It is no coincidence that areas with higher levels of environmental pollution and higher death rates from COVID-19 are the same in which historically discriminated against people live.


“The current pandemic has revealed the already fragile state of environmental protection in many countries of the Americas. The pandemic has exacerbated existing patterns of inequalities, and it is no coincidence that areas with higher levels of environmental pollution and higher death rates from COVID-19 are the same in which historically discriminated against people live.


The situation of the environment and human rights in the Americas was already a cause of concern prior to COVID-19. Instead of seeing Governments improve environmental safeguards in response to the pandemic, a number of regressions have been observed, with consequences on the enjoyment of the right to a healthy environment in the region.


Such unfavorable policy decisions are likely to result in accelerated deterioration of the environment and have negative impacts on a wide range of human rights including the rights to life, health, water, culture, and food, as well as the right to live in a healthy environment.


We call on States to strengthen their environmental laws, policies, programs and regulations. It is the obligation of States to prevent further damage and to put in place strong institutional frameworks, fulfilling the obligations contained in regional and universal human rights instruments, in particular, those contained in the San Salvador Protocol and the Escazú Agreement.


In this matter, States should suspend or refrain from approving or investing in any large scale industrial or agricultural activity if the appropriate consultation and participation mechanisms have not been implemented according to international standards, including the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous peoples. They should further assure that all environmental protection institutions are properly financed, staffed and equipped to continue their monitoring and enforcement duties in their respective jurisdictions.


In case a decision needs to be made to reform specific environmental norms, those decisions will need to respect both procedural and substantive elements of human rights. All decisions should be made in a transparent manner, involving ample public participation, and providing access to justice for concerned individuals, communities and other organizations. States must ensure that any changes respect the principles of non-discrimination and non-retrogression.


A crucial aspect of public participation involves the protection of environmental human rights defenders. States should take all relevant measures that will provide for the protection of environmental human rights defenders and the prompt investigation and prosecution of individuals responsible for threats or violence against these people.


In conclusion, the growing risk of emerging infectious diseases is caused by a 'perfect storm' of human actions that damage ecosystems and biodiversity, such as deforestation, land clearing and conversion for agriculture, the wildlife trade, expanding human population, settlements and infrastructure, intensified livestock production, and climate change. In the Americas, as well as in the rest of the world, human health is inextricably tied to ecosystem health, and putting all efforts towards the protection and the restoration of nature is an outstanding long-term investment.”