Church groups laud UN adoption of resolution recognizing access to healthy environment as human right

October 9, 2021

Cagayan River, which is host to alleged black sand mining operations in the guise of river restoration in the northern Philippines. File photo Mark Z. Saludes

Philippines faith-based organizations praised the recognition of the right to a safe environment as a fundamental right by the UN’s main human rights body. 

The groups said the resolution of the UN Human Rights Council will benefit the “poor and marginalized communities who are most vulnerable” to the impacts of climate change. 

The UN Human Rights Council on October 8 has overwhelmingly voted to recognize the right to a safe, healthy, and sustainable environment as a human right. 

The Council also voted to appoint an expert to monitor human rights in the context of the climate emergency and called on countries to advance environmental protection. 

Some 43 member-states, including the Philippines, voted yes while four countries – China, Russia, India, and Japan – abstained. 

Bishop Jose Colin Bagaforo, national director of Caritas Philippines, said the recent development is “a victory for the marginalized sectors who suffer the most because of the impacts of the climate crisis.” 

“This is a breakthrough especially for the poor and the abandoned who are most vulnerable to the impacts of the ecological crisis due to the greed of the few,” said the prelate.

Bishop Bagaforo said it is important for many communities in the Philippines that “suffer disproportionate impacts of ecological degradation.” 

The resolution was first discussed in the council in the 1990s. It is not legally binding but it has a huge potential in shaping global standards and could help build legal arguments. 

Indigenous Peoples in the southern Philippines. File photo Mark Z. Saludes

Rodne Galicha, executive director of Living Laudato Si Philippines, said the “cries of the poor and earth have been heard” for the first time in the international human rights body.

“May this recognition of the right of human beings to have a safe and healthy environment be an instrument to further recognize our dependence on the very right of nature to regenerate, thrive, and survive,” he said.

“Let’s end this Anthropocene epoch as soon as possible while responding comprehensively to the cries of the earth and the poor,” he added. 

In a statement, David Boyd, UN special rapporteur on human rights and environment, said the move of the Council “is a historic breakthrough that has the potential to improve the lives of everyone on the planet.”

“The world’s future looks a little bit brighter today,” Boyd said, adding, “This has life-changing potential in a world where the global environmental crisis causes more than nine million premature deaths every year.”

Boyd said the recognition of the right to a safe environment will “spark constitutional changes and stronger environmental laws” in many countries.

He urged leaders who will meet at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, UK starting at the end of the month, and at the UN conference on biodiversity (COP 15) starting in Kunming, China, next week, to put human rights at the center of their actions.

The resolution has been endorsed by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, and 15 UN agencies, and was supported by young activists, business groups, and more than 1,300 civil society organizations from around the world.

Environmental activists rally during the 2017 People’s Climate March in Manila in solidarity to the international call to protect the environment. File photo Mark Z. Saludes

Pro-environment groups in the country expressed that the Philippine government must translate the historic breakthrough into “stronger implementation and enactment of domestic laws” aimed to protect the environment. 

Jaybee Garganera, national coordinator of Alyansa Tigil Mina, said the government must “immediately pass domestic laws and national policies that will subscribe and fulfill this mandate.” 

“It is necessary to recall that the 1987 Philippine Constitution already recognizes this under Article 2, Section 16, which states that the State “shall protect and advance the right of the people to a balanced and healthful ecology in accord with the rhythm and harmony of nature.”

Garganera urged President Rodrigo Duterte to “immediately revoke” policies that enable environmental destruction and “to stop the aggressive promotion of large-scale mining across the country.”

“In particular we call for a moratorium on the processing and operations of offshore and seabed mining the western coast, from Cagayan down to Bataan provinces,” he said. 

Leon Dulce, national coordinator of Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment, said the resolution is “a historic precedent that will increase global recognition of the work of environmental defenders across the world.”
He urged Congress to enact a special bill of rights for environmental defenders and to institutionalize new protection and remedy mechanisms for their environmental rights.

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