Pena: Access to a healthy environment now a human right

OUR basic human rights include the right to life and liberty, personal security, freedom of expression, freedom from torture, freedom from discrimination and freedom from arbitrary arrest, among others. These are enumerated in our constitution.

Now, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has added another one—the right to have access to a healthy environment. Resolution No. 48/13 proposed by Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland, was passed with 43 votes in favor and 4 abstentions from Russia, India, China and Japan. The move was done weeks ahead of the UN climate change summit, COP 26, in Glasgow, Scotland, in November.

In a second resolution, No. 48/14, the UNHRC also increased its focus on the human rights impacts of climate change by establishing a Special Rapporteur dedicated specifically to that issue. A rapporteur is someone chosen by an organization, in this case, the UN, to prepare reports of meetings or to investigate and report on a problem. The Philippines voted yes to both resolutions. The resolutions still have to go to the United Nations General Assembly in New York for further consideration.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called on member states to take bold actions to give prompt and real effect to the right to a healthy environment. She described the triple planetary threats of climate change, pollution and nature loss as the single greatest human rights challenge of our era.

The High Commissioner also noted that an unprecedented number of environmental human rights defenders were reported killed last year, urging member states to take firm measures to protect and empower them.

Sadly, the Philippines ranked first among Asian countries, and third globally, for the most number of killed land rights and environmental advocates in 2020, based on the report of Global Witness, an environment and human rights watchdog.

Among the environmental defenders killed in the Philippines are Dr. Gerardo Ortega, a journalist and veterinarian, and Macli-ing Dulag, a leader of the Butbut tribe of Kalinga province. Doc Gerry was assassinated on January 24, 2011 allegedly due to his anti-mining advocacy while Dulag was killed on April 24, 1980 by military men because of his opposition to the Chico River Dam Project.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) itself lost at least 32 of its environmental law enforcers from 2001 to 2021, according to tracking by civil society group Kalikasan People's Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE) and the DENR.

Everyone has the right to have a healthy environment, especially the future generations. As Pope Francis said, "We have inherited a garden; we must not leave a desert to our children."


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