Birdlife urges U.N. to make a ‘healthy natural environment’ a human right

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In an  open letter  to the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, the leading global conservation partnership, BirdLife International, recently marked the 50th anniversary of Earth Day by calling for the UN to take a bold and unprecedented step: declare a healthy natural environment a fundamental human right.

The letter called on the UN as part of its response to the coronavirus pandemic, to add an “Article 31” to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—enshrining a universal right to a healthy natural environment, guaranteed by public policies, governed by sustainability and by scientific and traditional indigenous knowledge.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights rose from the ashes of World War II, and mapped out for the first time the fundamental human rights that must be protected globally.

Its 30 articles cover subjects, such as torture, slavery and education, but crucially, nothing about preserving the environment—on which human and all life depends.

If successful, this amendment would be the first addition since the milestone document was proclaimed in 1948.

“Covid-19 is the biggest global crisis since World War II. But while the pandemic is devastating, it also gives world leaders a chance, indeed an obligation, to transform society—to further protect our welfare and future generations,” said Patricia Zurita, CEO of BirdLife International, in a news release. “Our planet’s health is our health. We humans rely on nature for our survival and sanity, but our actions have upset Earth’s natural balance.”

We are in the grips of the twin climate and biodiversity crises, which have put over a million species at risk of extinction, and negatively impact human health, too, Zurita added.

The current pandemic has its roots in habitat loss and illegal wildlife trade. And as with the climate and biodiversity crises, Covid-19 highlights once again the need and possibility for humanity to be bold, decisive and work together—quickly.

“There have been efforts to include a right to a healthy environment in the past,” said Melanie Heath, director of Science and Policy of BirdLife International. “Today, we hope that the gravity of the pandemic is a strong enough wake-up call for the UN and world citizens to come together to restore nature and protect us from similar crises in the future.”

“Article 31 would be a gift to the world and future generations. And what more appropriate time to launch a manifesto for it than on Earth Day,” said Asunción Ruiz, CEO of SEO/BirdLife, BirdLife’s Partner in Spain. 

“Instead of learning from the corona crisis, some leaders are cynically using it as an excuse to roll back environmental protection. Enshrining a healthy natural environment as a sacred human right will be an accomplishment that will benefit humanity for centuries to come, and is the only way to achieve the UN sustainable development goals,” Ruiz said.

“Covid-19 marks the persistence of an old enemy. We believe that human-caused ecosystem disturbances is one of the urgent environmental issues that should be addressed today in order to prevent pandemics,”  said Alejandro T. Flores Jr., Haribon Foundation Board of Trustees chairman.

The letter urgently calls for Article 31’s right to a healthy natural environment to be included on the Agenda of the UN General Assembly’s Summit on Biodiversity in September 2020, with the ultimate goal of its approval in December 2023, to mark the 75th anniversary of the adoption by the General Assembly of the Universal Declaration.

“The future of human health lies on the crucial decisions we make today.  As the BirdLife Partner in the Philippines, we support the call of BirdLife International to the UN Secretary-General on the need to recognize the right of people to a healthy environment,”  Flores said.

This letter forms part of a wider push to improve climate and nature policy at the end of the UN Decade on Biodiversity, and is an open call to the rest of the planet’s civil society for support; the inclusion of the right to a healthy natural environment is a task we should all be behind if we are to protect our welfare, survival and save our planet, BirdLife said.

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