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Why UN Environment Goals Should be Rights-Based

By J. Paul Johnson

Prof. Conca advocates for a UN rights-based environmental approach

Prof. Ken Conca says a UN rights-based environmental approach would make clean air and water a human right.

Global environmental issues have received more attention this fall than at any other time in the last 20 years.

The United Nations' Paris Conference of the Parties Climate Change Summit–now through December 11–comes on the heels of the late September gathering of heads of state for the United Nation's (UN) General Assembly at which member nations adopted ambitious new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Ken Conca, American University School of International Service professor, is the author of An Unfinished Foundation: The United Nations and Global Environmental Governance (Oxford University Press 2015). In the book, Conca presents his argument for why the full force of the UN's mandate–not just development and international law but also human rights and peace and security–should be used to bolster the UN's environmental effectiveness and legitimacy.

In the first part of the book, Conca recognizes the UN's accomplishments under the current system, but also identifies the UN's record of environmental failure, inaction, and disappointment. He connects these failures to not having all four pillars of the UN mandate applied to its environmental goals. The second part of the book presents Conca's hopefulness and thought leadership, recognizing in his words that "The UN remains the only venue in which a sufficiently wide range of voices may be heard as we seek to forge a robust consensus on difficult environmental problems." Increasing the focus on the environment as a human rights issue, and as a challenge to peace and security, is necessary to reverse the trend of growing UN irrelevance on the world's environmental challenges.

Make the Environment a Rights-Based UN Issue 

"The UN must make full use of all of its powers under the UN Charter," says Conca. Specifically, Conca explains why the UN's human rights and international peace and security pillars of its mandate are needed in addition to the current rule of law and economic development pillars.

Using the tools of human rights, peace and security would greatly improve the chances that environmental issues could be addressed more effectively. "When the right to clean water and air become a human rights issue, the UN can deploy its most powerful tools for accountability," says Conca.

Conca recommends applying the rights-based mandates to the environment so that progress could be made on several of today's thorniest environmental problems including climate change, deforestation, water resource management, and toxic pollution.  

Under a human rights based approach, people can press rights-based claims that could result in the "naming and shaming" of international polluters, while also helping local communities retain access to natural resources for sustainable development. In today's globalized world economy, Conca believe this mechanism is important to more effectively regulate global chains of production that snake across national borders beyond the regulatory reach of individual nation-states. There are too many examples of instances where harmful environmental activities hide in the unregulated space between national laws and global agreements. The motivation to avoid compliance costs, offshore dangerous environmental threats, and shift away from local regulatory efforts are simply too great under the current system.

Why Peace and Environmental Issues Converge

"Peace is also critical to breaking out of the downward spiral," says Conca, "because conflict undercuts efforts for sustainable development, enhances vulnerability, and increases the risks associated with disasters and extreme events." Natural resources can be sources of significant tension, and development efforts must recognize this through greater conflict sensitivity.

Conflict, Conca argues, also undercuts a nation's capacity to comply with its international environmental commitments and responsibilities, causing local consequences that reverberate globally. Breaking the resource-conflict link requires not only conflict sensitivity but also affirmative, proactive peace building efforts that use environmental relationships as confidence-building opportunities. 

The current system, which rests almost exclusively on the two pillars of international law and development, has reached its functional limit. Without using the full force of the UN mandate, Conca believes the SDGs and any agreement resulting from the Paris summit will be at great risk of failure. Concurrently, UN member nations need to muster the courage and political will to commit to a dedicated environmental course that recognizes human rights linkages, conflict risks, and peace building opportunities in the environmental arena.

At the moment, less developed countries seem to be leading the way in recognizing these challenges, including those that are literally at risk of being swallowed by a rising sea in the coming decades. Will permanent members of the UN Security Council come to their rescue, saving them from becoming 21st century Atlantises, or condemn them to that fate through environmental inaction? Conca's book provides solid arguments and answers for why it's time for a rights based approach.