Media Center



November 18, 2002 - Washington, DC


I am honored to present to the Committee on Juridical and Political Affairs of the Permanent Council a summary of the activities being carried out by the Unit for Sustainable Development and Environment Unit in relation to the issue of Human Rights and the Environment.

Over the years, the Organization of American States has adopted international instruments that serve as the basis for the promotion and protection of human rights. In 1988, the General Assembly of this Organization opened for signature the Additional Protocol to the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights in the Area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, known also as the Protocol of San Salvador. In its Article 11, on the “Right to a Healthy Environment”, this document affirms that:

1. everyone shall have the right to live in a healthy environment and to have access to basic public services, and that
2. the States Parties shall promote the protection, preservation, and improvement of the environment.


In the year 2000, the OAS General Assembly in Costa Rica underscored, through resolution 1819, the importance of further study on the links between the environment and human rights. The most recent General Assembly, held in Barbados in June of this year, approved resolution 1896 to, and I quote, “remain seized of the issue, paying special attention to the work being carried out by the relevant multilateral fora in this area.” This resolution also encouraged institutional cooperation in the area of human rights and the environment in particular between the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and the Unit for Sustainable Development and Environment.

In its pledge to contribute to the compliance of the terms of this resolution, the Unit accepted an invitation by the Center for Human Rights and Environment to participate in a hearing of a general nature, at its request, before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The session was held on October 16 of this year, and dealt with the issue of the “Effects of environmental degradation on the exercise and enjoyment of human rights in the Hemisphere.”

The Unit´s participation before the Commission represents its commitment to contribute to the discussion that the member states will be carrying on in compliance with General Assembly resolutions. It also represents the Unit´s commitment to continue to work closely with civil society organizations on issues related to this topic, pursuant to the promotion of the principles of public participation in decision-making for sustainable development as adopted by CIDI in 1999. To this end, we have been working very closely with the Centro de Derechos Humanos y Medio Ambiente, of Argentina, and the Center for International Environmental Law, with headquarters in Washington, DC. Both of these institutions, as the distinguished delegates may know, are official accredited civil society organizations to the OAS.

We have been following with utmost interest and satisfaction the work that this Committee and the General Assembly have been undertaking on the Human Rights and Environment issue. As Director of that Unit I take this opportunity to pledge our utmost commitment to work closely with the Commission in the execution of this mandate.


Mr. Chairman, I would like to cite the results of a recent poll conducted by Environics of Toronto, Canada in 20 countries, jointly representing 65 per cent of the world’s population. They found that a majority of the respondents point to human rights and environmental protection as issues needing stronger international safeguards and binding controls. Today, we have come to the understanding that human rights should be an integral part of international relations, and organizations such as the OAS should continue to strive for its promotion and eventual compliance. Its linkage to the environment arises out of the discourse of humanities´ need for protection from abuses and the right to lead a life of dignity, in an environment of equality and non-discrimination.

The rate at which we are altering the environment, the extent of that alteration, and the consequences of these changes – for biological diversity, water quality and other resources plus the goods and services they render- is unprecedented in human history. That having been stated, altering the natural state of any region is an inevitable consequence of human development. However, uncontrolled and unplanned development can, overtime, negatively, and at times permanently, impact future development opportunities.

The classic definition of sustainable development from the 1987 Brundtland Report is that it is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. My thoughts on the subject now include the broader perspective of enhancing the human condition through increased freedom on a sustainable basis. Any society’s assets include more than land, labor and capital. And by essential freedoms I refer to not only economic opportunity, but also expanding political participation and broadening social opportunities. Open public discussion, often stifled in authoritarian societies, is pivotally important for leading a fuller human life and to strengthen the understanding of the need to better manage basic resources of soil, air and water. Property rights, the rule of law, transparency in decision-making, an independent judiciary, and even trust count too. There are many rewards of seeing people as “agents” who can exercise their freedoms in a proactive fashion towards positive change, rather than as “patients” whose needs have to be met.

In an article published by The Economist in 1999, noted economist Jeffrey Sachs underscored the argument that unless the impacts of environmental degradation to basic resources are reversed, long-term solutions are not likely to succeed, regardless of the levels of investment. A case in point may be made in the analysis on the issue of access to sufficient quantities of quality freshwater. The struggle for water will be one of the gravest problems of this century. It is a struggle that will affect all societies worldwide and will revolve around concepts as diverse as sovereignty, national security; culture; human rights; and economic development models. The Americas is a “water rich” hemisphere, yet there are areas facing the effects of severe and prolonged drought as well as the impacts of pollution on their supply of freshwater. Seventy percent of our people will live in urban areas by 2025 and yet 70% of our current water use is in the agricultural sector – and this latter figure is increasing.

The economics of water has become an issue of development and survival, since a lack of water will affect the lives of millions of people around the globe. It is a US$200 billion dollar a year market, growing at a staggering 6 per cent rate annually. Nevertheless, decisions about allocation and distribution of water must include the principle that access to this natural resource is a fundamental human right. It should not be based solely on the ability to pay.

Rivers and reservoirs are running dry as growing populations literally fight over a shrinking source of life. According to the United Nations, as the world´s population grows to 8 billion by 2025, the number of people suffering from an inadequate supply of clean water will grow to 5 billion from the current 2 billion. According to reports published by WHO and PAHO the lack of drinking water and sanitation is also directly connected with the high incidence of disease in developing countries. Thirty-five thousand children are dying each day from dehydration, dysentery and water-borne parasites. We cannot avoid these painful issues if we are to meet the WSSD goal of halving the number of people without access to clean drinking water by 2015.

These pressures on the environment are due to a combination of increasing urban population density in large part catalyzed by degradation of the natural resource base creating a new class of citizens which I call “environmental refuges”, increasing per capita consumption, depletion of critical resource systems and inappropriate institutions and policies for managing natural resources. I also have to note the lack of political will and corruption as problematic in this process. Clearly modern society is not in balance with the available resources and the technology used to exploit them.


I would also like to take this opportunity to note that environmental security are particularly relevant in the Americas where economies are dependent on natural resources and there are large and increasing urban populations. This issue is closely related to the human rights and environment discussion that this Committee is leading.

The security of states in the Americas is increasingly threatened by a growing range of environmental challenges from development patterns that place communities at heightened risk of natural disaster, long-term impacts of population growth, and land use decisions. In addition there are a number of physical factors over which we have virtually no control. For example there are some seventy-two transboundary watersheds in this hemisphere and as we know contamination does not respect political boundaries whether water or air borne.

Resource-based economies are vulnerable to environmental security threats because economic stability and livelihood depend upon rational and consistent access to the resources that drive economic growth. It is very interesting that the United Nations Millennium Report placed the right to clean air, water and soil under the Poverty Alleviation Chapter and not under the Environment Quality Chapter.

A number of national constitutions in the region guarantee a right to a clean, safe and/or healthful environment. This fundamental recognition of environmental rights clearly places human populations and their relation to the environment at the center of the state’s understanding of national security. Awareness on these issues is fast growing.

When I gave my testimony to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission on the relationship between environment and human rights, these concepts were very much in the forefront.

The Summit of the Americas process has led to an increased awareness of the link between human rights, property and environment. I firmly believe that this Hemisphere should continue to promote dialogue among all sectors of society on the fundamental issues concerning economic and social development and including the concepts of corporate social responsibility, environment and human rights.

We must continue to strive towards the enhancement of partnerships between governmental and non-governmental actors for the achievement of sustainable development at all levels. Please remember that it was the Bolivia Summit in 1996 that led to the development and formal approval of the Inter-American Strategy for the Promotion of Public Participation in Decision-Making for Sustainable Development.

I would like to conclude by thanking the Committee for the opportunity it has given me to share with the member states the work plan and initiatives that the Unit for Sustainable Development is carrying on in the issue of human rights and environment.

To this end, I wish to reiterate to our pledge and utmost commitment to work closely with the Committee in the execution of its mandate, and to find answers to those critical questions in a positive, fruitful, and sustainable light.