April 15, 2020 – Countries must not use the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to weaken environmental protection and enforcement, a UN independent human rights expert said on Wednesday.
The appeal by David Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, comes after several governments have announced plans to lower environmental standards, or other related measures.
“In light of the global environmental crisis that predates COVID-19, these actions are irrational, irresponsible, and jeopardize the rights of vulnerable people”, he said.
“Such policy decisions are likely to result in accelerated deterioration of the environment and have negative impacts on a wide range of human rights including the rights to life, health, water, culture, and food, as well as the right to live in a healthy environment”.
COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of having a safe, clean and sustainable natural environment, according to Mr. Boyd.
“The science is clear”, he said. “People living in areas that have experienced higher levels of air pollution face increased risk of premature death from COVID-19. Similarly, access to clean water is essential in preventing people from contracting and spreading the virus.”
The rights expert added that some three-quarters of emerging infectious diseases are zoonoses, meaning they can be transmitted from animals to humans, with Ebola, SARS, MERS and now COVID-19 being examples.
COVID-19 is the disease caused by the newest coronavirus which first emerged in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses, with SARS and MERS being other zoonotic respiratory illnesses that triggered epidemics over the past two decades.
“Scientists warn that deforestation, industrial agriculture, illegal wildlife trade, climate change and other types of environmental degradation increase the risk of future pandemics, raising the probability of major human rights violations”, said Mr. Boyd.
“As COVID-19 is demonstrating, pandemics can undermine the rights of billions of people, especially those who are already vulnerable to environmental harm including people living in poverty, minorities, elderly, indigenous peoples, women and children.”
As a Special Rapporteur, Mr. Boyd was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council under what is known as its Special Procedures.
Independent experts examine and report back to the Council on a specific human rights theme or country situation. The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.