John Knox, the United Nations’ point man for human rights and environmental issues, is looking for a new focus. Knox has spent the last three years mapping and surveying the field and is now beginning to consider what to work on during the next three years.

In a formal submission on Friday, ERI makes the argument that Mr. Knox should spend the time that remains to him as the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment to ensure access to remedies for human rights abuses and set standards for both governments and companies in a few key areas:

  • conservation refugees
  • transboundary environmental impacts, especially in the context of mega-projects and major foreign investments
  • free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC), and
  • the protection of human rights and environmental defenders.

Two of these areas probably don’t need much explanation.  The need for the United Nations to weigh in on the protection of threatened activists is pretty obvious. After all, the UN has taken an active role in championing freedom of assembly and expression around the world, and it has recognized time and again that human rights defenders must be protected if we want human rights themselves to be protected.  And if an organization like the UN – which was set up first and foremost to give the countries of the world a forum to work out transboundary disputes peaceably – can’t advise on the standards that apply to transboundary environmental harms, it’s hard to imagine who can.

I suspect the other two areas could use some clarification.  First of all, you’ve heard of war refugees, economic refugees, even climate refugees… but conservation refugees?  Believe it or not, this a real – and serious – problem that affects dozens of peoples worldwide.  Governments, companies, and even NGOs that fail to realize environmentalism and human rights can go hand-in-hand are expelling people from their traditional lands to create nature parks in places like Kenya, Cameroon, and India.  This misguided approach to protecting natural environments can lead to the displacement, impoverishment, and even killing of the former inhabitants, and it can also backfire by undermining local support for conservation and reducing the sustainability of national parks.


We are asking Mr. Knox to weigh in on this neglected issue and provide guidance that will help proponents of new parks strike a better balance.

Second, you may wonder what the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment would have to contribute to the discussion of FPIC. FPIC is generally considered a right of indigenous peoples, and as such it is subject to specialized international protection regimes.  But the lens of human rights and the environment provides important perspective on FPIC, especially since most of the people who rely on FPIC are protecting natural environments from damage and degradation in order to defend their lands and livelihoods.

Mr. Knox could help put flesh on the bones of FPIC by identifying best practice on:

  • protecting the environment through proper consultation and consent at all stages of major projects
  • ensuring that all qualified indigenoues peoples (and not just those officially recognized as “indigenous”) are afforded FPIC rights, and
  • verifying whether consent has been legitimately obtained

The Special Rapporteur has the opportunity to make real progress and clarify standards on the thorniest and most-ignored issues in human rights and the environment.  If he takes up ERI’s suggestions, he could give some of the world’s most disadvantaged peoples powerful tools to protect their lands and livelihoods.