Conservationists urge UN to make ‘healthy natural environments’ a human right amid COVID-19 crisis

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The current COVID-19 pandemic, BirdLife International noted, has its roots in habitat loss and illegal wildlife trade, highlighting another instance of the need for bold, decisive action towards preserving the environment.

As part of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, global conservation partnership BirdLife International issued an open letter to the United Nations, calling on the organization to take the ‘bold and unprecedented step’ of declaring healthy natural environments a human right.

The letter, which was addressed to the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, urged the UN to amend the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to add an ‘Article 31’ as part of the organization’s coronavirus pandemic response– 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, which was instituted as a response to the horrors of World War II, was a landmark document in human history, mapping out for the first time the fundamental human rights that must be protected globally.

It consists of 30 articles that cover subjects such as torture, slavery and education, but nothing about preserving the environment – on which 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 whilst 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”, Patricia Zurita, CEO, BirdLife International, wrote in the letter.


“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.”

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the news all over the world was dominated by twin climate and biodiversity crises, which have put over a million species at risk of extinction, and has negatively impact human health. In February of this year, unprecedented wildfires raged across Australia, killing an estimated one billion animals and putting millions of lives at risk. Meanwhile, natural calamities such as flash floods and supertyphoons have become more common as climate change continued unabated.

The current pandemic, BirdLife International noted, has its roots in habitat loss and illegal wildlife trade, highlighting another instance of the need for bold, decisive action towards preserving the environment.

“There have been efforts to include a right to a healthy environment in the past”, Melanie Heath, Director of Science and Policy, BirdLife International, wrote.

“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”, Asunción Ruiz, CEO, SEO/BirdLife (BirdLife’s Partner in Spain), added.

“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.”

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.

“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 Chair.

“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,” said Mr. Flores.

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. — B.M. BELTRAN