30 March 2012
I am writing to seek the support of your Government in a matter of vital importance to the human rights of people across the planet, and, indeed, to the planet itself.
In 1992, Member States adopted the landmark Rio Declaration. The
Declaration was remarkable in many respects, not least for its integrated approach to
economic development, social development, and environmental protection. The logic of
this integrated approach has since been globally embraced, and the integrated wisdom
of Rio has spawned countless important developments in the years that followed.
But the Rio Declaration was celebrated by the international community for
another reason as well—it was thoroughly infused with human rights considerations
essential to sustainable development. Its 27 principles put human beings and their right
to a healthy and productive life at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. It
specifically invoked the right to development, called for action to reduce disparities in
standards of living, affirmed the role of women, indigenous peoples and local
communities in sustainable development, and called for the protection of people living
under repression and occupation. It emphasized the meaningful participation of people,
called for access to information, and to remedies and redress. It addressed liability for
perpetrators, compensation for victims, and legal development to ensure extra-territorial
accountability. And it called for the use of impact assessments to avoid harm in the first
place. In sum, the Rio Declaration integrated human rights in its approach to sustainable
I believe that, twenty years later, the peoples of the United Nations have a
right to expect an outcome at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable
Development (Rio+20) that moves the world forward- rather than backward- on these
essential commitments. Like the Secretary-General, I am firmly committed to a
successful outcome at Rio. And I am convinced that success will depend both on the
soundness of the vision contained in the outcome document, and on the breadth of the
constituency that embraces it and commits to its implementation. For both reasons,
including clear and explicit human rights provisions will be essential.
There are many good reasons for this, most of which have become
increasingly self-evident through the events unfolding in recent years from the streets of
the Arab Spring, to the forests of the Amazon, and beyond. The lessons are clear:
strategies based on the narrow pursuit of economic growth without due regard for equity
and related environmental, social, and human rights considerations will both fail in their
economic objectives, and risk damaging the planet, and the fundamental rights of the
people who live here. Incoherence between international human rights standards,
environmental strategies, and economic policies can undercut all three. The logic of
integration—the logic of Rio—is unavoidable.
Without explicit human rights safeguards, policies intended to advance
environmental or development goals can have serious negative impacts on those rights.
Thus, technocratic processes have excluded women from decision-making, economic
and social inequalities have been exacerbated (and, with them, societal tensions),
indigenous peoples have seen threats to their lands and livelihoods from some emission
reduction schemes, scarce food-growing lands have sometimes been diverted for the
production of biofuels, and massive infrastructure projects have resulted in the forced
eviction and relocations of entire communities. Simply put, participatory, accountable,
non-discriminatory and empowering development is more effective, more just, and,
ultimately, more sustainable.
As such, I am appealing to all Member States to fully integrate key human
rights considerations in the Rio+20 outcome document. At Rio, Member States should
commit to ensuring full coherence between efforts to advance the green economy, on
the one hand, and their solemn human rights obligations on the other. They should
recognize that all policies and measures adopted to advance sustainable development
must be firmly grounded in, and respectful of, all internationally agreed human rights
and fundamental freedoms, including the right to development. To these ends, all actors,
in both the public and private sectors, should exercise due diligence, including through
the use of human rights impact assessments. Particular care must be taken to prevent
and remedy any negative impacts on the human rights of vulnerable and marginalized
groups, including indigenous peoples, minorities, migrants, persons living in poverty,
older persons, persons with disabilities, and children. The empowerment of women, the
protection of their rights, and their meaningful participation in decision making must be
States should resolve to work to advance a human rights-based approach to the
green economy, based on the principles of participation, accountability (at the national
and international levels), non-discrimination, empowerment, and the rule of law in
green economy efforts, and to pursue a model of economic growth that is socially and
environmentally sustainable, just and equitable, and respectful of all human rights. And
explicit attention should be given to protecting the human rights to food, to water and
sanitation, to health, to housing, to education, and to participation in public affairs, in
the context of a green economy.
Thus far, Excellency, I regret that these considerations have not been wellreflected
in the evolving “zero draft” negotiating text for the Rio+20 outcome. As the
negotiating process is advancing, and the Conference will convene in a few months’
time (20-22 June, 2012), the urgency of the matter has become apparent. Concerted
efforts on the part of all delegations committed to human rights and sustainable
development, and to the success of the Conference in Rio, will be required.
Accordingly, I would be most grateful for the kind consideration and support of your
For your further information and assistance, three documents are attached to
this letter. The first is a summary of key human rights considerations for Rio+20
prepared by my Office. The second is a joint statement recently issued by 22 Human
Rights Council special procedures mandate-holders calling for the further integration of
human rights at Rio. Finally, I attach a resolution adopted by consensus at the Human
Rights Council at its most recent session, calling for the participation of the Office of
the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the Rio+20 Conference, “in order to
promote a human rights perspective.” To these ends, I will attend the Conference in
June, together with a delegation from my Office.
Excellency, we have entered the 21st Century carrying with us many of the
challenges of the century we left behind, from wide-spread poverty, to environmental
degradation and climate change, to gross violations of human rights, to brutal conflict.
But we also enter this new age with reason to hope that progress is possible on each of
these interrelated fronts. New technologies are changing the way we communicate, the
way we cooperate, and the way people relate to each other, to their governments and to
international institutions. A growing consensus is emerging on the urgency of remedial
action to confront- and reverse- ecological damage. Global mobilizations of civil
society are helping to create more participatory and more just societies. And a shared
understanding of the multifaceted nature of poverty, and of the imperative of human
rights-based approaches to development, are changing the way we do business in our
collective mission to create a world free from fear and want. A strong outcome at Rio,
seamlessly integrating the environmental, social, economic, and human rights elements
of sustainable development, will do much to help us advance that mission.
Please accept, Excellency, the assurances of my highest consideration.
High Commissioner for Human Rights