human rights

Enhancing the Implementation of Human Rights – the Key Role of NGOs

by Brielle Green

“I’m just going to Geneva, Switzerland to lobby United Nations (UN) member-states on U.S. environmental justice issues,” my friend said mocking me, “I don’t completely understand what that means, but it sounds real and it sounds important,” she added.

When the opportunity to go to Geneva with a non-governmental organization (NGO) delegation was presented to me, I was more than excited to accept. However, I did not fully comprehend what that meant for me personally. As a young attorney, I was looking to further my understanding of and experience within the field of environmental justice. Through my efforts I was connected with a nonprofit public interest law firm. The firm asked me to work with a network of environmental organizations to draft a brief that would be submitted for the UN’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR).

Before starting on this journey, I thought I had a solid understanding of international relations, treaty bodies, and their direct and indirect influence on domestic policy. However, like most U.S. citizens, I was unaware of the UPR and its ability to address and improve human rights. The UPR is the only formal process in which the U.S. government participates to address its human rights records, requiring it to state improvements and growth areas on signed international treaties and recommendations. The UPR process is unique in that it provides various opportunities for domestic NGOs and human rights stakeholders to weigh in on the U.S.’ human rights obligations.

The public interest firm I worked for is part of the U.S. Human Rights Network (USHRN). As part of the USHRN delegation I was sent to Geneva where we worked to promote international awareness about human rights issues in the U.S., and expand the current definitions of human rights in the context of economic, social, and cultural rights, as well as to initiate change. While in Geneva, I met with member-state representatives to educate them about the status of environmental human rights in the U.S., and ask them to make recommendations during the upcoming U.S. government UPR session, scheduled for May 11, 2015 (which will be webcast live on webtv.un.org).

It was exciting, intimidating, and educational all at the same time! It was exhilarating to realize that I was a part of an international discourse with a potential impact on domestic environmental policies. It was stimulating to be in the UN’s Palais de Nations — especially the big open room we all know with its famous colorful ceiling which I had only seen in pictures. But physically being in the room, with badge access to approach member-state representatives, was thrilling beyond what any photo or my imagination could have captured.

While in Geneva, I was able to meet with staff of the UN High Commissioner’s office to provide them with first-hand accounts of environmental human rights issues facing some U.S. residents. I also spoke at a side event USHRN hosted, addressing the issue of environmental justice and the hardships minority, low-income, and indigenous communities are facing.

Interestingly, one theme I witnessed while in Geneva was the notion held by some member-states who didn’t see U.S. environmental policies as having economic, social, or cultural impacts. Some member- state representatives believed that environmental injustices in the United States could simply be resolved through legislation alone, and were not in fact systemic human rights issues.

During the first UPR cycle, in 2011, the U.S. received a small number of environmental recommendations, mostly about the issue of climate change. For this upcoming second cycle of the UPR, I personally hope to see the fruits of my labor. Specifically, I hope member states make recommendations about the environment in a context that addresses the disparate impact and violation of human rights to minority, low-income, and indigenous communities.

About the Author: Brielle Green works as a law fellow with an environmental public interest firm associated with the U.S. Human Rights Network.  Brielle’s passion for environmental protection and conservation was developed and nurtured at a young age while attending a “magnate” environmental elementary school which focused on science and the importance of biodiversity. 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Public Participation – A Bedrock Principle for Human Rights

by Lupe Aguirre, Neelam Mohammed, and Leslie Morales

Public participation is an essential component of a vibrant and truly representative democracy. It requires meaningful opportunities for the public to provide input during decision-making as well as free and simple access to information about government agencies and their activities. Yet, it is challenging to facilitate public engagement in a nation as large, complex, and varied as the United States.

On October 7, 2014, the University of California, Berkeley School of Law hosted the United States Government Consultation on Environmental Issues. This session was held in advance of the second review of the human rights record of the United States by the U.N. Human Rights Council, scheduled for May 2015.

As interns with the school’s International Human Rights Law Clinic (the Clinic), we were tasked with coordinating this historic effort in collaboration with government officials and community groups. Bringing together numerous advocacy groups, members of the public, and officials from seven federal agencies, the session provided an important opportunity to directly engage a variety of stakeholders about pressing environmental issues.

Developing an inclusive and effective Consultation required thoughtful coordination. The planning process involved advocates, community members, and government officials to determine the agenda and topics to be discussed. Participants (whether attending in person or by phone) could submit written comments in advance of the session to create a record of public input. Dozens attended the Consultation in person and dozens more joined by phone, allowing those who could not travel to the session to participate.

In the months since the Consultation, we have posted several videos of the individual panel sessions to allow those who were not able to participate to listen to the full discussion. Lastly, we drafted a summary report outlining the main points of discussion and providing resources for further engagement.

Although each panel focused on a distinct issue (climate change, water issues, and environmental/public health protections and members of vulnerable communities), a common theme that arose was the need for meaningful public participation to identify and address environmental challenges. We know public participation is a bedrock principle of human rights, but how can that principle be put into practice?

Due to its national scope and the array of relevant issues, the Consultation on Environmental Issues presented our team with complex questions:

  • How do we reach diverse communities across the country?
  • How do we facilitate the opportunity for affected community members to speak?
  • How do we keep the conversation going well into the future?

Answering these questions offered both insights into the challenges as well as best practices in creating opportunities for engagement.

During the Consultation, community members and advocates from around the nation identified problems in their communities and offered solutions. They asked for more opportunities to engage with the government and to lift barriers to that engagement by addressing linguistic, geographic, and temporal challenges to participation. The dialogue reminded us that direct contact with affected community members can reveal issues that may otherwise fall through the cracks, and that the knowledge of local communities is a critical component in crafting creative solutions to environmental challenges. Having all stakeholders at the table ensures the development of responsive and sustainable solutions to real world problems. So while providing inclusive processes can be complicated, it is well worth the effort.

We saw what public engagement looks like in action at the Consultation in October and hope that government at all levels will provide more opportunities for meaningful community engagement. However, coordinating national events is not the only path to achieve public engagement; it can be accomplished in simpler and smaller ways. Such opportunities should not only be available when the United States is on the eve of a review before the U.N. or some other significant event. Rather, a continuing dialogue between government and the public is necessary to tackle environmental and other social justice issues.

Moving forward, the Clinic continues to work with local environmental justice advocates to advance universal access to clean and affordable water by engaging with California state officials and raising these important issues before international human rights bodies.

NOTE: On February 20, 2015, the U.S. State Department is holding a civil society consultation on the U.S. government’s second UPR, in Washington, DC, with an option to dial-in by phone.

About the Authors: Lupe Aguirre, Neelam Mohammed, and Leslie Morales are law students at the International Human Rights Law Clinic, UC Berkeley School of Law, who are scheduled to graduate in 2016. Lupe’s interest in social justice was sparked by her work with vulnerable low-income immigrant communities in Southern and Central California before entering law school; she plans to continue serving at-risk communities as a public interest lawyer. Neelam developed an interest in environmental justice issues after taking courses at Berkeley Law focused on the importance of clean energy development and the rights of individuals disparately impacted by fossil fuel-generated energy. Leslie was drawn to international human rights through her volunteer work providing legal services to immigrants and asylum-seekers as she became aware of the many injustices faced by low-income and minority groups in the U.S. and abroad, including in her family’s native Guatemala.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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The Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination: An International Human Right

by Danny Gogal

“Sure, I’ll serve as EPA’s lead for international human rights agreements.” That was my response to my Office Director this past April, although I knew very little of what this new responsibility would entail. However, I was intrigued by the potential opportunities to engage the international community on issues of environmental justice.

Fortunately, I had some previous exposure to international human rights processes in 2010, when the U.S. Government (USG) initiated its first Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of its human rights record. During this time, the USG was engaged in a concerted effort to meet with a wide range of interested parties throughout the country to get input and comments on efforts to provide for human rights. These included consultations with federally recognized tribal government officials and indigenous peoples.

Four years later, I found myself once again fully engrossed in our government’s preparation for its review by the United Nations (UN) Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). For the first time, EPA was asked to participate as an official member of the U.S. delegation. Although the USG completed and submitted its report to the CERD in June 2013, the presentation to the UN wasn’t until August 2014. The environmental section of our report highlights the re-establishment and activities of the Federal Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice (Section 28), a variety of environmental justice projects, such as federal agencies’ EJ strategies (Section 144), and EPA’s use of indigenous traditional ecological knowledge in a pollution permit decision (Section 173).

The day before our presentation, the U.S. delegation met with U.S.-based non-governmental organizations (NGO) and tribes at the United Nations’ Palais des Nations in Geneva. More than 80 individuals attended the three-hour meeting, which provided the opportunity for the NGOs, many of whom had submitted “shadow reports,” to share their perspectives on human rights in the United States and the USG’s implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). The meeting and interactions after the meeting proved to be beneficial to many of the NGOs, as well as the U.S. delegation.

The meeting with the CERD was held over a two-day period, consisting of two 3 hour sessions which opened with remarks from the US Ambassador for Human Rights, Keith Harper. The key environmental issues raised by the CERD included:

  • Water shut-offs in Detroit and Boston
  • Impacts of resources extraction on water and drinking water
  • Pollution in foreign countries caused by multi-national companies
  • Addressing environmental and public health impacts to minority, low-income and indigenous communities living along the coasts, particularly the Vietnamese communities in Louisiana and indigenous communities.
  • General concerns included need for:
    • USG to actually seek “transformation” to address discrimination
    • Greater education within the United States about the ICERD and its principles

In its initial report, the CERD also expressed concern about “the large number of tribes that remained unrecognized by the Federal Government and the obstacles to recognition…, and ongoing problems to guarantee the meaningful participation of indigenous people…” These concerns drew my attention given EPA’s newPolicy on Environmental Justice for Working with Federally Recognized Tribes and Indigenous Peoples, which speaks to how EPA works to provide the meaningful participation of state-recognized and non-recognized tribes, indigenous peoples, as well as others, in EPA’s decision making processes.

The CERD’s concluding observations highlighted their recommendation that the USG improve its protection of the environment and public health of minority, low-income and indigenous communities.

The upcoming USG UPR review, scheduled for May 11, 2015 also will likely bring attention to environmental justice and equitable development. This review also includes engaging with the public through various civil society consultations held throughout the country, including a consultation on environmental issues held October 7 of this year.

I am looking forward to once again engaging the NGOs, my fellow public servants, and the international community during this UPR process as we strive to identify ways to more effectively make a visible difference in vulnerable communities, particularly in environmental and public health protection. I also would be interested in hearing from NGOs about how valuable they find these international human rights processes. This work is proving to be a viable avenue for raising awareness and harnessing interest in environmental justice, both domestically and internationally.

About the author: Daniel Gogal has a public policy, environmental policy, and public administration background. He is currently serving as EPA’s lead for international human rights agreement, and has been working on tribal and indigenous peoples environmental policy and environmental justice issues for the past 28 years. He is the Tribal and Indigenous Peoples Program Manager for the Office of Environmental Justice, and has worked in various capacities for the Agency’s environmental justice program over the past twenty-two years.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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From Sri Lanka to EPA

By Mathy Stanislaus

I was born in Sri Lanka. My family moved to the United States when I was five in order to build a better life. As an Asian American, I take special pride in celebrating Asian American and Pacific Island Heritage month. I am now privileged to serve as EPA’s Assistant Administrator for the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response.

The path that took me to my current position began with my work seeking to improve human rights in Sri Lanka. From there, I became engaged in environmental protection by working with communities who suffer from disproportionate levels of pollution and environmental harm. Since I began at EPA, it’s been one of my top priorities to make sure that communities have full access to information and are involved in the decision-making process. It’s especially important to me that we reach communities who have historically not had their voices heard.

With the recent passing of the one year anniversary of the BP Oil Spill, it’s a good time to look back at EPA’s efforts during that time. I’m very proud of EPA’s work to make sure that our outreach and engagement efforts paid special attention to the Asian American fishing communities who were severely affected by the spill. When the spill happened, I spent several weeks in the Gulf talking to members of the affected communities; I wanted to make sure that EPA’s actions addressed their concerns. EPA conducted targeted outreach to organizations serving the Asian American communities and other communities in the Gulf. EPA’s work supporting these communities included providing translation services and creating a formal unit in the Unified Incident Command (UIC) to reach out to non-governmental organizations. This unit was the first group of its type in UIC history.

As a member of the Interagency Working Group for the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, I have worked to draw attention to the unique issues of AAPI communities. EPA has committed to ensuring that Asian American and Pacific Islanders enjoy full opportunities in the workforce, partnering with AAPI universities, and addressing the concerns of AAPI communities. For example, many AAPI women who work in nail salons are exposed to chemicals. EPA is working to reduce this exposure by providing education, training, and by examining alternatives to chemicals used in the nail salon industry. By working with AAPI communities and listening to their concerns, EPA can help these Americans achieve a better standard of living.

About the author: Mathy Stanislaus is Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.