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.