Transforming Reflections into Action: Civil Society and Human Rights

The Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council (source: US Mission Geneva)

The Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council (source: US Mission Geneva)

By Danny Gogal

For the second time in nearly five years, the United States reported to the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council about its work to provide for human rights in the U.S.  In May, EPA was a part of the U.S. Delegation that traveled to Geneva, Switzerland to present information about the ways the U.S. has been implementing the more than 170 recommendations received from the council during the U.S.’s last Universal Periodic Review (UPR) session, held in 2010.

The presentation was preceded by the U.S government’s UPR report that was submitted to the council in February 2015.  For the first time, the report included a section about the environment, which highlights U.S work on addressing the causes and impacts of climate change.

U.S. Delegation for 2015 UPR (courtesy US Geneva Mission website).

U.S. Delegation for 2015 Universal Periodic Review in Geneva, Switzerland (courtesy US Geneva Mission website).

During the May session, the U.S. delegation also received more than 340 additional recommendations from approximately 120 countries, including recommendations focusing on the need for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, improved farmworker safety, improved water and sanitation services, and protection of indigenous lands and sacred sites.

Preparing for review and receiving recommendations also creates a unique opportunity for national governments to engage directly in dialogue with civil society on their own human rights record.  As part of that process, the U.S. also held a consultation on May 11 for American non-governmental organizations, during which environmental issues played a more prominent role.  Many groups raised concerns about climate change and hazardous waste cleanups.  The EPA representatives talked about how the Agency’s Clean Power Plan proposed rule and various EPA cleanup programs stand to address some concerns of communities with environmental justice issues.

"We believe that every nation benefits from having a mirror held before it.  Every nation has challenges, and can reach greater heights by participating seriously in the UPR.  This process provides us the vital opportunity to self-assess, to listen to others, and to more effectively address the concerns of individuals in our country." -- Opening Statement by Ambassador Keith Harper, U.S. Representative to the UN Human Rights Council

“We believe that every nation benefits from having a mirror held before it. Every nation has challenges, and can reach greater heights by participating seriously in the UPR. This process provides us the vital opportunity to self-assess, to listen to others, and to more effectively address the concerns of individuals in our country.” — Opening Statement by Ambassador Keith Harper, U.S. Representative to the UN Human Rights Council

The U.S. government is again seeking to engage civil society and is hosting a UPR town hall meeting on Monday, July 20, to seek input about which of the new recommendations the U.S. should support in the current UPR cycle. The consultation also will provide an opportunity to discuss the process for considering the recommendations.  The town hall consultation is scheduled from 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Eastern Time, at the George Marshall Center, Main State Department Building, in Washington, D.C.  Please RSVP to: UPR2015@state.gov.

Established with the creation of the UN Human Rights Council in 2006, the UPR is a peer review mechanism in which each UN member state is engaged in a dialogue about its human rights record.  The process provides an opportunity for all UN member states to discuss their own human rights records in an open, international forum. It also allows for the sharing of best practices and recommendations.

The EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice has the lead for facilitating the Agency’s implementation of the human rights treaty recommendations pertaining to the protection of the environment and public health.  I look forward to working with those individuals and organizations interested in the implementation of the U.S. government’s accepted UPR recommendations.

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 agreements, 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-three years.