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

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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We Seek Water

Reposted from the It’s Our Environment

Several links below exit EPA Exit EPA Disclaimer

By Pam Lazos, Region 3

In the 1972-1975 TV series, “Kung Fu,” David Carradine walks the American West, looking for his family, performing awesome martial arts moves, and uttering the often-used refrain: “I seek water.”

Over a weekend this summer, while camping with family and friends at Worlds End State Park in Sullivan County, Pa., there was water everywhere, yet we did the same.

We had rented a group tent site – primitive camping. So instead of the usual bank of bathroom facilities, we were afforded a “pit”. It was more glamorous than your usual pit because it had two individual rooms inside a small building with each boasting a locking door and a raised toilet-like structure, but no water. Think port-a-potty, but rooted to the ground.

Down the road was another building with two rooms, luxurious in comparison, each containing its own toilet and shower stalls plus hot and cold running water. These bathrooms were for the cabin rentals, not the group sites; however, I admit to visiting them several times.

Because we had no water at our source, or maybe it’s just a natural human tendency, we spent the rest of the weekend in search of it. Some of us went kayaking, some of us went hiking around the lake at nearby Eagles Mere, and some of us went fishing in the Loyalsock Creek. All of our activities had water at their core. Even the hike up Butternut Trail to the well-hidden vista passed across the creek several times and sported a few small waterfalls.

Coming back from the lake, the girls carried their water bottles on their heads, reminding me of the women in other parts of the world who walk miles to the nearest water source carrying a four-pound jerry can (40 pounds full) which will provide about five gallons. This is the minimum one person needs for drinking and hygiene per day, but not enough for a family. Gathering water takes hours for these women. Sometimes they collect water from water holes that are also used by animals in the area. This can lead to sickness among the women and their families.

About 3.4 million people die from waterborne diseases each year, mostly in developing countries. So arduous is the task of collecting water that many girls are pulled out of school at an early age to help their mothers, resulting in their continued illiteracy and poverty.

Watching my girls, frolicking with their water bottles on their heads, I sent up a prayer of thanks for the abundance of water in our lives and the blessings and opportunities that flow from it. We have the tools and technology to bring fresh, pure water to everyone. Get involved with any one of many organizations, working both locally and internationally to solve these complex water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) issues. Together, we can create an environment where everyone has access to clean water.

About the Author: Pam Lazos works in Region 3’s Office of Regional Counsel chasing water scofflaws and enforcing the Clean Water Act. In her free time, when her family allows, she writes both fact and fiction, but mostly she likes to laugh.

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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Where in the world is EPA?

By Christina Catanese

Click here to view a map of EPA projects throughout the worldMost of our activities in EPA Region 3 are focused on just that – our region of Mid-Atlantic states.  But water issues are not confined to one geographic area, and environmental boundaries frequently cross political boundaries – try telling a river it needs a passport to flow from one country to another!  Since water issues are so varied in different areas (and consequently managed much differently), it’s always beneficial to hear about what people are working on in other parts of the country and the world.

On November 4th, a number of EPA representatives attended the 4th annual conference of the Philadelphia Global Water Initiative for that very purpose.  EPA is a collaborator in this network of water professionals in Philadelphia and beyond (including non-governmental organizations, government organizations, universities, and the public) who share a common goal of addressing water, sanitation, and hygiene challenges around the world.  Talk about healthy waters on a large scale!

The theme of this year’s conference was “Managing the Last 1%: Allocating Water to Meet the UN Millennium Development Goals,” a reference to the fact that out of all the water on Earth, only 1% is available for human use and consumption.  I know that seems unbelievable, since we have always learned that the Earth is over 75% water, a characteristic that has earned it the nickname “The Blue Planet.”  But when you consider that oceans are nearly 98% of the Earth’s water resources (which we can’t drink), and about half of the remaining percentage is tied up in glaciers and icecaps, only 1% is left in surface water and groundwater, the only kind we can use for our water supply.  Plus, did you know that 1 billion people in the world don’t have access to clean water, and over 2.5 billion people have inadequate access to improved sanitation facilities?  We don’t often think about it, but there actually is a global shortage of water for people and the environment.

Being aware of this massive water shortage, the participants at the conference discussed the challenges of managing limited water supplies and shared their experiences of success and obstacles.  Speakers talked about their work in diverse places like China, South Africa, Guatemala, Bangladesh, and the Mid-Atlantic’s very own Delaware River Basin.  The work they discussed was fascinating and included:

– installing wells and gardens at schools in developing countries,

-creating basin commissions to manage large interstate watersheds (like the Delaware River Basin Commission)

-evaluating the cost-effectiveness of various water supply and demand measures,

-how water and energy issues are related

-“virtual water” and agricultural water use

-protecting ecosystems and the services they provide us

-corporate strategies to reduce water use

If you missed out on this year’s conference, you can still view the presentations by the speakers.

You might also be surprised to hear that EPA does some international work Presently, a cadre of Mid-Atlantic Region employees is working with the Moroccan Ministry of Environment on developing an enforcement and compliance program whose initial focus has been wastewater discharges.   Phase I of the program saw the development of a wastewater discharge permit application, a basic permit which can be modified based on the permit to be issued, and a permit writers manual.  In addition, the project worked on enforcement by creating an inspection guidance which focused on wastewater dischargers.  Phase II of the project, which has just started, will continue these efforts by developing a permitting and enforcement strategy for wastewater dischargers, address organizational issues, and expand the effort into air and solid waste.   There are also some Mid-Atlantic personnel working with the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua on wastewater permitting issues.  They have provided training and technical assistance to a wide range of stakeholders in various government agencies to help develop a permitting and enforcement system for wastewater dischargers.  Learn about EPA’s water work internationally beyond the Mid-Atlantic Region.

Have you heard of any ways that other countries manage their water resources differently than we do?  What issues are you most interested in on an international scale?

About the Author: Christina Catanese has worked at EPA since 2010, and her work focuses on data analysis and management, GIS mapping and tools, communications, and other tasks that support the work of Regional water programs. Originally from Pittsburgh, Christina has lived in Philadelphia since attending the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned a B.A. in Environmental Studies and Political Science and an M.S. in Applied Geosciences with a Hydrogeology concentration. Trained in dance (ballet, modern, and other styles) from a young age, Christina continues to perform, choreograph and teach in the Philadelphia area.

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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