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.