“It is now beyond argument that human rights law includes obligations relating to the environment,” said United Nations Independent Expert on human rights and the environment, John Knox, this week. Before urging States “to take these obligations into account in the development and implementation of their environmental policies.”
The obligations were summarised thus: ‘they require States to assess environmental impacts on human rights and to make environmental information public, to provide access to effective remedies, and to facilitate participation in environmental decision-making.’
The first step in protecting those basic human rights that relate to the environment – such as the right to life and health – is effective environmental assessment. Assessment, and the availability of information on pollutants, is therefore a critical means of empowering communities and a first step towards determining accountability for harm. From the Rio Declaration to the Aarhus Convention access to information from assessments is seen as a fundamental part of participatory rights.
While Knox’s report was not specific to conflict or post-conflict settings, the parallels are striking as human rights obligations continue to apply during and after conflict. Conflict and administrative breakdown can contribute to creating complex polluted environments, environments in which many factors may combine to make populations more vulnerable to the health impact of pollutants.
One issue that has been of particular concern during our project has been the barriers to effective environmental assessment in conflict and post-conflict settings. State capacity for such assessments is typically limited to non-existent. What information there is available often comes from the UN Environment Programme’s post-conflict environmental assessments (PCEAs). Belligerents or occupying powers are rarely interested in environmental assessment, beyond such work as is deemed necessary to protect personnel, studies that are usually limited to the vicinity of operating bases.
UNEP’s PCEAs may take place well after the conclusion of hostilities and, while robust, they can be limited in their scope and duration by political considerations and security concerns. Individual researchers have at times conducted limited site or substance specific assessments but these have often proved less robust, or may be dismissed because of their limited temporal or geographic scope or the researcher’s lack of political influence. Meanwhile, civilians may continue to live in polluted environments and face exposure risks that could potentially be reduced if information on pollutants was more readily available.
Another major barrier to assessments is the accessibility and affordability of analytical technology. Even moderately advanced analytical equipment is often absent in low and middle income countries resulting in a dependence on overseas laboratories. Sample analysis therefore comes at a prohibitively high cost. Field portable equipment is increasingly available but this may not provide the analytical precision of laboratory-based equipment, nor allow screening for a wide variety of pollutants.
Democratising and diversifying environmental assessment
So, while access to environmental data is key to the protection of fundamental human rights, and ultimately to accountability for pollution, how can those concerned about the humanitarian legacy of environmental damage ensure that more data is collected?
Clearly there are strong arguments in favour of diversifying the range of actors capable and willing to undertake post-conflict environmental assessments. Actors who could not only help fill the gap between the end of hostilities and such time that national capacity allows administrations to take on this role but who could also help facilitate this process through building national capacity.
But such work would need to be funded, which would require political and donor interest. Could this be developed independently or would it require that obligations on both belligerent and affected States be clarified, and the development of some form of assistance mechanism?
The technological and capacity barriers are if anything more difficult to overcome. Nevertheless there are interesting developments afoot in the field of assessment technology, two such areas are work on ‘labs on chips’, and the impact of low cost computing which is being driven by single board computers such as the Raspberry Pi.
The US Army Corps of Engineers has published a design for a lab on a chip that measures levels of the troublesome military pollutant perchlorate in water, and while some sample preparation is still necessary, the project was driven by the need to lower costs and simplify monitoring. Elsewhere a group of 16-18-year-olds developed an air quality sensing device that uploads data on temperature, humidity, smoke, carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide directly to the web.
It is hard to underestimate the impact that the ready availability of low cost environmental analysis technology could have on protecting communities from pollutants, and making polluters accountable for their actions. The technological tools that could allow this may still be over the horizon and, while it would not negate the need for clear expert analysis and responsible risk communication, the TRWP will be keeping a watching brief on developments.
Diversifying the number of actors undertaking environmental assessments, clarifying State obligations to protect the rights of communities, and the pursuit of new analytical technologies may all have a role to play in improving the protection of civilians from the toxic legacy of conflict and military activities. While the future for each is still to be determined, the necessity for progress on minimising the environmental and public health legacy of conflict is increasingly clear.