On 5 September 2014, the 3rd UNITAR-Yale Conference on Environmental Governance and Democracy was held at Yale University. The conference brought together a wide range of participants, including representatives of UN agencies, NGOs, academics, human rights defenders and others to discuss issues related to “Human Rights, Environmental Sustainability, Post 2015 Development Agenda, and the Future Climate Regime” (the conference theme). The goal of the conference was to develop actions and recommendations for policy makers involved in these issues. Natural Justice attended the conference and also submitted a case study paper on community protocols in Ghana and Kenya.
The conference began with a keynote speech from Professor John Knox, the UN Independent Expert on human rights and the environment. He noted that every regional agreement since 1970 has adopted some form of a right to a healthy environment and that 90 countries now provide for a right to a healthy environment in their constitutions. He also noted several benefits of a human rights based approach to the environment, including the fact that it sets out rules for environmental policy making, such as duties to conduct impact assessments, make information public, and allow for participation in decision making.
Over the next two days, a series of parallel group meetings and plenary sessions were held to discuss the conference theme. Jael Makagon joined a panel discussing procedural environmental rights and participatory governance to report on Natural Justice’s work with regard to community protocols. One of the issues that was raised during the panel’s discussion was the importance of participation in decision making, and the necessity of defining parameters of participation in order to measure whether such participation is effective.
Overall, several important issues were raised during the conference that merit further action and discussion. These included the importance of disseminating information regarding rights, both to rights-holders as well as to judges and lawyers who can ensure those rights are upheld. Implementation (or its lack) of laws supporting human rights was raised repeatedly as a crucial aspect of ensuring protection of human rights. There was also much discussion of rights-based approaches, including the fact that the UN system is moving toward utilizing a rights-based approach as a foundation for its activities, and how rights-based approaches are increasingly gaining prominence in other areas as well.