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A Human Rights-Based Approach to Safeguarding Biodiversity – What does it mean and why does it matter?

Illegal logging on Pirititi indigenous Amazon-lands with a repository of round logs.

Photo: quapan / Flickr

On the first of December, the Focali-SIANI Dialogue Forum in collaboration with partners from science, civil society and Sida are organising a global online exchange on a Human Rights-based approach (HRBA) for biodiversity and livelihoods and how HRBA can be translated into policy and practice. Such an approach is recognised as a vital contribution given scientific evidence of biodiversity loss as well as the human rights violations that have been documented in nature conservation, especially in the Global South. The event aims to increase attention to the meaning and effects of using HRBA for people and nature and to bridge the gap between knowledge communities and policy-and practice actors with a focus on human rights and biodiversity protection.

This autumn, two international high-level meetings relevant to climate and biodiversity policy were held, namely Conference of the Parties to the Convention of Biological Diversity – COP15 (the first session) and the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – COP26. In the lead up to these Conferences, civil society organisations voiced their demands to make human rights central in responses to the risks of climate change, environmental degradation, and biodiversity loss. But what is a HRBA and how does it link to global efforts to safeguard biodiversity and land-based mitigation efforts? And how are human rights represented in the negotiating text on biodiversity?

This article aims to offer a first look at these questions by introducing the concept of HRBA and indicating its relevance for biodiversity protection. In addition, several examples highlight how human rights were brought up in connection to COP15 and COP26.

Human Rights-Based Approach(es): A general definition

One of the most frequently quoted general definitions of HRBAs was developed by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights as a:

…a conceptual framework for the process of human development that is normatively based on international human rights standards and operationally directed to promoting and protecting human rights.

While there is no common understanding of how to practice HRBA, the UN identifies six human rights principles that are central to the approach. Of these, principle 4, 5 and 6 have been especially prominent for the operationalisation and implementation of HRBA in different contexts. They are the principles of equality and non-discrimination, participation and inclusion, and accountability and the rule of law.

Furthermore, certain general characteristics distinguish HRBA from other approaches. The most essential of these is the use of the concept of rights and positioning people as rights-holders. This transforms the “beneficiaries” of development initiatives from passive charity recipients to active right-holders. As it only makes sense to talk about rights if there is a corresponding obligation to uphold them, the employment of the right-concept presupposes a relatively well-functioning state. In practice, this often means that donors take on a responsibility to incorporate human rights principles in how they work. They are also likely to focus on enabling the duty-bearer – often the State – to respond to the right-holders’ claims, the empowerment of right-holders to put forth those claims and/or on making sure that right-holders’ core rights, such as the right to health, are fulfilled.

In sum, whereas the general definition and guiding principles of HRBA are relatively straightforward and it is possible to identify certain characteristics that distinguish HRBA from other development approaches, there is no general agreement on its practice.

HRBA in Responding to Biodiversity Loss: How is it relevant?

Evidence suggests that there is a risk for trade-offs and negative impacts on human rights with current measures to safeguard biodiversity – especially the rights of Indigenous Peoples, Afro-descendants, local communities, peasants and rural women and youth (henceforth IPLC). The Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment highlights in a recently published policy brief how the implementation of protected areas and the exclusion of IPLC from access to land and resources also known as fortress conservation, has led to numerous human rights violations, such as the right to life, food and water. It has also been linked to gender-based violence. In addition, a report by the Rights and Resources Initiative estimates that a total of 136 million people are thought to have been displaced following the creation of protected areas.

Exclusionary conservation measures have, apart from being linked to human rights violations, been shown to hold limited gains for nature. The Special Rapporteur on Human Rights argues that they, at best

“attain their conservation goals, but do so while inflicting unacceptable human rights violations” and, at worst, result in “the abuse and marginalisation of the rightful guardians of vast, interconnected ecosystems while facilitating environmental degradation and biodiversity loss”.

For instance, a report by the Rainforest Foundation on the situation in the Congo Basin traces serious human rights abuses, gender-based violence, arbitrary detention, and cruel punishment, to the anti-pouching measures carried out by eco-guards. In some parts of the world conservation has become increasingly militarised, yet these measures generally fail to meet their objective of preventing poaching. Instead, they serve to further alienate local populations, whose involvement, according to the report, is key for successfully safeguarding the unique biodiversity, in, for instance, the Congo Basin.

What is the suggested solution to the double failure of protecting threatened ecosystems and endangered wildlife and ensuring that the human rights of IPLCs are respected?

Positive biodiversity outcomes have been correlated with community-based management or co-management arrangements that recognise IPLCs as right-holders and affirm their cultures and livelihoods. The Special Rapporteur highlights this mutually dependent relationship between nature and the rights of IPLCs. He provides recommendations for safeguarding biodiversity rooted in human rights-principles that recognises IPLCs as right-holders and that acknowledges IPLCs’ traditional knowledge and their role as custodians of biodiversity.

International Policy Processes: COP15 and COP26

Human rights have been brought up in connection to climate change and biodiversity conservation during the COP15 and COP26, both held during the autumn of 2021.

The first part of COP15 (the second session will be held in 2022) took place from the 11th to the 15th of October. It brought together State Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and an estimated 4500 participants followed the negotiations in person or virtually. During the two sessions, the CBD’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 is being reviewed and the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) will be decided on. The Strategic Plan provided an overarching framework for achieving the three main objectives of the CBD, guided UN action and State Parties’ development of national strategies and action plans for biodiversity protection. It is to be replaced by the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework that is currently negotiated.

The CBD, the Strategic Plan and the recent declaration made by State Parties following the COP15 negotiations, the Kunming Declaration, recognise the role of IPLCs in safeguarding biodiversity. IPLCs’ dependence on and unique role is acknowledged by the State Parties in the preamble as well as the provisions of the CBD. In Article 8(j), for instance, the State Parties undertake to protect, preserve and maintain the knowledge of IPLCs that is relevant to the conservation of biological diversity. Furthermore, Aichi Target 18 – which is part of the 2011-2020 Strategic Plan – sets as an objective (yet to be reached) that by 2020 traditional knowledge and practices of IPLCs are respected and integrated in the implementation of the Convention. In line with these commitments, the State Parties adopted the Kunming Declaration where the contributions to conservation and the sustainable use of biodiversity by IPLCs were, once again, acknowledged.

However, human rights are not explicitly referenced in these documents. Several civil society organisations, comprising the Human Rights in Biodiversity Working Group, have collaboratively written a statement stressing that human rights are not sufficiently recognised in the first draft of the post-2020 GBF. They contend that, as a consequence, the framework risks falling short of its ambition to achieve transformative change in safeguarding biodiversity. In its analysis, the Working Group urges the State Parties and the Open-ended Working Group on the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework to integrate human rights more fully in the framework and puts forth specific suggestions for how this can be done.

Human rights have also figured in declarations and commitments related to biodiversity at COP26, but have been far from unequivocally endorsed. At the beginning of the conference, actors, such as the European Union (EU), made a joint pledge to end deforestation. Two independent declarations followed the ‘Global Forest Finance Pledge‘. In the ‘COP26 IPLC Forest Tenure Joint Donor Statement‘ the signatories “recognise the critical guardianship provided by Indigenous Peoples and local communities in protecting tropical forests and preserving vital ecosystems”. They pledge to support work that strives to strengthen recognition of this role played by IPLCs and that support the advancement of their forest tenure rights. The ‘COP26 Congo Basin Joint Donor Statement‘, the second declaration, is silent on the question of human rights in relation to biodiversity conservation. It focuses on the need to increase financial investments to “support ambitious efforts and results in the region to protect and maintain the Congo Basin forests, peatlands and other critical global carbon stores”. To that end, the signatories pledge at least $1.5 billion of financing between 2021-2025. While the EU joined the declaration on the sustainable management of the Congo Basin, it did not sign the pledge to support the IPLCs’ rights in connection to land-and resource use.

Although the latest round of global negotiations at the COP15 and COP26 reveal that human rights have figured in discussions on biodiversity conservation, their integration into policy frameworks and financial commitments is neither widely endorsed nor well understood among impactful actors, such as the EU.

Conclusion: What is HRBA?

This article provides a short overview of the many open questions and issues that remain and need to be addressed in order to achieve inclusive and rights-based conservation. While HRBA can be given a generally acceptable conceptual definition, the way it is translated into practice is context dependent. In relation to biodiversity conservation efforts, the implementation of HRBA may vary according to such contextual factors as the specific socio-ecological context and cultural particularities as well as the specific drivers of biodiversity loss. What are good examples where human rights and the rights of IPLC support and enhance biodiversity conservation and vice versa?

Finally, despite human rights violations in current conservation, the integration of human rights in biodiversity policy is not unequivocally accepted. Why is that? What are the root causes of the persistent conflict between biodiversity policy and practice and human rights? How can these be overcome? These questions and gaps need more attention at all levels to show why and how HRBA is vital for biodiversity and climate action, both for nature and for people.

Are you interested to learn more and further explore questions related to human rights and biodiversity? Please sign up and join our upcoming online exchange on the 1st of December.

Suggested Further Reading

Applying a Human Rights-based approach: guidance on the application of a human rights-based approach in the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework prepared by members of the “Human Rights in Biodiversity Working Group including Forest Peoples Programme (FPP), CBD Alliance, Global Youth Biodiversity Network (GYBN), ICCA Consortium, Natural Justice, SwedBio at Stockholm Resilience Centre, Tebtebba Foundation, WWF International, Friends of the Earth International, the CBD Women’s Caucus and Women4Biodiversity. 2021.

Policy Brief No. 1 Human rights-based approaches to conserving biodiversity: equitable, effective and imperative by David Boyd (Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment) and Stephanie Keene. 2021.

Protected Areas in the Congo Basin: Failing both People and Biodiversity? by Aili Pyhälä, Ana Osuna Orozco and Simon Counsell (Rainforest Foundation UK). 2016.

Rights-based Conservation: the path to Preserving Earth’s Biological and Cultural Diversity? by the Rights and Resource Initiative. 2020.

Written by Josefine Jacobsson, intern at SIANI.