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UN General Assembly to debate whether Nature has rights

Global Exchange and Council of Canadians
Straight Goods

New legal paradigm emerging, for protecting environment, assessing damages.

NEW YORK, April 18, 2011 — This Wednesday, in commemoration of Earth Day, and under the shadow of the one year anniversary of the BP oil disaster in the Gulf, the UN General Assembly will discuss implementing new international standards that afford rights and legal standing not just to individuals and businesses adversely affected by the exploitation and damage to natural resources, but to nature and ecosystems themselves. The discussion follows the adoption into law of similar protocols by over a dozen American municipalities as well as into the federal laws in Bolivia and Ecuador.

"Today's environmental laws place commerce above nature, and in so doing they legalize harm to ecosystems," said Shannon Biggs, Director of the Community Rights Program the NGO Global Exchange and author of Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots. "We see communities across the world, including in the United States, taking action to change this model in recognition of the Rights of Nature and to protect our environment, our communities and our future. This week's dialogue at the UN recognizes the Rights of Nature at another, important level."

In 2008, Ecuador became the first nation in the world to rewrite their Constitution to include rights for nature to exist, flourish and evolve. And in the United States, in November 2010 the city of Pittsburgh became the first in the nation to assert the rights of communities and nature over those of corporations when it passed a city ordinance banning the practice of "shale fracking" within city limits. In addition, nearly two-dozen US municipalities who have passed similar ordinances, finding that existing laws are unable to protect their local ecosystems. Canadian communities are wondering if legally recognizing rights for nature can stop the privatization of their public water systems and halt dangerous tar sands extraction in the fragile Alberta region.

Civil society representatives participating in Wednesday's panel say that the event will serve in stark contrast to the 2009 COP 15 and 2010 COP 16 the UN Climate Change Conferences in Copenhagen and Mexico. The COP's failure to generate government led solutions to reverse human-induced climate change led Bolivian President Evo Morales to host the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 2010. The Conference was attended by over 35,000 people and produced a "People's Accord" and launched the global movement for the "Rights of Mother Earth". This week's UN dialogue meets the Bolivian governments' commitment to champion the Rights of Mother Earth.

Renowned international experts on the environment, human rights and the global movement to promote the commons will attend the General Assembly session.

"The case for acknowledging the Rights of Nature cannot be understated", says Maude Barlow, former Senior Advisor on Water to the President of the UN General Assembly and chairperson of the Council of Canadians. "Every now and then in history, the human race takes a collective step forward in its evolution. Such a time is upon us now as we begin to understand the urgent need to protect the Earth and its ecosystems from which all life comes. The Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth is a crucial link in this process and will one day stand as the companion to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights as one of the guiding covenants of our time."

The Council of Canadians, Global Exchange, and the Fundación Pachamama will also release a book this week called The Rights of Nature: The Case for a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth. Copies will be made available to all UN missions.

The UN interactive dialogue this Wednesday, April 20, will consist of two moderated panel discussions with independent experts in sustainable development and its measurement. The floor will be opened to delegates and other participants for questions to the panelists, as well as very brief interventions to share their experiences and other perspectives. After opening remarks at 10 AM from the UN General Assembly President, the Bolivian ambassador Pablo Solon, and the Deputy Secretary General the first discussion will run from 10:20 AM until 1 PM, and will focus on promoting a holistic approach to sustainable development in harmony with nature. The second, beginning at 3 PM and ending at 5:45 PM, will highlight national experiences with the measurement of sustainable development in harmony with nature.

Global Exchange is an international human rights organization dedicated to promoting social, economic and environmental justice around the world. As an education and action resource center, Global Exchange advances its vision by working to ensure members and constituents are empowered locally and connected globally to create a just and sustainable world.

The Council of Canadians, founded in 1985, is Canada's largest social justice organization. With members and chapters across the country, the Council advocates for progressive policies on clean water, fair trade, climate justice, public health care, and other issues of social and economic concern to Canadians.

Read more about the Rights of Nature at