Environmental Justice

EPA’s Role in Promoting International Human Rights, Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and Environmental Justice


Issues of environmental justice – meaning the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies – have been of concern to the international community for many years, including in the context of human rights and environmental protection.  In the United States (U.S.), EPA has taken a leading role in government efforts to address environmental justice issues.  To advance and coordinate the U.S. government’s efforts on environmental justice, EPA works with over 17 federal agencies and White House offices through the Federal Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice (EJ IWG).  In the early stages of EPA’s environmental justice program, the Agency formed the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) and its International Subcommittee to provide EPA with advice and recommendations on international environmental justice issues.  In its recommendations to EPA, published in its May 2002 report, Integration of Environmental Justice in Federal Agency Programs, the NEJAC noted the importance of effective international coordination and cooperation between the U.S. and other countries to address environmental justice concerns.  Since this report, the Agency has been asked many times to share our work, policies and activities on environmental justice with representatives from various countries, as well as with representatives of community-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who are working to create EJ programs in their countries.

The U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor leads U.S. efforts to promote democracy, to advance labor rights globally and to promote human rights, including  religious freedom.  The values captured in the United Nations’ (UN) Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in many other global and regional commitments are consistent with the values upon which the U.S. was founded centuries ago. 

Top of Page

International Human Rights Mechanisms and Treaties

Since 2010, EPA has been taking a more active role in working with various federal agencies to identify and address the environmental and public health issues raised by NGOs, community-based organizations, tribal governments and other interested parties in relation to the U.S. government’s international human rights obligations and commitments.  This enhanced involvement has included EPA personnel serving on U.S. delegations to certain human rights treaty bodies and mechanisms, participating in and leading U.S. government civil society consultations, and participating in an interagency working group that focuses on economic, social, and cultural rights; indigenous issues; and the environment.  The EPA has also taken on the role of addressing/raising domestic environmental justice issues in the context of U.S. human rights reporting and engagement. The EPA’s major actions in this role are as follows:

  • Universal Periodic Review (UPR) [on Human Rights] - The UPR was established in 2006 by the UN General Assembly as a process through which the human rights record of every UN Member State is reviewed and assessed at the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). This review, conducted by the UPR Working Group of the HRC, is based upon a report submitted by the state under review, and in preparation for which the United States conducts multiple engagements and consultations with civil society (including NGOs, tribes, concerned citizens, etc.). The U.S. is a strong supporter of the UPR process, which provides an important avenue for the global community to discuss human rights around the world.

The first U.S. UPR was held in November 2010. Of the 220+ recommendations provided by UN member states during the review, there were three environment-focused recommendations that were accepted in whole or in part by the U.S. government:  Recommendations 51, 221, and 222 (although the U.S. government disagrees with the premises behind these recommendations, the U.S. agrees with their key goals - reduce greenhouse gas emissions and cooperate internationally).  As part of the U.S. government’s efforts toward implementing the UPR recommendations, ten federal interagency working groups were formed and organized around issue themes (e.g. Environment, Criminal Justice, Immigration, Indigenous Peoples, etc.).  The EPA chaired the UPR Working Group on the Environment during the U.S. government’s first UPR cycle. The U.S. Government consulted with civil society on how the U.S government could most effectively address the accepted UPR recommendations related to the environment on October 7, 2014 at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law. The agenda and outcome report can be found at: https://www.law.berkeley.edu/files/UPR_Enviro_Consultation_Outcome_Doc_141208.pdf.

The second U.S. UPR report was submitted to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in February 2015.  The second U.S. UPR was held on May 11, 2015, and began with opening remarks from U.S. Ambassador on Human Rights Keith Harper.  Having responded to the 2010 UPR recommendations, the U.S. received over 340 new recommendations from approximately 120 countries.  In addition to concerns about climate change, there are recommendations that raise concerns about water and sanitation services; farmworker safety and protection; protection of indigenous lands, sacred sites and the environment; and implementation of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  The U.S. government has accepted, in whole or in part, a significant number of these recommendations.  A process for working toward implementation of the accepted recommendations has been developed, which includes six interagency working groups responsible for coordinating these efforts and consulting with civil society on these issues.  The Working Groups will also consider related recommendations received from the UN human rights treaty bodies since 2013 (including the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Committee Against Torture, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, and the Human Rights Committee).

Working Group 1: Civil Rights and Non-Discrimination
Working Group 2: Criminal Justice
Working Group 3: Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, Indigenous Issues, and the Environment
Working Group 4: National Security
Working Group 5: Immigration, Labor, Trafficking, Migrants, and Children
Working Group 6: Domestic Implementation and International Treaties and Mechanisms

The U.S. is holding civil society consultations to discuss the implementation of the accepted UPR recommendations. A calendar of the Working Group consultations and a list of points of contact for each Working Group are available at: http://www.humanrights.gov/.  The next UPR review is expected in 2020.

  • International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) - The U.S. ratified the CERD in 1994.  The CERD requires each State Party (i.e. country that agreed to the Convention) to “pursue by all appropriate means … a policy of eliminating racial discrimination in all its forms,” including by ensuring that all public authorities do not engage in racial discrimination and by reviewing and amending laws and policies that have the effect of creating or perpetuating racial discrimination. State Parties are also required to prohibit racial discrimination in the enjoyment of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights provided under law, in areas such as equal treatment before courts, voting rights, employment, housing, medical care and education. The U.S. had its last review before the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in August 2014.  EPA served on the U.S. delegation and was provided the opportunity to discuss with the Committee the U.S. government’s work on environmental justice in the United States.  One of the Committee’s Concluding Observations and Recommendations related to the impact of environmental pollution on members of ethnic and racial minorities.  The next review is expected around 2018-2019. 

  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) – The ICCPR, adopted in 1966 and fully in force as of 1976, is one of the primary human rights treaties developed after World War II and covers a broad range of issues. The ICCPR requires each State Party to respect the rights recognized in the ICCPR and to ensure that all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction have all the recognized rights without discrimination or status distinction of any kind. The ICCPR-recognized rights include: civil rights, equal protection and equality before the law; prohibitions against torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, slavery and forced labor, and arbitrary deprivation of life, liberty and security of person; rights of persons deprived of liberty; right to fair trial; freedom from arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home or correspondence; freedoms of thought, conscience, religion, opinion, expression, association, and movement; right of peaceful assembly, protection of the family and children; citizen entitlement  to participate in their government, the conduct of political affairs and genuine periodic elections; and the rights of members of minorities with regard to culture, religion and language. The U.S. ratified the ICCPR in 1992 and has actively and comprehensively participated in the periodic reporting process to address questions and difficulties affecting implementations of its obligations.  The next periodic report is expected to be held in 2019.

Top of Page

International Declarations and Fora for Indigenous Peoples

  • UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) - The UNDRIP was adopted by the UN General Assembly on September 13, 2007.  Although the U.S. voted against the adoption at that time, along with three other countries, the U.S. has since stated its support for the Declaration and provided an explanation of its support: http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/184099.pdf.  The EPA, in its Policy on Environmental Justice for Working with Federally Recognized Tribes and Indigenous Peoples, issued July 2014, notes the importance of the UNDRIP and the principles that are consistent with the mission and authorities of the EPA.

  • World Conference on Indigenous Peoples - The first World Conference on Indigenous Peoples was held on September 22- 23, 2014. The meeting was an opportunity to share perspectives and best practices on securing the rights of indigenous peoples, including pursuing the objectives of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  The meeting resulted in an outcome document issued on September 25, 2014, which contains 40 paragraphs of findings and political commitments.  The EPA participated in tribal and civil society consultations, which included the involvement of other indigenous groups (state recognized tribes, tribal/indigenous NGOs, etc.) leading up to the World Conference. 

  • Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (PFII) – The PFII was established by the UN in 2000 to discuss indigenous issues related to economic and social development, culture, the environment, education, health and human rights.  The PFII first met in May 2002, and has since held annual meetings at the UN Headquarters in New York.  The PFII:  1) provides expert advice and recommendations on indigenous issues to the Council, as well as to programs, funds and agencies of the United Nations; 2) raises awareness and promote the integration and coordination of activities related to indigenous issues within the UN system; and 3) prepares and disseminates information on indigenous issues.  The PFII is one of three UN bodies that focus on indigenous peoples’ issues, which include the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Special Rapporteur Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

  • In 2016, the PFII’s 15th session, focused on “Indigenous peoples: Conflict, Peace and Resolution.”  The PFII report includes an environment section which speaks to access to traditional and healthy foods, sustainable agricultural systems, protection of traditional medicines, overexploitation of natural resources, and necessity of environmental impact statements and free, prior and informed consent for projects on indigenous lands.  A number of side-events were held, including one coordinated by EPA on “Environmental Justice and Indigenous Peoples” that was held at the U.S. Mission.  This side event explored best practices used by the U.S. government within its Environmental Justice Program to protect American Indian and Alaska Native lands, environment, public health, and cultural resources.

Top of Page

Advancing Environmental Justice Internationally

The State Department and EPA work together to improve the environment throughout the world by providing assistance to individual countries.  This work is led by the State Department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs and the EPA’s Office of International and Tribal Affairs.  EPA frequently meets with foreign country delegations to discuss a wide range of EPA programs, including our work with minority, low-income and indigenous communities. The EPA also provides technical, and at times financial, assistance to other countries to implement effective environmental and public health protection programs.

Top of Page

EPA Contacts

  • Danny Gogal, Office of Environmental Justice, EPA Lead for International Human Rights Agreements, 202-564-2576, Gogal.Danny@epa.gov

  • Lisa Goldman, Office of General Counsel, International Environmental Law Practice Group, 202-564-4698, Goldman.Lisa@epa.gov

Top of Page