Human Rights and the Environment: Thoughts for Auditors

The right to a clean environment is enshrined in the constitutions of Finland and many other countries. Nevertheless, the resolution the UN passed in July to recognise it as a human right is significant. Arguably, there is an unexplored connection between environmental auditing and many human rights such as the right to a healthy environment. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) may have a key role in incorporating human rights perspectives into environmental auditing. In addition, environmental audits can have a role in realising the right to a healthy environment.

Author: Kira Nicole Kolesnik

If someone had asked me a year ago what environmental auditing is, I would not have had much to say. In a similar vein, if someone had asked me what the connection between environmental auditing and human rights is, I would probably have had even less to say.

The National Audit Office of Finland (NAOF) is currently leading the global INTOSAI Working Group on Environmental Auditing (WGEA), which aims to increase the effectiveness of environmental policies and promote efficient use of public funds. Now that I have spent a year diving deep into the world of environmental auditing through working for the INTOSAI WGEA, I am ready to put on my human rights glasses and take a closer look.

Discovering Environmental Auditing

To begin with, Supreme Audit Institutions are independent public bodies that hold their governments accountable for the use of public funds. Supreme Audit Institutions conduct audits that can cover any government sector or activity. To put it simply, environmental auditing is the process of evaluating government compliance and the performance of environmental and climate policies. For example, a Supreme Audit Institution can undertake an audit examining whether the government has a plan in place for the allocation of international climate finance or whether this funding has been effective. For instance, looking at the commitments agreed upon in the Paris Agreement can be a useful starting point.

Supreme Audit Institutions can investigate environmental-related funding, assess compliance with relevant legislation, or evaluate the effectiveness of environmental policies and measures. Consequently, Supreme Audit Institutions can hold their governments accountable and urge them to do better. In other words, through environmental audits, they can contribute to the realisation of a healthy environment.

Over the last few years, the environment has become an increasingly important audit topic as the world is heading towards a climate and biodiversity emergency. In recent years, Supreme Audit Institutions have progressively started using the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as audit topics and a source of audit criteria. As internationally agreed goals, the SDGs can help to recognise sustainable development as a broad and transnational challenge. Therefore, they are also a tool that can encourage environmental audits to recognise these transboundary challenges.

Connecting Environmental Auditing with Human Rights

The mainstreaming of SDGs in audits is a force for both the environment and human rights. This is because all SDGs can be connected to the realisation of various human rights. For example, the right to health can be linked to many so-called environmental SDGs such as Clean Water and Sanitation (SDG 6), Responsible Consumption and Production (SDG 12), Climate Action (SDG 13), Life Below Water (SDG 14), and Life on Land (SDG 15). In addition, many of the environmental SDGs are also linked to the human right to an adequate standard of living, including food, water, and housing. At their core, the SDGs are linked to the realisation of the right to life, the inherent human right to live.

It is important to note that 2022 was a historical year for the relationship between human rights and the environment. In July, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution recognising the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment as a human right. In other words, the United Nations recognised that caring for the environment creates a win-win situation for both humans and nature. The environmental SDGs are also inherently linked to realising this “new” human right.

Although human rights and the environment are intrinsically intertwined, they are also often in tension with one another. It is essential to point out this tension whenever discussing these two in conjunction with each other. For years, human rights policies have been anthropocentric (human-centred). For example, prioritising the human right to drinking water or food can lead to an overconsumption of natural resources that cannot be replenished. To avoid such situations, it is important to be aware of these interlinkages. Moreover, if the SDGs are understood as interconnected targets, they offer a potential for recognising such links

Exploring the Unexplored

Whether there is room to weave human rights considerations into environmental audits is up for debate. Yet, I would argue that any measure that investigates environmental-related funding, assesses compliance with relevant legislation, or evaluates the effectiveness of environmental policies is also a measure that promotes the human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. It is a hopeful sign that the SDGs are becoming mainstream, and that the world is finally recognising the interconnectedness between a healthy environment and human rights.

Finally, after a year of learning, I am happy to say I now know a little more about environmental auditing. Perhaps even to the point that I am willing to explore and shine a light on the unexplored connection between environmental audits and human rights. Hopefully, through new environmental audits, we can hold our governments accountable and urge them to do better in ensuring our human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.

By Kira Nicole Kolesnik, who worked as a Project Advisor in the Secretariat of the INTOSAI Working Group on Environmental Auditing at the National Audit Office of Finland. She holds a master’s degree in Human Rights Law (LLM).