Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called on countries to implement policies that protect the environment, stressing that this will also benefit their economic growth and prosperity.
"When the environment is neglected, poverty and instability follow. When it is nurtured, well-being and prosperity flourish," Mr. Ban said in his message to the 27th session of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Governing Council and Global Ministerial Environment Forum, held at the agency's headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya.
"You have a responsibility to articulate these truths and to help craft the policies and programmes that will benefit all people - and especially those most at risk from environmental degradation and climate change," Mr. Ban said. "To do so, you will need to engage closely with your counterparts in government to enable them to see that investing in the environment and a green economy is not a cost but a sound insurance policy for the future we want."
This is the first time that all UN Member States are participating in the five-day forum, following a decision on universal membership in UNEP that was taken at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in June and which was endorsed by the General Assembly in September.
"We cannot continue to 'save the planet', one species, one ecosystem, one policy, one issue, one law, one treaty at a time. Our challenge at the beginning of the 21st century has become a systemic one," said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner in his policy statement to the Governing Council.
"Environment ministers have a mandate to protect the environment but increasingly their success in doing so will be predicated on their capacity to offer environmental solutions which create jobs, expand access to energy, address food security, reduce poverty and enhance livelihoods."
Also speaking at the forum was the UN independent expert on human rights and the environment, John Knox, who urged governments to take into account human rights laws when they design and develop environmental policies.
"When governments around the world fail to restrict emissions of greenhouse gases, jeopardizing the continued existence of, among others, vulnerable communities in the Arctic and in low-lying coastal areas, they fail to protect many human rights, including rights to life, health, property, and development," Mr. Knox said.
"Human rights and the environment are not only interrelated, they are also interdependent. A healthy environment is fundamentally important to the enjoyment of human rights, and the exercise of human rights is necessary for a healthy environment," he added.
The independent expert underlined that countries have an obligation to take steps to prevent environmental degradation that violates human rights, and should take into account recommendations from various mechanisms and international conferences which are developing human rights norms relevant to environmental protection.
Independent experts are appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a country situation or a specific human rights theme. The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work. Mr. Knox is scheduled to present his report on issues related to human rights and the environment next month.