The United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and the environment John H. Knox framed the issue of environmental pollution and more specifically air pollution in Mongolia as a “harm” to human rights on the conclusion of his recent mission in the country.

The special rapporteur began his mission in Mongolia on September 19 in an effort to evaluate the implementation of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

Knox shared his preliminary observations of his mission during a press conference on September 27. As a special rapporteur, Knox is mandated to promote human rights in the context of the environment. To that end, he has missions in countries all over the world discussing issues relating to human rights and the environment, and ultimately prepares a public report to the UN Human Rights Council that describes good practices and challenges in the application of human rights to environmental protection.

He met with a wide range of people, including representatives of several ministries of the government, judges and parliamentarians, international and regional organizations, members of civil society, and academics.

Knox divulged about the grave situation of air pollution in Ulaanbaatar and how it was impeding the citizens’ rights to a healthy life.

“As you know, most of this pollution is caused by burning coal in household stoves in ger districts, although pollution from power plants and vehicles contributes to the problem. During the cold months in winter, Ulaanbaatar becomes one of the most polluted cities in the world. A brown haze fills the sky and the air is infused with levels of particulates and other pollutants that are many times higher than the World Health Organization air quality standards.”

“This air pollution interferes with the rights to life and health because it causes respiratory and cardiopulmonary illnesses that lead to premature mortality. The effects are felt most severely by the most vulnerable, including the old and the ill,” he added.

One of the more important conclusions that the UN special rapporteur came to during his mission was the interconnected nature of environmental problems in Mongolia. The increasing number of dzuds and the loss of pasture due to a number of reasons including global warming and mining has left many herders no choice but to move to the city to find others means of living. This in turn has only aggravated the issue of air pollution in Ulaanbaatar.

Knox supported and recommended the full-fledged implementation and funding of programs intended to improve air quality. As he puts it, “Literally, the future of the country is at stake.”

However, at the same time, the programs must respect the human rights of the people who they are trying to protect, Knox added. He pertained to the recent ban on rural to urban migration in an effort to reduce air pollution, condemning it to be contrary to the human right of freedom of movement and unlikely to be effective.

While true, the claims of the UN rapporteur only exist to reiterate what Mongolians have known for quite some time now. While the government hasn’t been successful in reducing air pollution, the awareness of air pollution and its consequences have been well documented. The question of whether that awareness can be attributed to the government’s so called projects or just plain observation by residents is still up for debate.

Awareness in itself is a critical component in the fight against air pollution but efforts should not and do not end there. In reality, many coal burning ger area families are quite aware of air pollution and the harm of it, they experience it everyday. In fact, they experience it more than most of us, they might not know the intricacies of what chemicals are entering their lungs to cause which diseases. But they do know the pneumonia that their child or parents catch due to the smog that inhabits their everyday life or the sour burning in their throats every time they step outside.

In essence, awareness alone is not enough for change. It might only go so far as to prevent people from burning things such as tires or other harmful materials. It does not address the root of the problem. That problem is economic, the families in the ger district have no other financial means for heating. Even those woefully aware of the repercussions of burning coal will still choose to do so for the survival of their family.

The simple yet seemingly complex solution to dangerous levels of smog in Ulaanbaatar is to relocate the families living in the ger district to apartments. This is the only ultimate answer to the root of the smog that plagues the capital. Any project or initiative not contributing to that cause only acts as a stopgap. Implementing further laws and “raising awareness” serves as only a vain effort.

In an oversimplified sense, better management of the economy supplemented by real need based government initiatives to relocate ger district families is the only viable solution.


    • The United Nations does not employ reporters. The official job title of Mr. John Knox is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment.


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