A fundamental human right to a healthy environment?

“Man has the fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being.” (Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment, 1992)

Five years ago, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) met “to discuss the series of resolutions adopted by the UN Human Rights Council on the relationship between a safe and healthy environment and the enjoyment of human rights.” The meeting, titled High Level Expert Meeting, the New Future of Human Rights and the Environment: Moving the Global Agenda Forward, was comprised of a diverse group of legal and environmental policy experts who proposed “to produce a review of law dealing with human rights and environmental linkages.”

Over the past 40 years, there have been some great developments that have contributed to international community’s understanding of the link between human rights and the environment. There are  international treaties, resolutions and declarations that explain the “aspects of the human rights and the environment connection.” Among them are the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, numerous multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs), along with human rights treaties, which “explicitly refer to the right to live in a healthy environment in varying formulations.”

These international bodies of law emphasize the need for integration of the “environment and development in order to achieve sustainable development and allow for a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature.” Their mandates range from general agreements to recognize the link between humanity’s and the environment’s well being, to “provisions regarding disclosure of environmental information and public participation in decision-making.”

International organizations such as the OHCHR and UNEP are aiming establishing “human rights obligations regarding the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.” Recent climate changes and natural disasters have brought environmental issues to the forefront in our world. Environmental protection is among the most important issues in our world today. Yet, many are not aware that environmental issues go beyond climate change. They also include “toxic waste, indigenous peoples rights, food, water,” as well as “environmental sustainability.”

The nexus between human rights infringements and these environmental issues are what intrigue me. “[E]nvironmental pollution…unsustainable extraction of natural resources, [and] denial of land title” are among the few aspects of this nexus. Environmental issues like these have continuously led to serious issues such as the forced resettlement of people and to the infringement of human rights.

The Center for International Environmental Law recently published a compendium that “maps human rights obligations relating to the environment on the basis of an extensive review of global and regional sources, including procedural obligations, substantive obligations, and obligations specific to members of groups particularly vulnerable to environmental harm.”  The aim of the report is to provide “open discussion on the human rights obligations related to environmental protection.” I have never really thought of these fields as being so intertwined. Yet, exposure to the experts’ findings in the compendium and a closer view into the issues that revolve around them have made me realize the importance of this connection.

What do you think it means to have a “fundamental human right to a healthy environment”? Do you think that the our world still has a need to find ways to consolidate solutions for these issues?  What can the international community do to properly and effectively address the inevitable linkage?



UNEP Human Rights and Environment Compendium

The Center for International Environmental Law

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