Linking Human Rights and the Environment - Part i | Daily News
Environmental Justice

Linking Human Rights and the Environment - Part i




W orld Environment Day is celebrated every year on June 5 throughout the world. The main objective of World Earth Day is to educate the entire community on environmental protection. Various programmes are implemented in many countries throughout the world to celebrate this day. ‘Only one Earth’ was the slogan for the 1st UN conference on Human Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm 1972. In the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report, released on February 28, 2022, the UN scientists say that human-induced Climate Change is causing dangerous widespread destruction in Nature and affecting the lives of billions of people around the world, despite various efforts to reduce the risks.

People and ecosystems least able to cope are being hardest hit, they say. “This report is a dire warning about the consequences of inaction”, said Hosting Lee, Chair of the IPCC. It shows that Climate Change is a grave and mounting threat to our well-being and a healthy planet. Our actions today will shape how people adopt and Nature's response to increasing climate risks.

In the universe are billions of galaxies. In our galaxy are billions of planets. But there is only one Earth. Let's take care of it.

This is the message of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) for the World Environmental Day (WED) led by the UNEP and held annually on June 5 since 1974, the WED is the largest global platform for Environmental Public Outreach and celebrated by millions of people across the world. This year it is hosted by Sweden.

According to the UN, our Planet Earth faces a triple planetary emergency; the climate is heating up too quickly and nature has to adapt; habitat loss and other pressures mean an estimated one million species are threatened with extinction; pollution continues to poison our air, land and water. The way out of this dilemma is to transform our economies and societies to make them inclusive, fair and more connected with nature.

The world faces unavoidable multiple climate hazards over the next two decades with Global Warming of 1.5 (2.7 0F). Even temporarily exceeding this warming level will result in additional severe impacts, some of which will be irreversible. Risks for society will increase, including to infrastructure and low-lying coastal settlements.

The summary for policy-makers of the IPCC Working Group II report, ‘‘Climate Change 2022: Impacts, adaptations and vulnerability" was approved on February 27, by the 195 Member Governments of the IPCC, through a virtual approval session that was held over two weeks starting on February 17.

As the welfare State of modern time’s moves into its stride, there is scarcely any aspect of activity law does not take within its province. This move has increased the indispensability of the law for the regulation of such activities in the public interest. The international legal regime in the global sense, and national legal regime in the national context are therefore essential for achieving environmental justice. The concept of justice is one of the important ideals of man developed initially by philosophers and later by the judiciary. Justice broadly encompasses general justice and particular justice. In the general sense justice is the sum of all the social virtues. In the particular sense, it means equality. Environmental justice is a facet of justice. This article briefly reviews the linkage between human rights, sustainable developments and the environment from a legal perspective.

International Concern for Environmental Protection

International concern for environmental protection is of comparatively recent origin. The United Nations Conference on Human Environment and Development Stockholm 1972 (The Stockholm Declaration (1972) is considered to be the major event bearing on environmental protection together with the concept of sustainable development. The Declaration besides the preamble consists of seven universal truths and 26 principles. The concern for environmental protection and sustainable development receives further boost in the “World Conservation Strategy” which was prepared in 1980 by the World Conservation Union with the advice and support of the United Nations Environment Programme.

It was endorsed by the governments of the various nations at the General Assembly in 1980. The next milestone in the evolution of international environment law is the World Charter for nature which was adopted in 1982. This instrument is unique in that it is the first of its kind which recognizes the rights of Nature, distinct from the rights of human beings. Most other instruments recognize the need for environmental protection because of its utility to man, not because it needs protection in its own right.

In other words, most instruments approach environmental protection in an anthropocentric manner while the World Charter for Nature is the first instrument – to adopt an ecocentric approach. It endorses the right of every form of life, “warranting respect regardless of its worth to man”.

The World Charter also endorses environmental procedural rights and recognizes a fundamental right to a healthy environment. The term “sustainable development” was brought into common use by the World Commission on Environment and Development (“the Brundtland Commission”) in its seminal 1987 report on “Our Common Future”(The Brundtland Commission 1987).

The World Commission on Environment and Development was set up by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1983. The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development popularly known as the Earth Summit was held in June 1992 at Rio de Janeiro. (Earth Summit (1992). The Documents of the Earth Summit included the following: The Rio Declaration, Agenda 21, Forest Principles and two legally binding Conventions on Climate Change and BioDiversity.

In 1997 delegates from a large number of nations attending the World Climate Conference in Kyoto in Japan reached a historic accord calling for mandatory cuts in emission of green – house gases by industrial nations in the 21st Century to help to save the planet from potentially devastating Global Warming. At the United Nations Climate Conference held in Paris, France in December 2015, ‘the Paris Agreement on Climate’ was signed.

Through this treaty world leaders agreed to take required measures to limit Global Warming to well below 2 degree Celsius. This was further prevailed upon at the Climate Change Conference of World leaders held in November 2019 in Glasgow, Scotland.

Link between the Environment and Human Rights

These developments on economic and environmental issues had led to the dialogue on a right to a healthy environment. While the highest human right accorded to a human being is the right to life, that right could become meaningless if the environment in which he is living is degraded. The right to life does not mean the right to any kind of life. There is no doubt that there is a clear relationship between certain human rights and environmental protection. An important development in the present context, although not necessarily recent, is the convergence of the environmental movement with the human rights movement at the national level, particularly in developing countries. Many environmental problems give rise to human rights violations, like the right to health, livelihood, and in extreme cases, the right to life itself. Thus, right to life and right to health are frequently invoked in relation to environmental issues. This inter-relationship often means that one cannot be discussed without reference to the other. This does not mean that all environmental problems lead to human rights abuse or that every human rights abuse is caused by environmental problems or that economic development necessarily leads to environmental degradation or human rights abuse; what it does mean is that environmental problems can give rise to human rights abuse; economic development can, give rise to environmental problems. Thus, human rights, environmental protection and economic development are inextricably interlinked so that, very often, they have to be discussed together. Unlike human rights issues which are often individual in nature (except, of course, issues like genocide, apartheid and slavery), environmental violations often involve groups and communities and sometimes even future generations. It also involves the right of other species to survive – called the “eco-centric approach”. Furthermore, some environmental issues may be global in dimension affecting the entire international community, and their consequences, it is predicted, could affect generations to come.




Given this inter-relationship, it is not surprising that it has also received the attention of the World Court. Justice Weeramantry, the then Vice President of the Court, not only recognized the link between environmental protection and human rights, but also placed environmental protection within human rights doctrine: in his separate opinion in the Case Concerning the Gabcikovo Nagymaros Project, Justice Weeramantry noted: (Hungary v. Slovakia (1997))

“The Protection of the environment is likewise a vital part of contemporary human rights doctrine, for it is a sine qua non for numerous human rights such as the right to health and the right to life itself. It is scarcely necessary to elaborate on this, as damage to the environment can impair and undermine all the human rights spoken of in the Universal Declaration and other human rights instruments.”

The Stockholm Declaration adopted in 1972 recognizes the link between environmental protection and human rights in several of its provisions. The Preamble, for example, states that both the natural and man-made environment are “essential to his [man’s] well-being and to the enjoyment of basic human rights – even the right to life itself”. This is a clear recognition of the fact that, in order to enjoy human rights, the natural and manmade environment is essential.

The Hague Declaration on the Environment adopted in 1989 also recognizes the link between human rights and the environment and explicitly endorses the right to live in dignity in a viable environment. (The Hague Declaration (1989)). Its preamble provides that: The right to live is the right from which all other rights stem. Guaranteeing this right is the paramount duty of those in charge of all States throughout the world. In 1990, the UN General Assembly, welcoming the decision of the Commission of Human Rights and of the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities to study the problems of the environment and its relation to human rights, explicitly endorsed that “all individuals are entitled to live in an environment adequate for their health and well-being”.

(The writer is a retired Professor in Law in the University of Sri Jayawardenepura. He is an Attorney-at-Law and practiced in Courts with PhD in law)

To be continued


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