Right to a Clean Environment

In 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights did not specifically mention the environment, in part because at that time most people were still unaware of the fragile and interdependent state of the earth’s biosphere that all people share. However, by 1972 the UN Conference on the Human Environment[1] affirmed that the environment is inherently linked to human rights:

Both aspects of [ones]’s environment, the natural and the [hu]man-made, are essential to well-being and to the enjoyment of basic human rights – even the right to life itself

Every person has the right to a physical environment that does not threaten his or her health, livelihood, or well-being and makes it possible to live a productive life in dignity. Yet strong forces, many of them man-made, increasingly threaten the biosphere in which we all live, resulting in water shortages, over-fishing, floods, soil erosion, landslides, water pollution, destruction of forests and ecosystems, spreading deserts, and violent storms.

 Environment Rights as Human Rights

The United Nations Human Rights Council has repeatedly drawn attention to the relationship between a safe and healthy environment and the enjoyment of human rights and the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) addresses these concerns.  However, whether a safe, healthy, and ecologically-balanced environment constitutes a human right in itself is still under international debate. Advocates look forward to an eventual international legal document that could raise sustainability, conservation, and environmental issues to the level of other rights and create both rights and obligations regarding the environment. Victims would have access to international protections, and environmentalists will be supported as human rights defenders.

There is no debate, however, that the environment includes many interrelated factors that affect human rights. The following are only a few of those human rights affected by environmental damage. Other substantive areas that combine human rights and environmental considerations include climate change, humanitarian law, environmental refugee issues, and the effects of development projects funded by development banks.

  • Right to Life could be linked to any environmental disruption that directly contributed to the loss of lives. For example, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that each year more than 2.4 million people die globally from causes directly attributable to air pollution.
  • Right to Health is often violated in cases of pollution of air, land, or water.
  • Right to Water, although not specifically mentioned in human rights documents, is obviously linked to life and health.
  • Right to Food is progressively threatened by environmental changes and degradation.
  • Right to Development: Sustainable development is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”[2] This and other UN statements on the environment acknowledge that human beings are “entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature” and recognize that environmentally destructive economic progress does not produce long-term societal progress. According to the UN Environment Programme over 70% of the earth’s land surface could be impacted by roads, mining, cities and other infrastructure developments in the next 30 years.
  • Right to Property: As sea levels rise, more and more people living on islands and in coastal areas will be deprived of parts of their property.
  • Right to Shelter and Housing: Environmental degradation displaces people or compels them to live in unhealthy conditions.
  • Right to Information and Right to Participate: Governments have a duty to provide people with information about the environment.
  • Right to Work: People often lose their employment due to environmental disruption. An example would be industrial over-fishing that puts small local fishermen out of work.
  • Rights of Indigenous People: The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), recognizes for the first time the conservation and protection of the environment and resources as a human right.
  • Rights and Equity and Non-discrimination: Environmental harms are expected to be bigger in the poorer parts of the world. In cases of environmental racism, environmental damage has its greatest effects among racial and ethnic minorities.
  • Children’s Rights: Because their immune systems have not fully been developed, children are more impacted by environmental disruption and more vulnerable to toxics, bacterial, and viral contamination.

Related Documents:

[1] See http://resources.spaces3.com/631e9a3e-f2f1-4fd8-ba02-2d8e46e215cc.pdf

[2]UN World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), 1989.