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International Human Rights Documents Linking with Environmental Rights

March 21, 2021

The link between environment and human rights emphasises the need for a decent physical environment for all, as a condition for living a life of dignity and worth. There is growing realization that growth and development cannot be sustained without addressing environmental concerns. In fact, the whole concept of sustainable development is an attempt to make growth sustainable by synthesizing environmental concerns with development. Debate about human right to environment is borne out of such attempts of synthesis which must be studied from this contextual prism. Human rights and environmental law have traditionally been envisaged as two distinct, independent spheres of rights. Towards the last quarter of the 20th century, however, the perception arose that the cause of protection of the environment could be promoted by setting it in the framework of human rights, which had by then been firmly established as a matter of international law and practice.

            There are large number of international human rights documents with explicit or implicit links to environmental right. Right to environmental protection has been recognized by the Human Rights Committee, established under the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. So too the Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (CESR) has clarified the links between the environment and some of the substantive rights enshrined in the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; notably with the General Comment on the Right to Adequate Food and the Right to Adequate Housing. Importantly, in 2002, the CESR explicitly recognized the human right to water. Article 24 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Right states that “All peoples shall have the right to a general satisfactory environment favorable to their development”. Although Article 24 seems to qualify the protection of the environment with development; it is nonetheless an affirmation of environmental rights in Africa.           

            Article 11 of the San Salvador Protocol which is an Additional Protocol to the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights (1994) states that “everyone shall have the right to live in a healthy environment and to have access to basic public services; the state parties shall promote the protection, preservation and improvement of the environment”. Here again we see that the right to healthy environment is attached with the right to life. In 1989, a Sub-Commission of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights under the leadership of Mrs. Fatma Zohra Ksentini was assigned to study the possibility for a human right to environment. The Ksentini Report concluded that environmental rights are a part of the existing human rights. The Draft Principles on Human Rights and the Environment also emphasize this. In particular, Principle 1 says that human rights and the environment are indivisible. The Report concludes that environmental damage has an adverse effect on the enjoyment of a series of human rights, and that human rights violations in turn damage the environment. In a way report found that human rights and environment rights are indispensable for each other, therefore, one must support the other. The fight against environmentally degrading practices cannot be effectively launched without dismantling the predatory neoliberal capitalist order which preys on human rights and natural environment.

            The Ksentini Report, 1994 “greened” existing Human Rights, meaning that existing human rights may already contain environmental rights. Although it is a welcome development but it must be followed by a U.N. resolution to have desirable impact on the evolution of human right to environment. The most comprehensive international statement on environmental rights to date is the 1994 Draft Declaration of Principles on Human Rights and the Environment, appended to the Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment. First, it sets out a series of general principles, including the human right to a secure and healthy environment. Secondly, it defines a series of substantive rights, including the human right to protection of the environment, the right to safe and healthy water, the right to preservation of unique sites, and the rights of indigenous peoples to land and environmental security. Thirdly, Draft Declaration delineates procedural rights, including the right to environmental information, and active participation in environmental decision-making, and the right to effective redress for environmental harm and finally, Draft Declaration sets out the duties of both individuals and states, including government obligations to disseminate information, facilitate public participation, control harmful activities, monitor and manage environmental use, and provide effective remedies and redress for harm.

            The relationship between the quality of the human environment and the enjoyment of basic human rights was first recognized by the UN General Assembly in the late 1960s. The Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment 1972 (Stockholm Declaration) which laid down the foundation of modern international environmental law also declared the agenda and framework for discussions and initiatives on the subject of human right to environment. Especially two principles talk explicitly of such a right. Principle 1 of the Stockholm Declaration very clearly lays down the genesis of a human right to environment. More importantly it is recognized in this principle that quality of environment has direct bearing on the enjoyment of fundamental freedom of equality and dignity of life.

Dr. Ayaz Ahmad, Associate Professor, Unitedworld School of Law (UWSL)

Disclaimer: The opinions / views expressed in this article are solely of the author in his / her individual capacity. They do not purport to reflect the opinions and/or views of the College and/or University or its members.

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