More than 2 million annual deaths and billions of cases of diseases are attributed to pollution. All over the world, people experience the negative effects of environmental degradation ecosystems decline, including water shortage, fisheries depletion, natural disasters due to deforestation and unsafe management and disposal of toxic and dangerous wastes and products. Indigenous peoples suffer directly from the degradation of the ecosystems that they rely upon for their livelihoods. Climate change is exacerbating many of these negative effects of environmental degradation on human health and wellbeing and is also causing new ones, including an increase in extreme weather events and an increase in spread of malaria and other vector born diseases. These facts clearly show the close linkages between the environment and the enjoyment of human rights, and justify an integrated approach to environment and human rights.
OVERVIEW OF LEGAL ISSUES
There are three main dimensions of the interrelationship between human rights and environmental protection:
The environment as a pre-requisite for the enjoyment of human rights (implying that human rights obligations of States should include the duty to ensure the level of environmental protection necessary to allow the full exercise of protected rights);
Certain human rights, especially access to information, participation in decision-making, and access to justice in environmental matters, as essential to good environmental decision-making (implying that human rights must be implemented in order to ensure environmental protection); and
- The right to a safe, healthy and ecologically-balanced environment as a human right in itself (this approach has been debated).
The Stockholm Declaration, and to a lesser extent the Rio Declaration, show how the link between human rights and dignity and the environment was very prominent in the early stages of United Nations efforts to address environmental problems. That focus has to some extent faded away in the ensuing efforts by the international community to tackle specific environmental problems, with more focus being placed on developing policy and legal instruments, both at the international and national levels, targeted at the environmental problems that were emerging, through a series of MEAs and other mechanisms. Although the foundation of developing such mechanisms laid on the considerations made at the time of the Stockholm Conference, the human rights dimension is not made explicit in most of these instruments.
However, there have been several calls from different UN bodies to address the issues of human rights and environment in conjunction. The Commission on Human Rights (now transformed into the Human Rights Council) by Resolution 2005/60 requested the High Commissioner and invited UNEP, UNDP and other relevant bodies and organizations, within their respective mandates and approved work programmes and budgets:
“to continue to coordinate their efforts in activities relating to human rights and the environment in poverty eradication, post-conflict environmental assessment and rehabilitation, disaster prevention, post-disaster assessment and rehabilitation, to take into consideration in their work relevant findings and recommendations of others and to avoid duplication” (paragraph 8).
The UN reform process also calls for the integration of human rights in all of the organization’s work.
In a series of resolutions, the former United Nations Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations Human Rights Council have drawn attention to the relationship between a safe and healthy environment and the enjoyment of human rights. Most recently, the Human Rights Council in its resolution 7/23 of March 2008 and resolution 10/4 of March 2009 focused specifically on human rights and climate change, noting that climate change-related effects have a range of direct and indirect implications for the effective enjoyment of human rights. These resolutions have raised awareness of how fundamental the environment is as a prerequisite to the enjoyment of human rights.
FOCUS OF DELC'S WORK AND INTENDED OUTCOME
Good practices on Human Rights and the Environment
UNEP, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment have joined efforts to identify, promote and exchange views on good practices relating to the use of human rights obligations and commitments to inform, support and strengthen environmental policymaking, especially in the areas of environmental protection and management.
The joint initiative identified practical and concrete examples of good practices where states and other actors have successfully implemented human rights obligations related to environmental protection and management, which could be replicated in other contexts, and which will increase the understanding and awareness of the linkages between human rights and the environment, including providing more clarity on the human rights obligations related to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, sustainable and healthy environment.
The good practices were collected at the international, regional, national and sub-national levels in collaboration through regional/ sub-regional consultations as well as questionnaires and surveys.
In the process of identifying such practices and analyzing the practical aspects of the interaction between the two field of human rights and the environment, UNEP and partners also identified challenges and problems in the balancing of the protection of human rights and the protection of the environment, and identified lessons learned in respect of such interaction, which are also available with the good practices identified. The good practices are available here.
Climate change is one of the greatest threats to human rights of our generation, posing a serious risk to the fundamental rights to life, health, food and an adequate standard of living of individuals and communities across the world. This report aims to support government and private decision makers by assessing the relationship between climate change and human rights law. [PDF Link]
- Human Rights and Environment Compendium
The Compendium on human rights and the environment takes stock of the normative and jurisprudential developments in the field of human rights and the environment. It describes international instruments that relate to human rights and the environment, such as multilateral environmental agreements, international human rights treaties, and international resolutions and declarations. It also includes summaries of decisions rendered by the human rights supervisory mechanisms in Africa, Europe and the Americas, as well as the Human Rights Committee, the International Court of Justice and the World Bank's Inspection Panel.
The objective of the publication is to identify and promote good practices relating to the use of human rights obligations and commitments to inform, support and strengthen environmental policy making, especially in the areas of environmental protection and management.
Side-event during the 28th Session of the Human Rights Council - 10 March 2015, Palais des Nations, Geneva
Joint statement by UN Special Procedures on the occasion of World Environment Day
Climate Change and Human Rights - 5 June 2015
Side-event during the 25th Session of the Human Rights Council - 13 March 2014, Nairobi, Kenya
Consultation on Constitutional Rights to a Healthy Environment - 23 - 24 January 2014, Johannesburg, South Africa
A Transformative Post-2015 Human Rights Vision Requires Innovative Linkages with Environmental Issues
12 December 2013, UN Headquarters, New York
Training Seminar Human Rights and the Environment - 21 - 23 November 2013 Venice, Italy
Regional consultation on the relationship between environmental protection and groups in vulnerable situations in Latin America and the Caribbean - 26 - 27 July 2013, Panama
Consultation Report Human Rights and the Environment: Procedural Rights Related to Environmental Protection- 22-23 February 2013, Nairobi, Kenya
Strengthening the Human Rights and Environment Nexus for Sustainable
Development - Thursday, 21/2/2013 - UNEP GC/GMEF Side event
High Level Expert Meeting on the New Future of Human Rights and Environment: Moving the Global Agenda Forward
Do we have a fundamental right to breathe clean air, drink clean water and eat safe food? The idea of environmental human rights is receiving growing attention worldwide, driven by our global ecological crisis. But the United States has lagged behind in codifying these rights into laws and in successfully furthering them.
While this may seem like an issue for legal scholars, it has very real importance for regions like Appalachia, where I work. Coal mining has caused widespread ecological and health damage here for more than a century, alongside other industries such as chemical manufacturing and, recently, natural gas production.
Many Americans elsewhere view Appalachia's environmental health conditions with ambivalence or outright classist indifference, and some have written us off as a "national sacrifice zone." But our environmental struggles echo conflicts over the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Niger River Delta oil fields and other places that are trying to limit harms from extractive industries.
In my work, I have proposed reframing Appalachia's concerns as a struggle for "environmental human rights" – the idea that all people are entitled to a healthy environment. Characterizing these problems as violations of environmental human rights can open up new and more robust legal remedies. It also means that environmental harms will be viewed more vigorously as moral issues. We view them that way at West Virginia University College of Law's new Appalachian Justice Initiative, which is working to secure a better future for our region.
A new legal frontier
The idea of environmental human rights dates back to the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s. It follows other, more established conceptions of human rights, such as civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights, and often is classified as part of a so-called third generation of "newer" human rights.
Few international agreements explicitly refer to environmental human rights. At the national level, however, more than 100 countries around the world have constitutions that enshrine environmental rights to some degree, including Brazil and Kenya.
Only a handful of U.S. states, including Pennsylvania and Hawaii, have constitutions that explicitly incorporate environmental rights. What is more, these provisions were largely established decades ago and have had uneven success in their enforcement.
Appalachia's environmental challenges
Appalachia is a classic exemplar of the "natural resource curse" – a theory developed by social scientists to explain why some places that are rich in extractable resources fail to develop. According to this view, outside capital interests that control these resources – in Appalachia, Big Coal – wield vast power, and often "capture," or co-opt, regulatory agencies.
The coal industry has profoundly exploited our citizens and damaged our environment. The most extreme example is mountaintop removal mining – blasting off mountaintops to reach coal seams, and then dumping refuse materials into valleys. Across Central Appalachia, mountaintop removal has obliterated more than 500 mountains and 2,000 miles of ecologically crucial headwater streams.
Mountaintop removal produces numerous pollutants, including selenium, arsenic and airborne pollutants released during coal extraction and processing. Studies have associated it with serious environmental health risks, including higher rates of birth defects, cancer, cardiovascular disease and respiratory disease.
Coal mining is not the only challenge. Hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale has been linked with negative health impacts. The 2014 Elk River chemical spill, which left 300,000 Appalachian citizens without potable water for up to nine days, spotlighted our aging industrial infrastructure and weak state regulation of industry.
Climate change also threatens our region. Many observers believe it played a role in historic West Virginia floods and Tennessee wildfires in 2016. It also may be contributing to the spread of infectious diseases such as Lyme disease.
Human rights and the environment in Appalachia
There are two categories of rights: substantive – things we are entitled to have – and procedural – things we are entitled to do. The core idea of environmental human rights is that people are entitled to live in a healthy, clean and safe environment. Typically, societies honor these rights by passing laws that protect air, water, soil and food. We also expect, particularly in democracies, that people should be able to obtain information, participate in decision-making, and seek legal remedies for environmental harms such as toxic waste spills.
Of course, laws and regulations are of little use if they are not robustly enforced. Pennsylvania adopted an amendment to its constitution in 1971 stating that "the people have a right to clean air" and "pure water." It also requires the state to act as trustee of public natural resources "for the benefit of all the people." For years Pennsylvania courts gave relatively light weight to this provision.
But in June of this year, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court established a broader interpretation of the environmental amendment in an oil- and gas-related matter. This decision in a case that challenged the lucrative business of fracking was a heartening precedent, and shows the value of advocating for the people's right to a healthy environment.
Seeds of resistance
Much media coverage of Appalachia is classist and one-dimensional. For example, during the 2016 presidential campaign the region was portrayed as a unified bloc of "Trump country," although it actually is much more socially and politically complex.
In fact, a dense network of grassroots activists and ordinary Appalachian citizens has long contested environmental injustices, exemplified by the long and bitter fight against Big Coal. But these efforts seldom are acknowledged in the national media or leveraged into real and lasting legal reform.
However, local campaigns have won some important victories. Vigorous activism in the 1960s and 1970s directly contributed to passage of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 – the first major federal law regulating the environmental impacts of coal mining. More recently, an array of state and regional organizations have fought to secure at least partial federal court enforcement of environmental laws against mountaintop removal operations.
Appalachia is well-suited for a bottom-up, critically informed approach that focuses on human rights at the grassroots level. Discussing rights at the local level will give people opportunity to describe specific harms they have experienced from activities such as mountaintop removal and fracking. It also will help to promote participatory democracy for citizens who have long been denied real self-determination.
Environmental justice should be a central theme of this effort. As scholars have shown, environmental harms are not distributed evenly in society. Instead, marginalized groups typically suffer more heavily. In Appalachia and across the United States, environmental harms disproportionately affectlow-income communities, women, minorities and older people.
The Appalachian Justice Initiative at West Virginia University will produce scholarship, conduct policy advocacy and offer direct legal services and outreach to Appalachian communities. Our goal is to help people in our region call for laws and actions that actually guarantee the right to a healthy Appalachian environment.
Pursuing environmental human rights in Appalachia challenges counterproductive stereotypes about our region's supposed isolation. Appalachia is not some "other America": we are fundamentally interlinked with the United States and the wider world ecologically, economically and socially.
Our challenges reflect the profound ills of a global economic regime that values perpetual growth over environmental and social justice. Advocating for environmental human rights in Appalachia can help reveal this essential truth and build a more just and healthy future.
Explore further:Mountaintop coal mining causes Appalachian rivers to run 'consistently saltier'
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.