Environmental right are human rights – introductions by Friends of Earth

Ava Guarani during the land right protest

Ava Guarani during the land right protest

People all over the world are claiming their rights. In early 2004, the Ava Guarani people of Argentina marched 1,774 miles to demand that the government return the 5,000 hectares of their ancestral territory given to a global corporation for sugar production. Cameroonian cocoa farmers have taken a French forest company to court for destroying their plantations in the mad rush to export logs. Friends of the Earth Uruguay and others have organized a national referendum that could make access to water a fundamental human right. Maple sugar tappers in the United States have sued the Bush administration, claiming that their livelihoods are threatened by the global climate change to which the United States is a major contributor. Tens of thousands of Europeans are demanding the right to eat food free of genetically modified organisms. And the list goes on.

What all of these claims have in common is that they are based on people’s environmental rights. Environmental rights mean access to the unspoiled natural resources that enable survival, including land, shelter, food, water and air. They also include more purely ecological rights, including the right for a certain beetle to survive or the right for an individual to enjoy an unspoiled landscape.

 In Friends of the Earth’s vision, environmental rights include political rights like rights for indigenous peoples and other collectivities, the right to information and participation in decision-making, freedom of opinion and expression, and the right to resist unwanted developments. We also believe in the right to claim reparations for violated rights, including rights for climate refugees and others displaced by environmental destruction, the right to claim ecological debt, and the right to environmental justice.

Climate Refugees

Climate Refugees

Many of these rights, particularly the political ones, are well-established and enshrined in various conventions and agreements. We can credit the establishment of some of these rights, as well as the acceptance of others that are not yet legally recognized, to the ongoing struggles of communities and indigenous peoples around the world. Other ‘new’ rights, including rights for climate refugees, have arisen over recent years due to the acceleration of economic globalization and the accompanying environmental destruction and social disruption. Still others, like the right to claim ecological debt, have emerged as the result of years of campaigning by Friends of the Earth and others for the recognition of the impacts of northern resource depletion and natural destruction in southern countries. All of these rights are equally important, and they are all interdependent.

Environmental rights are human rights, as people’s livelihoods, their health, and sometimes their very existence depend upon the quality of and their access to the surrounding environment as well as the recognition of their rights to information, participation, security and redress.

Rights can be asserted in a variety of ways: for example, by appealing directly to the violating  government, international financial institution or corporation; through international, regional and national courts; by applying public and media pressure; and by building coalitions with others seeking similar rights.

The development of human rights

Article One of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Article One of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Over the past decades, human rights have been identified and codified in a vast body of international and regional agreements. The best known of these is the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which obliges members of the international community to respect the rights of all human beings to life, to an adequate standard of living, to liberty and security, to freedom of opinion and expression, and to participate in the government of his or her country. In 1976, two additional International Covenants entered into force under the auspices of the United Nations, one covering Civil and Political Rights and the other Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Civil and political rights are often considered the ‘first generation’ of rights, and are sometimes termed ‘negative rights’ as they require states to refrain from actions such as torturing their citizens or denying them free speech. The ‘second generation’ of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, on the other hand, are often ‘positive’, requiring governmental action to provide goods and services like housing and schools. Both the first and second generations of human rights were framed in response to the needs of individuals whose rights were violated over the previous decades, and today enjoy a fairly high level of public acceptance, if not governmental adherence.

The emergence of environmental rights

In recent years, catalyzed by the negative impacts of widespread economic globalization on people and the environment around the world, another category of rights has arisen. These new rights often apply to communities or groups of people attempting to achieve healthy and sustainable livelihoods in various parts of the world. They are urgently needed, as the projects and policies promoted by international financial institutions, trade bodies and transnational corporations often trample people’s rights to live in sustainable societies.

In the name of ‘development’ and ‘free trade’, governments and transnational corporations are steadily seizing control of land, water, forests and minerals. All of this leads to environmental and human rights violations such as the confiscation of land, evictions, pollution, destruction of natural resources, police presence, militarization, violence, intimidation and worse. Women very often bear the brunt of these violations as they struggle to protect and nourish their families.

Those who attempt to defend the environment, including people from affected communities and environmental campaigners, are also often victims of intimidation and human rights violations by vested political and economic interests.

The same current economic globalization policies that are threatening people and their habitats around the world are also not designed to allow people to decide upon their own futures. Information about development projects and plans is often insufficient or nonexistent, and affected people are often excluded from the relevant decision-making processes.

Environmental rights go hand-in-hand with civil and political rights.

Marginalized people around the world, including women, people of color and impoverished people in industrialized countries, suffer from environmental injustice by bearing the brunt of pollution. The most egregious environmental rights violations tend to be inflicted on peoples whose civil, political, social and economic rights are not respected. Friends of the Earth International believes that a new ethic is required, one that strives for environmental justice and recognizes the interdependence of humans and their environments.

Environmental rights are complex in that they require governments to protect the environment, which often entails economic measures like regulating corporate activities, international trade, or investments by international financial institutions. The emerging need for rights for victims of global climate change poses a particular challenge to governments in that they are being asked to restructure economies and relinquish sovereignty by taking part in international environmental agreements such as the Kyoto Climate Protocol.

Corporate palm oil plantation - a threat to rainforest and natural habitats

Corporate palm oil plantation – a threat to rainforest and natural habitats

Environmental rights legislation

On the official level, the link between human and environmental rights was first made in 1972 at the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro helped to create a normative framework for environmental and human rights both in the principles set out in the Rio Declaration and in the Agenda 21 Plan of Action. In 1994, the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment for the Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities released a groundbreaking, detailed analysis of the relationship between human rights and the environment, concluding that environmental damage has an adverse affect on the enjoyment of a series of human rights, and that human rights violations in turn damage the environment. In the meantime, a series of UN resolutions, court decisions and international bodies have further shaped and endorsed this general statement. To date, however, there is little binding legislation referring to environmental human rights.

Furthermore, those suffering from environmental rights violations do not always have access to legal channels. International human rights law, and in particular environmental rights law, is complicated, slow and has limited enforceability. Not all states are party to the relevant regional or international conventions, and their citizens thus do not enjoy access to the relevant international courts. Access to international courts can generally only be obtained when national remedies have been exhausted. Even when a case does manage to work its way up through the international legal system, victories are still few and far between. And then, even when the law comes down on the side of those who have been violated, governments do not always take up their responsibilities to rectify the situation.

Indigenous people in Bolivia protesting against the Amazon road

Indigenous people in Bolivia protesting against the Amazon road

Nonetheless, the existing human rights declarations and covenants do carry significant moral weight, and can be used to bring global attention to violations happening in the most remote corners of the earth. Important regional and national legislative initiatives exist, including the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights, the European Union’s Charter of European Rights and the new African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights, all of which specifically acknowledge the right to a healthy environment. Significant public pressure can be exerted on governments through the rulings of the courts that enforce these and other international rights laws. Affected communities are learning to make use of these national and international legal systems to bring attention to their plights and strengthen their campaigns for justice.

This text is an excerpt from Friends of Earth brochure Our environment, our rights – standing up for the people and the planet.

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