Is a clean environment a human right? Part I

Is a clean environment a human right? Part I

“Given the massive threat that climate change poses to human rights, it is realistic to believe that states will accept that they have a duty to work together to tackle climate change. The content of the duty must be understood in the light of what human rights courts have stated about environmental damage. A minimum for such an approach requires that states do not destroy the human rights of those most vulnerable to climate change. ”

This is how John Knox put it in 2012 – the first so-called “independent expert” on human rights and the environment, appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to promote better environmental policy.

  • What is the connection between human rights and the environment?
  • Will human rights be able to give the climate negotiations a new lease of life?
  • Can human rights promote better forest conservation projects?
  • For whom is the right to a satisfactory environment most important?

2: Stronger link between human rights – environment

Climate change is just one of the environmental problems; others include destructive resource extraction, such as mining or oil extraction, over-consumption of water, hazardous waste…. In addition, there is local pollution of water, soil and air. Transport of hazardous waste to states with weak control systems is a growing environmental problem. This includes scrapping boats, disposing of toxic waste and removing items from mobile phones and other electronics. Norway got a taste of this at the explosion in the Vest Tank plant in Gulen municipality in 2007.

The United Nations Environment Program ( UNEP) has pointed to three links between human rights and the environment:

  • A good natural environment is a prerequisite for being able to enjoy all human rights on the whole
  • Important human rights principles must form the basis for decision-making processes that concern the environment. Freedom of expression, among other things, means the right to apply for and receive information, in addition to being able to express oneself.
  • The right to a clean environment must be recognized as a human right in itself.

3: Is a clean environment a human right?

When the UN Environment Program took up pure environment ein Human Rights, wrote dei also: “This is a contested approach .” Nevertheless, 140 states, including Norway, have recognized the right to a clean environment in their constitutions. Article 110b of the Norwegian Constitution states: “Everyone has the right to an environment that ensures health…”

In the UN human rights conventions , the environment is mentioned in sections dealing with health, in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and in the Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In the latter it is stated, among other things: “In no case must a people be deprived of its livelihood .”

The right to a clean environment is not directly mentioned in the European Convention on Human Rights or in the European Social Charter. Nevertheless, according to, several states have been convicted in the European Court of Human Rights and prosecuted in the European Committee for Social Rights. These states have not prevented environmental damage, something that has violated the right to both privacy and health.

Both African and inter-American human rights treaties recognize the right to a clean environment . In the former as «the right of the people » (box p. 5). In the (inter-) American system, a number of demands raised by indigenous peoples have been endorsed . Here, the indigenous peoples’ right of ownership and right of use of their habitat has been reduced as a result of the government allowing both logging and plantation operations. This is an operation that often entails environmental damage, but which under other preconditions and operating methods could have had positive development effects.

4: Climate and human rights

The environment and human rights have been discussed and discussed separately for a long time. The link between climate change and human rights is more recent. The challenge is that it can only be determined in retrospect whether human rights violations have taken place. How climate change affects human rights, we can primarily predict or warn that it will happen in the future (even though we already see that there will be less ice in the Arctic Ocean). At the same time, realizing human rights is first and foremost about preventing damage or violation from happening – not just repairing the damage after it has occurred.

Human rights are persistently violated all over the world – such as the right to life, food, the best possible health, satisfactory housing, safe drinking water and sanitation and to the right to self-determination. This also applies to the prohibition against taking from people the basis of existence. In addition, both the right to property and the right to practice one’s own culture may become more difficult to comply with.

An obligation to co-operate is emphasized within the climate regime. There is thus a consensus that industrialized and developing countries have common, but not equal, obligations (we are in the same boat, but developed countries are also the ones that for a long time have filled the global airspace with greenhouse gases and which are doing so far more than developing countries).

The duty of states to co-operate internationally is particularly emphasized in the Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. This Convention recognizes the vast majority of the human rights mentioned above. It also states that all states – regardless of economic preconditions – have a duty to take targeted measures to safeguard human rights and to abolish discrimination.

At the same time, it is difficult to determine whether a state can actually be held responsible for emitting greenhouse gases that have led to human rights violations in other countries. U.S. courts have gone to great lengths to establish links between greenhouse gas emissions, global warming and impacts on local communities in Alaska.

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