The Human Environment

Environmental rights are usually considered on a separate plane from mainstream human rights law. They don’t fit neatly into a single human rights category; global conversations relating the two fields now speak of the ‘greening’ of human rights law. The existing framework to examine the two fields together is patchy at best, inconsistent and ineffective at worst. But, what needs to be created is a method to merge environmental protection, economic development and guarantees of human rights.

At a United Nations conference in 1973, the “Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment” declared that ‘Man has the fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being…’ This statement opened up an uncertain and often ill-considered debate on the future of the ‘human environment’ and international environmental law. The term ‘human environment’ was coined at the conference as a way of examining this new pairing as a cohesive whole. The grandeur of these terms however has not lent itself to well-informed discussion on the future of the two.

Most human rights treaties make little or no reference to environmental issues – the European Convention on Human rights included. Although many counties have since drafted legislation which looks at environmental law, the lack of specific markers that dictate what a satisfactory environment is makes it difficult to actually enforce. A 2009 UNEP report on the ‘New Future of Human Rights and Environment’ stresses the importance of finding a balance between the protection of the environment and the enjoyment of human rights, including the responsibilities of States involved in human rights law enforcement.

The importance of these issues however goes beyond theoretical problems of legislation. Under the barrier of unclear human environment law, governments have been able to exploit their citizens and flout basic human rights conventions.

Governments have a duty to their citizens when being confronted with environmental disasters, man-made or otherwise. The most well-publicised ‘natural’ disaster razed a city to the ground, turned its citizens into common ‘thugs’ and compelled its government to send armed troops to a drowning city: Hurricane Katrina. The theory that Katrina was actually a man-made disaster, one caused by insufficient maintenance of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet allowing the storm surge to breach the city’s flood defences, is a popular one. The cause of the disaster however is not crucial. What is important is the government’s response: an article in the Washington Times states, “300 Iraq-hardened Arkansas National Guard members were inside New Orleans with shoot-to-kill orders.” The unnecessary overreaction to Hurricane Katrina signals a deep-rooted fear of a public which doesn’t have faith in its leaders and their ability to deal with a disaster situation.

Despite large amounts of international aid, natural disaster situations such as the Haiti earthquake, the Pakistan floods and to an extent, the very recent Japanese tsunami (but in this case, nuclear meltdown aside), often leave poorer citizens in temporary camps in need of vital assistance and protection. These are rarely in accordance with basic human rights conventions, and many are left lacking basic food, water and medical provisions, not to mention more than a canvas roof over their heads. The restriction of basic resources when a vulnerable public has little or no access is an obvious method of exerting control. Disaster relief has become increasingly militaristic, a worrying indicator of a change in attitude which recommends infantilising the public. The ability to adequately deal with natural disasters must come under environmental rights law, especially in areas such as New Orleans which are often hit by nature’s forces.

In Linking Human Rights and the Environment, Picoletti and Taillant state: “Just as human rights advocates have tended to place only civil and political rights onto their agendas, environmentalists have tended to focus primarily on natural resource preservation without addressing human impacts of environmental abuse.” What is clearly lacking is brought together in this book – a new way of not only linking human rights and the environment, but finding solutions to the myriad issues that they bring to the forefront.

The ‘Human Environment’ deserves its own rights – clear-cut conventions which do not allow governments to exploit the vulnerable for their own purposes; international law enforcement bodies need to stop attempting to separate environmental issues that are tangled in with human rights law. New institutions such as the Centre for Human Rights and the Environment (CEDHA) are making a start. But, without the power of bodies such as the United Nations, and a clear-cut framework to tackle these issues, vulnerable sections of the ‘human environment’ continue to be damaged or destroyed.

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