Relationship between Human Rights and Environment under Changes in International Relations

The theoretical aspects of human rights and environment have existed in the human mind separately and faintly since the distant past.
21 June 2020
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Seyyed Javad Amini Mojtaba Damirchiloo

 The theoretical aspects of human rights and environment have existed in the human mind separately and faintly since the distant past. The evolution of human, the researches, and the expansion of human knowledge and thought strengthened the images of each subject and further clarified the dimensions of an undeniable relationship between them to the extent that they were graduallytaken into account in the international legal documents and the rulings issued by the national and international courts. This article is based on the assumption that there is a direct relationship between human rights and environment and that they affect each other reciprocally. The scope of such effect has been extensive and evident anywhere in the world that human life is possible. It also appears that among the recognized human rights, the “right to life” has a direct and clearer relationship with the environment.


  1. International Documents

 Two categories of documents are referable in providing an explanation for the relationship between human rights and environment form the viewpoint of international documents.

 The first category of documents relates to sustainable development that was initiated by the final declaration of the Stockholm conference in 1972, which laid the foundation for environmental approach to human rights across the world in the modern times. The Aarhus Convention is the second significant document in this regard, according to which the ratifying states should pass laws on three pillars: access to information on the environment, public participation in decision-making processes on matters concerning the environment, and access to justice in environmental matters.The Rio Declaration has also highlighted the right to development and has emphasized that human beings are at the center of concerns for sustainable development and are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature. The Agenda 21 has taken account of  human rights indirectly by making references to human health, indigenous communities, migrants, and access to fresh water. Although the Declaration and Programme of Action of the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna made no favorable reference to the relationship between human rights and environment, it has reaffirmed the right to development, and stipulates that the right to development should be fulfilled so as to meet equitably the developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations.

 The second category of the international documents relate to human rights, above all the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Although the UDHRhas made no direct reference to the issue of environment or natural resources, it has asserted that everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person. The subject of right to life has been also mentioned in theInternational Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, and in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Accordingly, each category of these documentsimplicitly cites the right to a healthy environment by asserting the right to life.

 Furthermore, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights passed the “Human Rights and the Environment as Part of Sustainable Development” resolution in 2005, requesting the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations Environment Programme, and the United Nations Development Programme to continue to coordinate their efforts in activities relating to human rights and the environment in poverty eradication and post-conflict environmental assessment. The United Nations Human Rights Council also passed two resolutions in 2008 and 2009, and considered the impacts of climate change on the effective enjoyment of human rights. In another resolution passed in 2016, the UN Human Rights Council has explicitly cited the relationship of sustainable development and environmental protection with the enjoyment of human rights. Another significant decision made by the UN Human Rights Council was establishing an “Independent Expert” on study of the environment. A report from the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities has also mentioned the relationship between the right to a healthy environment and the right to development, stressing that they are indispensable human rights that are mutually dependent. The regional human rights conventions in the Americas and Africa, including the “Protocol of San Salvador” and “African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights” have highlighted the right to life in a healthy environment, offering a more advanced stage compared to the other international human rights documents.

 It is clear that a change in the environmental-human rights approaches of every government has affected the positive orientation of its policy-making and measures inside its own country.


  1. Court Rulings

 Among the international judicial systems, the European Court of Human Rights has more valuable experiences in protecting the people’s rights, such as the right to life and the right to property. Nonetheless, the European Convention on Human Rights only deals with the rights of individuals, and the court hearsenvironmental cases only when disregard for the environmental regulations may violate the other rights of citizens.

 A review of the cases coming before the International Criminal Court (ICC) shows that although the court has been granted jurisdiction over four main crimes, i.e. genocide, crimes against humanity,war crimes, and the crime of aggression, the Article 7 of the Rome Statute stipulates that the loss of life or injury to civilians in the attack and widespread damage to the natural environment as well as forcible transfer of population amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes, and that the ICCshall have jurisdiction in respect of those crimes. According to the Article 8 of the Rome Statute, the destruction of propertyand the acts causing widespread, long-term and severedamage to the natural environment which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concreteand direct overall military advantage anticipated, amount to war crimes. A notable feature of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012 was inclusion of the term “justice in environmental matters” in its political outcome document, which laid the foundation for establishment of environmental courts, although the text of the document lacks mechanisms to enforce justice.

 In general, the international community’s current stance on the relationship between human rights and environment can be summarized as follows: The relationship between those two areas has not been rejected from the viewpoint of anybody or any state, but the lack of definite extent and dimensions of such relation could sacrifice any of the two matters. As the international community procrastinates in recognizing such relationship in the international legal documents, there is no case of a strong ruling or approach in the history of rulings issued by the international judicial systems. It appears that one of the obstacles preventing the achievement of consensus is the political sensitivity that many states show to the elements connecting these two fields and the consequences. On the other hand, the formal and widespread recognition of the human rights, such as the right to life, right to development, and the consequent relationship between the environment and human rights would lead to a rise in the regional and international lawsuits and complaints against the performance of the managers accused of destroying the environment. The subsequent complications may even disrupt and threaten the ongoing activities of the well-established structures and processes, at least for a while.

(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)

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