With emerging ecological issues - are human rights exclusive in today's world as we approach the millennium?

Submitted by admin on 7. February 2011 - 19:31
Ayamba, Maxwell A.


Maxwell A. Ayamba
Environmental Journalist
(The Countryside Research Unit, Sheffield Hallam University, United Kingdom)

Papers presented at the
2nd International Conference of the Environment Forum,
6-8 November, 1998, De Poort, The Netherlands
[This paper is as presented at the Conference, and has not been subject to editorial review by the IEF]

The United Nations have since inception made a few islands of progress towards world peace, for example, conceptualisations linking developments of domestic law, international agreements, and global governance.

As you may well be aware, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Universal Decade for Human Rights as well as the 5 year Review of the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights. We are also currently in the midst of the UN Decade for Human Rights Education, 1994-2005.

However, for decades, we have known that apart from the threat of nuclear war which perhaps is becoming a matter of the past, many forms of environmental victimisation, for example environmental refugees due to war, radiation exposure from weapons testing and power generation, toxic waste among others, have become the emerging global issues that do not respect our current conceptual or physical boundaries. A little over a hundred years ago, Baha'u'llah spoke of humankind as entering on a period of history that would entail the radical restructuring of the life of the planet. Challenges never before contempleted would. As the logic and magnitude of this prediction manifest itself in the world, the complexity and urgency of environmental problems have gradually forced themselves on public attention, the logic of this prescription has by no means become more apparent daily.

So the task, as a world community today is how do we break the parochial boundaries of the traditional intellectual predecessor and to frame the local in the context of the global. Today's world is characterised by dramatic instances from which we are all potential victims. We have instances of people being poisoned by radiation (Chernobyl in the Ukraine), deadly industrial gases (Bhopal in India), industrial pollution of water (Minamata Bay in Japan), and toxic land-dumps (Love Canal in the United States), less dramatic but more pervasive are the persistent forms of poisoning by industrial pollution (industrial cities in Eastern Europe, the cotton fields of Central Asia, the 'Petrochemical Corridor' along the Mississippi in Louisiana in the United States) and disease caused by untreated sewage.

More than one million people are displaced every year from their environment by warfare and development projects that put these environments to either new uses or render them derelic. We have instances such as valleys flooded by dams and forests exclusively reserved for commercial logging (Cerna and Guggenheim, 1993:2). Slower, but at least as extensive in impact, are environmental processes that are undermining the livelihood of people and displacing them: desertification and war (as in the Sudan, Central Africa etc).

Appropriation of land for commercial uses forcing subsistence farmers on fragile soil to reduce the fallow periods and thus impair the soil's fertility, and flooding caused by upstream erosion (as in the Brahmaputra Delta due to Himalayan deforestation). It is even feared that in the near future, there is prospect of upstream states diverting water for irrigation and depriving downstream users (e.g. on the Tigris and Euphrates), of some countries (e.g. Libya) overusing regional acquifers and creating shortages for neighbouring populations, and, most serious of all, of regional declines in agricultural productivity and coastal and delta inundation due to global warming. All these processes, which represent a pandemic pattern, involve environmental victims and current threat to world peace. Protecting people against becoming environmental victims is clearly a task of the first order of importance in the world today.

But the only way perhaps is by educating people to know and understand their human rights. The Baha'i International Community wholeheartedly welcomes the proclamation of the UN Decade for Human Rights Education. It believes that education is indispensable to realization of human rights. Education which instills in hearts and minds an awareness of and a sensitivity to the human rights of all persons constitutes an essential tool for the promotion and implementation of international human rights standards.

The Baha'i writings affirm that religion is the chief instrument "for the establishment of order in the world and of tranquility amongst its people." In the Baha'i view, the education required to enrich the human mind and spirit must seek to develop those essentially moral attributes - including truthfulness, courtesy, generosity, compassion, justice, love and trustworthiness - whose reflection in the everyday lives of human beings can create harmonious, productive families and communities that will make the enjoyment of fundamental rights a realityfor all their members.

The spiritual dimension in the present world appears to have almost systematically excluded from development and environment affairs. "For the vast majority of the world's people, the idea that human nature has a spiritual dimension - indeed that its fundamental identity is spiritual - is a truth requiring no demonstration but unfortunately this is not the case in our contemporary world.


A basic distinction for instance, made in contemporary state system is between (a) the victims of international environmental harm, and (b) those of intra-national environmental harm. The first category parells the concern of traditional international relations thinking with aggression. It consists of the victims of environmental harm across territorial boundaries. In particular, three kinds of transboundary harm are possible;

(1) a population can be harmed by being deprived of access to its environment through invasion eg. Kosovo, Rwanda ect. Expulsion from its historical habitat or the imposition of a new population with which the original population now must share the environment. Settler colonialism, such as in North America, Australia, New Zealand, Eastern Europe and Liberia, are clear examples. (2) A natural resource may be depleted by another state or its population when the resource is an international commons, as in the case of coastal fishing or transboundary aquifers. (A more complex case is that of shared rivers, where an upstream country controls the flow in a way that harms the downstream country). (3) Finally, people can be harmed by transboundary pollution, carried by water or air (eg. acid rain or nuclear radiation), or even by transportation as in the case of toxic waste trade, toxic colonialism or toxic blackmail. The effects of transboundary pollution can be global, as in the cases of climate change and a sea level rise due to global warming. While harm type (1) consists of aggression, harm types (2) and (3) represent injurious selfishness. In all these cases, the responsibility of states is for the security of their citizens against transboundary harm.


There are four kinds of environmental victims and the corresponding responsibility of states. (1) one category of environmental victims are those who are environmentally harmed by state action directly, such as valley dwellers displaced by state-built dams as well as forest dwellers (eg. indigenous people) evicted from forests or restricted in their traditional use of forests so that these can be reserved for commercial logging. The responsibility of states here is for the socio-environmental effects of their own projects, which has often not been the case. (2) Then there are those who are harmed by environmental effects of the actions of individuals and organisations within a state's territory. Examples such as the Nigerian governement's action against the Ogoni people and the subsequent execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa in the Shell drama, overuse of common-property resources such as underground water, and flooding caused by deforestation etc. The corresponding responsibility of states is for justice in environmental mediated social relations within their territories, such as preventing environmental harm to one group by another or at least assuring adequate compensation for such harm (3) Next there are those who are harmed by natural disasters. Even if it would be unreasonable to consider state action (or inaction) or the actions of individuals or organisations within state territory as having exacerbated the consequences for the victims (eg. through the export of food during a drought), states are responsible for assisting victims of natural disasters to survive and regain their livelihood. (4) A final category of environmental victims consists of those who degrade their own natural environment as a result of some kind of helplessness and this threatens their environmentally dependent livelihood and health. This helplessness can take the form of severe deprivation that forces people to put short-term survival ahead of long-term sustainability. Another form of helplessness is the destruction by economic modernisation of traditional cultures that have provided for environmentally protective practices. The socio-environmental responsibility of states in these cases is for environmental sustainability (quite apart from their socioeconomic and socio-cultural ones).


Here, a distinction is made between external and internal ones; With respect to external relations, the state has an obligation to defend its population from external harm, whether in the form of appropriation of territory, the overuse of an international commons, or transboundary pollution. A military threat may be proposed as a solution by a state to meet a need of this kind. Environmental harm through injurious national egoism may call for measures other than military ones, such as diplomatic pressure and economic threats, but if survival is at stake, perhaps even military intervention may be required in the absence of protection by the community of states. Yet still, with respect to external relations, sovereignty is the right of states to non-interference. It creates the corresponding obligation not to interfere in the territory and affairs of other states.

With respect to environmental processes, that means that states and agents under their authority (businesses, citizens) have an obligation not to harm other states and their territories and populations environmentally whether through deprivation of the exclusive access to their legitimate land or water domains (ie. conventional invasion or other territorial transgression) or through degradation of their terrestrial, aquatic or atmospheric environments by pollution, the control of river flows, or the excessive (unsustainable or inequitable) tapping of common acquifers. Environmental state sovereignty, then, refers in its external aspect to the right not to be harmed environmentally by other states.

Intranationally, five kinds of state obligations for action can be distinguished; (1) in order not to create environmental victims by its own projects, the state has an obligation of self-restraint. (2) To make sure that environmental injustices are not committed among its citizens or by commercial (or other) organisations, it has an obligation to regulate actions with socio-environmental consequences. This applies also to ensuring environmental sustainability. (3) Where the state has failed to prevent environmental victimisation either due to a failure in public responsibility or because of other state responsibilities that required public actions that then environmentally victimized some people, there is an obligation for adequate restitution or compensation. (This is morally called for even where the environmental victimisation occurred in previous generations, if contemporaries still suffer from the consequences. (4) Where environmental victimization is due to national causes or to interactive social processes, often mediated by complex natural causes or to interactive social processes so that culpability cannot be readily assigned, at least public assistance (if not collective restitution) is owned to those who are harmed by such processes. Such assistance is also called for where desperate circumstances or cultural destruction push people into using their own environment unsustainably. (5) Finally, just as the state has a negative obligation to refrain from Environmentally victimizing projects, so also has it, a positive responsibility to engage in preventive and rehabilitative projects, ie., projects that prevent or minimise the destructive consequences of natural processes for people and to reverse environmental destruction that the state has not been able to prevent in the past.


In the last decade, global conferences have formally recognised industry's detrimental effect on the environment and called upon each country to preserve the environmental integrity of the future while raising current living standards through educational awareness (Rio Earth Summit, Agenda 21, 1992). Meanwhile, the public is increasingly aware of the effects of industrial production on the environment and the public welfare.

Rather than relying on top-down government control to address specific environmental and other needs, some communities themselves are learning how to supplement the need for direct government or corporate assistance in addressing community development. The emerging environmental justice movement, for instance, has engendered a shift in local leadership as women, people of colour, and indigenous people play a more active role in their communities (Collin and Collin, 1994: 1173). This movement has continued to expand as race has been shown to be the best predictor for the location of a hazardous or toxic waste site - better than income, topography, or hydrology (Ibid:1175). In addition, communities now have a little more information for attending to local business issues for instance in places like the United States, because of the federal Community Right-to-Know and the 1990 Toxic Pollution Preventive Act (Sobol, 1991). The Right-To-Know law requires manufacturers to report their emissions to air, land, and water of over 300 toxic chemicals (Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know Act, 42 USC.ss. 11001-11050, 1988 and Supp. V 1993). The Toxic Pollution Preventive Act requires that any facility that is required to report data must also report on its toxic pollution prevention (Pollution Preventive Act, 42 USCA ss. 13101 to 13109). The growth in available information has provided a powerful tool for exposing the truth of environmental degradation. For example, information has exposed environmental racism.

Other tools that have increased community empowerment have included both legal and nonlegal approaches. Information dissemination and boycotts are examples of nonlegal tools that have been used quite effectively to encourage company accountability (Meeker-Lowry, 1995: 98). A community may also resort to several forms of legal resources. In the US, zoning for instance, has enabled communities to control industrial development within their locales (Village of Euclid v. Ambler Reality CO, 272 US 365, 1926). Under the law of nuisance, a party may sue for harm caused by another's polluting activity and a court may require cessation altogether of the operation (Boomer v. Atlantic Cement Co, 362 N.E.2d 968, 1977). Contract law provides a possible tool for problem solving and legal recourse for community groups. The law provides a remedy for the breach of a contract, or set of promises, the performance of which the law may recognise as a duty (Pollution Prevention Act, Restatement "Second", Contracts s.3 1979).

Another approach is 'Good Neighbour Agreements', which serves as a good vehicle for community organisations and corporations to recognise and formalise their roles within a locality. The purpose of these agreements is to foster sustainable development in a community by reconciling economic development with the community's welfare, including the health of its environment and its individual members. Since the first such agreement was signed in 1978 in Worcester, Massachusetts, several agreements have been signed in the US.

Some provisions of 'Good Neighbour Agreements' include:

(1) Community access to information; A company will place on reserve at a local library specified information. This is defined differently in the various agreements. Provisions require information filed under state and federal law, results from environmental and safety audits and inspections, plant safety manuals and procedures, corporate annual reports and SEC filings, and a list of a plant's workers and their addresses.

(2) Right to inspect the facility: Depending on its content, an inspection clause may permit community members to inspect a plant and be accompanied by an expert and a plant worker of the community's choice. However, such a provision may be particularly strong because the law does not require that a plant routinely allow community members into a facility to conduct a physical inspection. (Interview with Rick Abraham, Texas United, concerning the Rhone-Poulene Good Neighbour Agreement, October 1995).

(3) Accident preparedness: A company must prepare a plan for procedures it will undertake in case of accident and make this plan available for review and input by the public.

(4) Pollution prevention: A company will plan to reduce its use of toxins or its toxic waste and emissions over a scheduled period.

(5) Good jobs, local jobs, union jobs: The company may commit to gearing its hiring and training processes to community needs by recruiting local people for new openings.

(6) Local economic needs: The company may commit to establishing a special community benefits fund, with discretionary spending to be determined and overseen by the affected stakeholders. Expanded funding of local infrastructure needs such as roadways may be part of the program.

(7) Citizen group concessions: In return for commitments such as those described above, members of a citizens group may settle ongoing litigation or permit challenges, and protests or negative publicity, or even generate positive publicity about the company. The citizens group also may commit to protect a company s trade secrets, through specific provisions on trade secrets protection.


If, as the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares, all people have a right to the highest level of health attainable, then surely the health of those who produce as well as those who reside in a giving community where all valued products used by society should be of basic concern .Yet, workers and certain communities are of the most vulnerable groups in our population. The effects of the health hazards they face are often added to those of poor living environments, poor nutrition, and unsatisfactory housing, especially in developing countries.

Workers' health status usually reflects the general health conditions of the population. At the same time, their working conditions influence the socio-economic status, health status, and living environment of their dependants. This is particularly true for developing countries where, for the majority of workers, survival depends on work undertaken in exploitative conditions, with low incomes and unhealthy working conditions.

In many developing countries, rapid industrialisation has occurred without adequate provision for the protection of workers. Their health has become an increasingly serious issue, as modern industrial and agricultural methods rely more heavily on hazardous substances. This has led to an increase in exposure to a wide range of occupational health hazards.

While concern for the health and ecological effects of air, water and soil pollution has resulted in greater controls in developed countries, many governments of developing countries, under pressure from structural adjustment programs and the debt crisis have offered their resources and communities as 'pollution havens' for industrial development. By shifting hazardous production processes to locations where little or no environmental regulation exists, manufacturers avoid investing in equipment and procedures necessary to control hazardous exposures. Combined with lower wages, taxes, and energy costs, this contributes to higher profits for investors. Only for the people and workers who live in the surrounding communities to pay for this gain through disease-producing substances.

The past few decades have witnessed a rapid growth of the urban population in the South that has created pressure on the employment market. The increase in the number of job seekers has not kept pace with the growth of the formal sector and the chance of finding a regular paid job in a city has become even more limited.

Many households in Third World cities confront the challenge of survival through a complex system of informal activities in small-scale industries. Exposure to occupational health hazards is of very little concern in this unregulated informal sector. Furthermore, poor working conditions may not only create health hazards for workers, but may also have an effect upon the health status of people living in the neighbourhood of say a small-scale factory.

Since workers in small-scale industries are poor, they also show the disease patterns of the urban poor. This has implications for the development of occupational standards due to the exposure to toxic substances. Standards based on those used in the North are often inappropriate to the work situation in developing countries for a number of reasons:

(1) The high prevalence of epidemic diseases reduces the resistance of those infected (Michaels et al, 1985:536-542).

(2)The length of the working day in the South is much longer, standards are often based on the 40-hour work week common in the North. Hence, Third World workers will receive on average, much higher levels of exposure (Ibid).

(3) The standards do not take into account differences in climate, nutritional status, or genetic predisposition (Rossiter and El Batawi, 1987:3-11)


There are appears to be a difference between the number of occupational health hazards found in small-scale industries. These differences may be explained by two factors; The first is the need for survival by workers in small-scale enterprises, who may consider occupational health hazards of less importance than the urgency of earning a living in order to survive.

Without the protection of labour regulations or access to free and adequate health services, workers in the informal sector (small-scale industries) are at significant risk from work-related diseases and injuries. Secondly, the activities of small-scale industries generally fall outside the scope of the authorities. In many countries, small-scale enterprises are often legally exempt from labour regulations, including health and safety (WHO, 1992). most law regulating occupational health and safety apply only to medium-or-large-scale industries, usually identified by the number of workers employed, normally over 25 to 50. For example, the Philippines is introducing the 'Law of 20', in which enterprises with 20 workers or under will be exempted from most existing labour laws, in the expectation that this will encourage more enterprises and generate jobs (Reverente, 1992).

Christiani (1990:393-401) gives several characteristics of the informal sector that indicate that occupational health may be severe problem for workers in small-scale industries. Informal-sector workers are often very young (children) or very old (grandparents) and include reproductively active men and women - many of whom are pregnant. There is thus a strong link to maternal and child health considerations. Children and young people make up a large growing percentage of the informal workforce in developing countries.

Millions of children, some as young as five years old, spend their time in economically productive activities that deprive them of formal education, good physical health, and psychosocial well-being. Accurate figures are impossible to obtain, as child labour is illegal in most countries and therefore goes unrecorded. Nevertheless, United Nations' estimates for 1981 pointed to 145 million children under the age of 15, rising to 375 million by the year 200 (Lee-Wright, 1990).

Where it is illegal and hidden, child labour is outside the range of protective legislation. A child's wage, for example, may be half that of an adult's. Children are also more susceptible than adults to accidents, injury and occupational disease. Small, weak, and inexperienced workers are more at risk from dangerous machinery and materials, heavy weights, and the heat of industrial processes (Michaels et, al 1985). They are also more prone to poisoning and respiratory complaints caused by a multitude of airborne hazards. Examples of the health effects of child labour are not hard to find: tens of thousands of children work in developing countries for example like in Burma or the glass industry in Firozabad, India, and are exposed to excessive heat, noise, accidental burns, cuts and lacerations caused by broken glass. They work through the night, often with no break for rest or food, and have a high incidence of tuberculosis (Mohan, 1992). In many countries world-wide, tourism and the sex trade rely heavily on child workers and child prostitutes.


Benavides (1992) argues that most small-scale industries do not have a significant impact on the environment. On the contrary, it can be argued that these industries do, in fact, make a significant contribution to environmental contamination at the local level, ie., in the neighbourhoods of small-scale industries. Such contamination can have a serious impact upon the state of health of the people living in these neighbourhoods (Barten, 1992). In these situations, distinctions made between general health hazards and the more specific hazards of industry are rather artificial.

The number of small-scale industries in developing countries continue to mushroom, as the shortage of foreign currency forces governments to promote self-help enterprises (Nriagu, 1992:1-37). Invariably, there are few restrictions or controls on what these operations discharge into the environment and quite often the homes and the surrounding play areas are contaminated with toxic metals. The fact that many people live where they work predisposes them to frequent (and potentially high levels of) exposure to metallic wastes and other hazards that result from such small-scale and cottage industries, obscuring the distinction between occupational and environmental exposure. The workers themselves rarely distinguish between occupational and nonoccupational illness, although they may be aware that much of their physical well-being stems from bad working conditions (Shukla, 1991:597-603).

A range of hazardous activities is carried out in small-scale industries such as wood work shops, metal workshops, and garages, set up close to places where women are cooking and selling food. Therefore, besides the hazards of their work, people are exposed to many other hazardous activities carried out in their home environment. The lack of land allocation also causes an insecure situation for informal sector workers since they can be chased away from their premises any time. This state of affairs does not stimulate the operators to invest in their enterprises and thereby improve the occupational and environmental conditions. Any investment is seen as a waste of money. The lack of permanent premises also make it difficult to obtain credit, and leads to insecurity and low incomes. To what extent these problems affect the mental health of informal sector workers and their productivity is virtually unknown (ILO, 1993). The effect on the health of workers' families is also not considered. It has been suggested that, even when workers and operators in informal sector workshops were aware of health and safety issues, these were not their priority concern. (Ibid). It is the struggle to provide the basic needs of life that causes a daily burden for workers and their families. The exposure of workers and their families to occupational and environmental risks is therefore not chosen voluntarily, but seen as the only possibility to maintain a basic living.


Although the cottage factories and sweat shops of the informal sector employ only a very small number of workers, collectively they represent the vast majority of industrial workers in all developing countries. Still, they lack any kind of organised health service and are entirely dependent on inadequate local health facilities. The same is generally true for agricultural workers.

One of the most important failings in the current approach to occupational health problems is the predominance of a medical-technical and reactive approach. Occupational health problems are theoretically preventable and are not primarily technical. Unfortunately, equity in health is still merely seen in terms of access to medical services rather than in terms of all aspects that determine health, such as work, housing, food, water, etc. At the district level in most developing countries, the health system analysis of health needs and problems seldom includes an assessment of industrial hazards, workplaces and work processes, nor are they generally carried out with the participation of workers and community members. At the primary care level, information on work hazards is rarely collected routinely in terms of exposure levels, etc. while an intersectoral approach is often lacking.

The occupational and environmental health problems of workers, particularly in the informal sector, present a challenge to health and labour ministries to develop a new approach. The model in the North of moving occupational health from the health ministry to the labour ministry is inappropriate for developing countries since most workers are unorganised, are women, and children whose health needs cannot be separated into 'home' and 'work', and where industrial processes may affect not only workers' health but also that of the population living nearby. For instance, in Kingston, Jamaica, investigations undertaken showed the risk of lead poisoning among household members exposed to backyard battery repair shops. These shops are involved in the repair or building of lead-acid car batteries and are usually located on the same premises where the owner/operator and his family live. The survey found a high risk of elevated blood lead levels among subjects living in backyard battery repair shops, and it was found that the risk was not attributable to general environmental contamination of urban Kingston (Matte et al, 1989:874-881). There also exists a strong evidence that low-level exposure impairs cognitive development in children, and long-term effects of childhood exposure have been reported.

Cottage factories for melting lead, repairing and recharging batteries are found in all cities of the South. The cottage factories are very small places with an earthen floor, where residuals of lead are piled up, and there is no periodic cleaning. The melting process of lead is realised by a totally artisanal method, with poor ventilation and no facilities for personal hygiene. Food and water for daily consumption are kept without any protection in work places, where they are also consumed by the workers. In some cottage factories, the risks are even higher, because they are situated in the owner's house or near public food selling places, exposing in an excessive way members of the workers' own family (children and women) and the neighbourhood (Ibid).


Following the First Conference on Occupational Health in Developing Countries held in Sri Lanka in 1981, the Colombo Statement issued by the conference highlighted three key issues; the provision of health for neglected working populations in agriculture and small-scale industries, the situation of migrant workers, and the need for occupational health training in developing countries. It stressed the integration of occupational health services with primary health care (PHC). Because PHC advocates an integrated and comprehensive approach to health needs and problems of workers participation in decision-making processes (WHO, 1978) it has the potential to improve the health status of both workers and populations living in industrial zones.

Before this can be achieved, however, health authorities need to be more aware of the health conditions of workers. District health systems need to be strengthened and reoriented toward health promotion, prevention, and protection. Attention is needed to ensure that the integration of occupational health with PHC goes beyond the establishment of another separate, vertical technical program (Macdonald, 1993). For example, health promotion aims should be to work with people in the 'settings' of their everyday life, focusing on building up 'healthy workplaces' or 'healthy neighbourhoods' rather than focusing on people at risk from specific conditions or already in contact with health services (Ashton and Seymour, 1988). Establishing local information systems can promote links between environmental/occupational health data and health conditions; local resource centres have proved to be important tools in mobilising all possible sectors. Several alternative approaches could be developed to meet workers' health needs. One is to integrate public health services with occupational health to cover workers in small-scale industries.

Another approach is to take an integrated occupational/PHC service to the workplace, where health workers could treat certain conditions on the spot or refer them either to a local health facility or to an occupational health unit, established as a referral centre. Establishing a comprehensive approach relies heavily on the involvement of an active, organised, and informed work force, working in alliance with the community. Worker participation is essential to ensure healthy workplaces; and also discussing health problems, identifying opportunities for change, planning and organising strategies for prevention and control, and playing a role in the surveillance of risks and monitoring of enforcement of laws and regulations.

Developing an adequate response to work-related health needs will thus require an interdisciplinary approach, involving not only the health sector, but also other ministries, employers, workers and communities. The most important first step is to raise awareness about the issue among a wide range of interest groups, government health services and other relevant agencies, employers (both large and small), development agencies and research institutes, and, most importantly, among workers and communities themselves.


The Third Tribunal on Industrial Hazards and Human Rights was established after hearing evidence in Bhopal from the victims of the industrial disasters in October 1992. The Charter of Rights Against Industrial Hazards containing 39 articles, is based on a series of tribunals and aims to provide workers and communities with a common agenda.

The four tribunals on Industrial Hazards and Human Rights listened to evidence from survivors, community groups, and workers around the world, as well as from professional and experts, and, together, their evidence has shaped a new Charter that is intended to set standards for protecting people and their environment from hazards arising from all aspects of industrial production. The Charter has been shaped by the evidence presented to the tribunals and many others to whom it has been articulated for consultation, to address the failure of industry, government, and professional services to meet the needs of those affected by industrial hazards. Whether a hazard is dramatic and affects many, as in the case of Bhopal, or is the result of smaller-scale regular or irregular toxic emissions, common principles of justice need to be applied, common standards established, and common guidance provided on proper medical, legal, social and economic action taken so as to prevent or redress the wrongs.

The resulting Charter forms the basis of an international convention for presentation to the United Nations for formal recognition by governments. It also calls on community groups, trade unions, public interest organisations, and individuals to assert these rights as a duty in order to improve standards and protect communities and workers, as well as their living and working environment. This was the first time that human rights abuses engendered by the impact of industrial production were brought to the fore by tribunals. At the New Haven tribunal, the Permanent Peoples Tribunal (PPT) considered three draft charters - on the rights of workers, communities, and victims. The drafts were based on existing principles of human rights law, interpreted in the light of industrial hazards. At the final hearing in London, three charters were consolidated into one document, which was then circulated to a large number of experts and non-governmental organisations from all parts of the world. The final version was approved by the (PPT) early 1996. Though the Charter is drafted in legalistic language, its content directly reflects the views of those with immediate experience of industrial hazards in a wide variety of settings.

Established in 1979 by the Lelio Basso International Foundation for the Rights and Liberation of Peoples, the PPT is the immediate successor to the Bertrand Russell Tribunal at Nuremberg, the PPT is an international public opinion tribunal that identifies and publicises the systematic violation of fundamental rights, particularly in cases where national and international law fail to protect peoples' rights. The PPT is based in Rome, but its 75 judges come from all over the globe and include eminent persons whose reputations must be above reproach in art, culture, science, and politics, including a number of Nobel Prize winners.

Individual hearings are initiated by aggrieved groups and are normally heard by a bench of three to 11 sitting tribunal judges. Accused parties are invited to present their case at the hearings, and if they do not attend, the PPT appoints a legal counsel to represent their case in a rigorous manner. The PPT applies principles of international law and is bound by the 'Algiers Declaration of the Rights of Peoples' as well as by its own statute of operations.

As part of its mandate, the PPT supports the development of new standards and legal norms. With the Charter, the PPT aims to contribute new principles of justice to the existing body of human rights law. The Charter was placed before the United Nations and other international bodies for official consideration. Yet, it is also based on the principle that official action is not enough. It calls upon individuals, community groups, trade unions, and public interest organisations to assert rights as part of a common duty to take action against industrial hazards.


Despite all these measures to ensure that human rights abuse arising from environmental pollution are adequately guaranteed, the concept of environmental law and its application has been slow to embrace environmental victimisation. Even though there are few environmental statutes that directly aim to ensure human well-being, the current intent is to protect in a vague way, 'the environment' with a hope that, as a spin off, we will be safe.

Of the statutes that relate directly to human impacts, many diminish the rights of victims, others are so muddled that they are unworkable (Williams, 1997:189). The UK Congenital Disability Act [1996] for example, intends to protect and provide redress for the unborn child in relation to radiation exposure. Yet if the child's parents were aware of the possibility of a workplace hazard, a claim cannot be made. How did those who drafted the law come to believe that the concept of 'contributory negligence' could be applied to a foetus? The only explanation is a muddled view that it is the parent and not the child who is the potential victim. The Act is clearly absurd, is frequently criticised in law books, and has hardly been used. Yet there are no plans to amend it. Take again for instance, criminology, which has started to show an interest in environmental crime. But the criminology approach hits an immediate conceptual stumbling block that most environmental victimisation, although perhaps seen as morally wrong, is not yet defined as 'crime'. In addition, efforts to maintain that the ecosystem can be the 'victim' of environmental crime, as proposed by commentors like Mark Seis, require long arguments which are contrary to the established view in 'interest theory', which states that only individuals and groups can have interests, and rights, and therefore can be victims of criminal, civil or moral offences.

While domestic law and criminology amble into the field of environmental victimisation, real life presents challenging new questions which demand immediate answers by courts. For instance, the link between exposure to organophosphates and a range of adverse neurological impacts is now hardly in dispute, yet those affected find that no law directly supports their case. In 1992 for example, a UK farm worker shot and killed his girlfriend's parents, and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Campaigners are now demanding a retrial on the basis that he was suffering mental impairment because of exposure to organophosphate pesticides (Williams, 1998). We have reached the point at which environmental victimisation is not just a simple matter of perpetrator-victim-cause-and-effect, but whether or not that effect can then constitute a defence or mitigation if the victim commits a crime as a result. Bearing in mind that virtually every human on earth today has demonstrably been exposed to a range of environmental toxins, how will courts cope with the inevitable avalanche of defences of this nature?

It is interesting to note that in 1993, children in the Philippines (represented by their parents), initiated proceedings on behalf of themselves and future generations, in relation to government timber licensing agreements. After a Supreme Court ruling, the children were allowed to file the petition on the basis that the Philippines constitution embodies the right to a 'balanced and healthy ecology' and that the right to self-preservation is a fundamental right, even if unwritten, since the beginning of humankind.

At a global level, an ingenious concept, the 'planetary interest', builds on the established international relations understanding of the 'vital national interest' to propose how global governance might develop effective measures against the major threats such as ozone depletion and climate change (Graham, 1998). A key question raised by commentors like Gwyn Prins in his exposé - The Planetary Interest, 'is how do we legitimise actions by national governments or international organisations to address environmental and other global threats?'(Williams 1998, p.161).

However, it is important to point out here that, the Charter on Industrial Hazards and Human Rights does not bestow rights from above as a gift. It is a set of demands from below, to be seized by individuals and groups acting in the context of particular struggles. The way in which it is interpreted and used will necessarily vary from one situation to the next, but it nevertheless articulates a universal vision of a world in which people are able to lead their lives without industrial hazards. Baha'u'llah, in His writings pointed out on the need for a World Federal System whose central organ would be a representative world parliament empowered to create a code of universally agreed upon and enforceable international law. "The Earth is but one country," Baha'u'llah asserted, "and mankind its citizens".


It should be against this background that human rights education carried out through environmental education will eventually need to address a problem that is more subtle than a response to obvious threats - how to develop the human perception of new forms of the 'invisible' than the 'credible', evidence of environmental hazards. We have no innate information processing mechanisms to promote a response to the threats posed by global climate change or Polychlorinated Biphens (PCBs) pollution, as we do in reaction to the risk posed by fire or stagnant water. PCB's for instance, constitute the group of chlorinated hydrocarbons used as liquid insulators in the electricity distribution industry as plasticizers and synthetic resins in the plastics industry. Which as a result of their stability, tend to accumulate in the environment, mainly by passage through food chains. As a result, they are found in locations far removed from their industrial source. eg seals, fish and humans.

The perception, assessment and response to these new forms of hazards must stem entirely from how and what we learn. If environmental toxins took the forms of slugs swimming in our tea or locusts pervading in the air we breath, then perhaps our perception of the problem would be innate and prompt immediate responses. They do not, and it is a major task of education to present invisible hazards to human perception in a manner that leads to a better questioning of arguments that are currently won soley on the basis of the visibility of the evidence.


In conclusion, it is worth pointing out here that, one outcome of the absence of education of this nature is that social policy is often based only on the science that makes us aware of high-visibility and cost-related consequences. The fluoridation of drinking water in the UK is a good example. The evidence in relation to fluoride preventing tooth decay is easy to collect and disseminate. Toothache is an immediately unpleasant circumstance, which everybody would rather avoid, and the savings to a health service of preventing decay are easy to calculate and present politically. Analysis of the causes of what humankind is currently going through and the pending dangers that lie ahead raises fundamental questions of man s continuous adamant attitude towards the spiritual perspective and moral ethical values.


Williams C. (ed) 1998 - Environmental Victims - New Risks, New Injustice (Earthscan, London).

Kemp D. 1998 - The Environment Dictionary - Routledge. London and New York.

A Statement Presented by the Baha'i International Community to the UNCED - Earth Summit, 1992.

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Last updated 11 April 1999