Human Rights and Environment

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 29. March 2019 - 15:57
Dahl, Arthur Lyon

Human Rights and Environment

Arthur Lyon Dahl
(based in part on official sources)

Human rights and the environment are two of the major global issues of our time. For a long time they have been seen largely as separate concerns, each with their advocates and associations, their international conferences and institutions, and their accumulation of legal texts. Yet as environmental problems have globalized and now threaten the health and well-being of multitudes, the two issues are converging, with interests increasingly In common. It is time for the two communities to collaborate and to recognize their complementarity.

The legal basis for environmental and human rights

The most immediate point of convergence is in the increasing recognition that one essential human right is to a healthy environment that enables many other human rights. Today there is still no universally recognized human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, but we are coming close. Over a hundred countries have some legal text acknowledging environmental rights. At the global level, the evolution has been gradual.

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, includes a number of rights relevant to the environment or threatened by environmental dangers, including the right to life and security of person, various economic, social and cultural rights, favourable conditions of work, a standard of living adequate for health and well-being, and the right to share in scientific advancement and its benefits. For a long time environmental rights have been defended by reference to these fundamental rights.

The Declaration is not a legally binding text, but in 1966, many of its provisions were incorporated into a Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and a Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, including the right to life, to favourable conditions of work, to the protection of family, mothers, children, and young persons, to an adequate standard of living, and to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. There is still no mention of the environment, which was only just emerging then as an issue of global concern.

The first UN text directly linking the environment and human rights was the Stockholm Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, Stockholm (1972), which in its first paragraph proclaims: “Both aspects of man's environment, the natural and the man-made, are essential to his well-being and to the enjoyment of basic human rights - even the right to life itself.” It was normal that the early stages of United Nations efforts to address environmental problems should relate them to human rights and dignity.

The UN Commission on Human Rights started to address environmental issues in 1989 through resolutions on movement and dumping of toxic and dangerous products and wastes (Resolution - 1989/42). The Commission on Human Rights adopted its first resolution entitled Human rights and the environment in 1994 followed by a number of resolutions on the same subject matter in 1995 and 1996 (Res. 1994/65; Res. 1995/14; Res. 1996/13). From 2002, the Year of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, the Commission on Human Rights adopted resolutions on the environment that were entitled Human rights and the environment as part of sustainable development (Res. 2002/75; Res. 2003/71; Res. 2005/60).1

In 2012, the Human Rights Council, the successor to the Commission on Human Rights, established a mandate on human rights and the environment. The Council acknowledged that all human beings depend on the environment in which we live. A safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is integral to the full enjoyment of a wide range of human rights, including the rights to life, health, food, water and sanitation. Without a healthy environment, we are unable to fulfil our aspirations or even live at a level commensurate with minimum standards of human dignity. At the same time, protecting human rights helps to protect the environment. When people are able to learn about, and participate in, the decisions that affect them, they can help to ensure that those decisions respect their need for a sustainable environment.

As the recognition of the links between human rights and the environment has increased, the number and scope of international and domestic laws, judicial decisions, and academic studies on the relationship between human rights and the environment have grown rapidly. Many States now incorporate a right to a healthy environment in their constitutions. However, the Council saw that many questions about the relationship of human rights and the environment remained unresolved and required further examination.

The Human Rights Council mandate on human rights and the environment was intended to study the human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, and to promote best practices relating to the use of human rights in environmental policy-making. Mr. John Knox was appointed in August 2012 to serve as the Independent Expert (2012 – 2015) and as the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment (2015 – 2018). In 2018, the Human Rights Council further extended the mandate (resolution 37/8) and appointed Mr. David. R. Boyd as the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment as of 1 August 2018.2

John Knox delivered his final report to the UN General Assembly in July 2018, entitled Human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.3 In it, “the Special Rapporteur recommends that the Assembly recognize the human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Drawing on the extensive experience with this right at the national and regional levels, he explains why the time has come for such recognition by the United Nations.”

In the report, he summarizes his extensive work to define obligations under human rights law to protect against environmental harm. He had collected and created a website for good practices on environmental rights ( and another for environmental human rights defenders ( He had prepared for the Human Rights Council reports on specific aspects of the relationship, including climate change and human rights in 2016 (A/HRC/31/52), biodiversity and human rights in 2017 (A/HRC/34/49), and children’s rights and the environment in 2018 (A/HRC/37/58). He also compiled framework principles on human rights and the environment (A/HRC/37/59), submitted to the Human Rights Council in March 2018, that reflect the application of existing human rights obligations in the environmental context.

The report proposed three options for the General Assembly to consider:
1) a new international treaty, such as the Global Pact for the Environment now under negotiation;
2) an additional protocol to an existing human rights treaty; for example, the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment could be the focus of an optional protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights;
3) the General Assembly could adopt a resolution focused on the right to a healthy environment.

Another recent significant step forward in an explicit acknowledgement of the close relationship between human rights and the environment has been the adoption by the UN General Assembly on 17 December 2018 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas.4

The Declaration includes many passages and whole articles that define environmental rights. For example, the exploitation of natural resources requires “a duly conducted social and environmental impact assessment”, the “rights to work in safe and healthy working conditions”, the “right not to use or to be exposed to hazardous substances or toxic chemicals, including agrochemicals or agricultural or industrial pollutants.” The Declaration calls for “specific criteria for the importation, classification, packaging, distribution, labelling and use of chemicals used in agriculture, and for their prohibition or restriction,” and a “system for the safe collection, recycling and disposal of chemical waste, obsolete chemicals and empty containers of chemicals so as to avoid their use for other purposes and to eliminate or minimize the risks to safety and health and to the environment.” It calls for the “right to healthy and adequate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods that respect their cultures,” and “the transition to sustainable modes of agricultural production. States shall stimulate sustainable production, including agroecological and organic production, whenever possible.” It goes beyond agriculture to consider wider environmental concerns. “States shall recognize and protect the natural commons and their related systems of collective use and management.” “States shall take measures aimed at the conservation and sustainable use of land and other natural resources used in their production, including through agroecology, and ensure the conditions for the regeneration of biological and other natural capacities and cycles.”

Article 18 covers a variety of environmental issues:
“1. Peasants and other people working in rural areas have the right to the conservation and protection of the environment and the productive capacity of their lands, and of the resources that they use and manage.
“2. States shall take appropriate measures to ensure that peasants and other people working in rural areas enjoy, without discrimination, a safe, clean and healthy environment.
“3. States shall comply with their respective international obligations to combat climate change. Peasants and other people working in rural areas have the right to contribute to the design and implementation of national and local climate change adaptation and mitigation policies, including through the use of practices and traditional knowledge.
“4. States shall take effective measures to ensure that no hazardous material, substance or waste is stored or disposed of on the land of peasants and other people working in rural areas, and shall cooperate to address the threats to the enjoyment of their rights that result from transboundary environmental harm.
“5. States shall protect peasants and other people working in rural areas against abuses by non-State actors, including by enforcing environmental laws that contribute, directly or indirectly, to the protection of the rights of peasants or other people working in rural areas.”

Another whole section concerns issues of patenting of genetic resources and maintains that peasants have “the right to seeds” and to maintain and preserve their own genetic varieties.

Article 20 addresses biodiversity and traditional knowledge more generally:
“1. States shall take appropriate measures, in accordance with their relevant international obligations, to prevent the depletion and ensure the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in order to promote and protect the full enjoyment of the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas.
“2. States shall take appropriate measures to promote and protect the traditional knowledge, innovation and practices of peasants and other people working in rural areas, including traditional agrarian, pastoral, forestry, fisheries, livestock and agroecological systems relevant to the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity.
“3. States shall prevent risks of violation of the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas arising from the development, handling, transport, use, transfer or release of any living modified organisms.”

The right to water is also defined, including “the human rights to safe and clean drinking water and to sanitation.” “States shall protect and restore water-related ecosystems, including mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers, aquifers and lakes, from overuse and contamination by harmful substances, in particular by industrial effluent and concentrated minerals and chemicals that result in slow and fast poisoning.”

This recent Declaration is perhaps the most detailed specification of human rights to the environment of any globally-applicable legal text. Alongside the Special Rapporteur’s report to the General Assembly, it is difficult to see how any reasonable obstacle should prevent the adoption of a global human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

Implementing human rights and environment

It is obvious today that environmental neglect and crises such as climate change are more and more threatening to human rights. Millions of children and youth around the world are marching in the streets demanding action now to protect their future. Climate change alone is already increasing poverty and hunger and will forcibly displace hundreds of millions of people as storms, floods and droughts increase in intensity and sea levels rise. Many human rights violations today are against migrants, so massive increases can be expected if more is not done to educate the receiving communities (Dahl 2018).

Fortunately, there is already a universally-accepted plan to address all the interrelated dimensions of environment and sustainability at the global level, the 2030 Agenda and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals adopted at a UN General Assembly summit in September 2015. This can be seen as a new charter for human rights and the environment, especially since it emphasizes leaving no one behind. The more those goals are implemented, the more everyone’s human rights will be respected.

More fundamentally, we need to transform everyone’s attitudes and values if we are to implement these rights at the local, national and international levels. To start with, we must all come to recognize the oneness of all humankind. We are a single species, all interrelated in one human family. It follows that every single person is a trust of the whole, and we are responsible for their dignity and well-being. The resulting feelings of solidarity and empathy will prevent us from accepting or tolerating human rights abuses as normal or justified.

With the global environmental crises upon us, we can no longer deny that we are all responsible for human rights violations through our lifestyles and consumption. Whenever we use fossil fuels or the energy derived from them, or other petroleum products such as most plastics, we are increasing the depravation and suffering of others around the world, particularly the poor, and are degrading the environment for future generations including our own children.

It is essential that we come to understand the systemic nature of our globalized society, across all nations and peoples, and its intimate dependence on the biosphere and the natural world. We must recognize that we have upset all natural systems, from climate to biodiversity to chemical cycles, and are now responsible for managing them and restoring them. The future of our planet and its ability to support life, including our own, is now in our hands.

We can take the Sustainable Development Goals as a useful blueprint for action, and consider how we can implement them in our communities, countries and internationally. There is no single answer, as we need multiple solutions at all levels, adapted to the many different situations that people find themselves in around the world.

Individually we can reflect on how to adopt more sustainable lifestyles and to moderate our consumption patterns, being content with little, just what is required for our needs without excess. That already will reduce our impact on the environment. We can then work with others around us to build more resilient communities based on justice, equity, solidarity, empathy and generosity.

To collaborate with and learn from others, we can find organizations that share our values to participate in public discourses on these issues, whether from the human rights, environmental, nature conservation, social action, development or other perspectives.

Ultimately, of course, we also need changes at higher levels. Many environmental pressures today, and the vested interests resisting change, come from unregulated multinational corporations legally responsible only to generate profits for their shareholders, with a narrow short-term focus that declines responsibility for human welfare or the common good. We need to work for a transformation of the economic paradigm, experimenting with new economic models such as B-corps, social enterprises, cooperatives and other forms of organization to create meaningful employment, generate wealth to reduce poverty, and meet the needs of society. Finally, we need to move towards effective global governance that would permit binding legislation on human rights, including environment, and bring world society back into balance with planetary resources in an ever-advancing civilization.



3. UN General Assembly A/73/188 19 July 2018

4. A/res/73/165 of 17 December 2018

5. Dahl, Arthur Lyon. 2018. Migration and Religion. Paper presented at the World Conference on “Religions, Creeds and Value Systems: Joining Forces to Enhance Equal Citizenship Rights”, Palais des Nations, Geneva, Switzerland, 25 June 2018.

Last updated 29 March 2019