Human Rights and the Environment

Why are human rights relevant to the environment?

When we talk about environmental issues, we tend to focus on their ecological and economic impacts. But there is now increasing international recognition of the threats that environmental degradation can present to human rights.
Such threats can be immediate, for example as a result of industrial pollution, or more long-term, such as the growing effects of climate change. They can affect a wide range of human rights, such as the right to life, the right to home and family life, and the right to food and water.

Environmental protection is, in fact, vital to the global fulfilment of human rights. It is essential then that governments promote and develop laws, policies and practices that protect both human rights and the environment.

How are human rights affected by environmental issues?

Human beings depend on the environment around them for their physical and mental health, and general wellbeing. When that environment is threatened, our human rights are undermined. Pollution, drought and flooding are all examples of environmental problems which threaten human rights. It is the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people who will suffer the most, despite the fact that they have
contributed least to the causes of climate change. The poor are also the most vulnerable to discrimination resulting from government measures to combat environmental and climate change concerns.

A number of specific internationally-recognised human rights are subject to environmental threats. These include:

The right to life

Individuals’ right to life may be threatened by immediate environmental threats such as pollution or flooding, or by the gradual impact of climate change on people’s health and access to food and clean water.

Where is this right protected?

  • Article 2, European Convention on Human Rights (‘ECHR’)

  • Article 6, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (‘ICCPR’)

Right to adequate food

Changes in temperature and rainfall as a result of climate change can cause drought, leading to crop failure and reduction in livestock.  Extreme weather can also cause severe harm to agriculture. 

Where is this right protected?

  • Article 11, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (‘ICESCR’)

Right to water

Changes in global temperatures affect rainfall levels, which can have a drastic impact upon people’s access to drinking water and sanitation, particularly in countries where water is already scarce.  Pollution of water by industrial and other sources also interferes with the human right to water. 

Where is this right protected?

Right to the highest attainable standard of health

Pollution of air and water can have potentially long-lasting effects on health.  Changes in temperature and rainfall, as well as leading to malnutrition, can create conditions in which disease spreads.

Where is this right protected?

  • Article 12, ICESCR

Right to adequate housing

Natural disasters may result in the loss of people’s homes and possessions.  Also, climate change may cause some areas, such as those prone to flooding or with little rainfall, to become uninhabitable.  This is likely to increase urban and international migration. 

Where is this right protected?

  • Article 11, ICESCR

Right to private and family life, home and correspondence

Industrial pollution, noise and environmental deterioration may interfere with people’s right to enjoyment of their private and home life.

Where is this right protected?

  • Article 8, ECHR

  • Article 17, ICCPR

Prohibition on discrimination

Environmental issues affect people differently, depending on their social and economic situation.  For example, discrimination can lead to polluting industries being located disproportionately in areas inhabited by poor
and marginalised sectors of society.  Likewise, those who have contributed least to the causes of climate change – particularly people living in poverty – often suffer most from its effects and are least able to protect themselves.  Further, the measures put in place to combat climate change can have a discriminatory impact upon marginalised sectors of society, such as minorities or the elderly.

 

Where is this right protected?

  • Article 14, ECHR

  • Articles 2, 3, 26, ICCPR

  • Article 2, 3, ICESCR

  • Article 2, UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

  • UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women

  • UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination

Rights of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and the right to seek asylum

Environmental factors have become recognised as one of the factors that may cause migration.  However, under international law, people who travel to another country to flee natural disasters (as opposed to, for example, political persecution) are not currently entitled to refugee protection.  Those who are displaced within a country (internally displaced persons) rely on the protection of their own government.

Where is this right protected?

Procedural rights

Procedures surrounding environmental planning must be transparent and accountable, involving public participation in decision-making, and allowing access to appropriate means of redress.

Where is this right protected?

  • Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention)

  • Procedural rights have also been read into Article 8, ECHR by the European Court of Human Rights (eg in Taskin v Turkey 2005

Why should environmental policies incorporate human rights?

Governments are bound by a wide range of international human rights law instruments and environmental law instruments which set out standards relating to the above rights. A list of these instruments, with links, can be found at the bottom of this page. 

Under international human rights law, the State has a responsibility to respect, protect and fulfil the individual’s human rights. This means that public bodies have both a negative obligation not to interfere with individuals’ human rights, and also a positive obligation to take appropriate measures to prevent or punish violations of human rights by private bodies. 

The human rights implications of environmental threats and of the measures put in place to tackle those threats can potentially be far reaching. Well intentioned environmental policy measures may in fact worsen existing discrimination and social inequality. It is essential that government policies on the environment and climate change fully incorporate human rights into their frameworks. To achieve this the Commission promotes a ‘human rights based approach’.

What is the Commission doing?

The Commission is engaged in a range of opportunities around the environment and human rights:

  • Bringing rights to life. Climate Justice Conference at Glasgow Science Centre. In November 2009, the Commission co-hosted a major conference on climate justice and human rights. 

  • Engaging with stakeholders. In November 2009, a Joint Communiqué between the Scottish Government, the Scottish Human Rights Commission, SEPA and BTCV Scotland was agreed to achieve specific action on human rights and climate change

  • Participating in international events that reflect Scottish experiences - the Commission is a member of the Working Group on Climate Change and Human Rights within the Commonwealth Forum of National Human Rights Institutions, and the Chair of the Commission participated in the 'Scotland Day' Parallel event at COP 15 (UN international climate change conference) in Copenhagen in December 2009, organised by the Scottish Government, British Council Scotland and the University of Edinburgh.

  • Encouraging dialogue. The Commission is frequently invited to participate in environmental/climate change discussions and events.

Human Rights Based Approach

A human rights based approach to tackling environmental issues will put human beings at the centre of law, policy and practice.  It will ensure that people have access to relevant information and are able to participate effectively in decisions about climate change and the environment. And it will ensure that procedures provide for transparency and accountability. 

Taking a human rights based approach to the environment and climate change minimises the potential for discrimination and allows everyone, on an equal basis, to benefit from positive climate change measures. The human rights perspective underlines the importance of five specific elements – this is known as the PANEL approach:

  • Participation in decisions which affect the realisation of human rights: public participation renders decision-making more transparent and public service more effective as it takes into account individual situations.

  • Accountability of duty-bearers to rights-holders: individuals and groups should have recourse to effective remedies, including compensation.

  • Non-discrimination and prioritisation of vulnerable groups: this element recognises that there are groups who are particularly vulnerable to climate change related impacts. For example children, women, the elderly, persons with disabilities and persons living in areas prone to flooding.

  • Empowerment of rights holders: this element sees individuals and groups as owners of rights and provides them with the power, capacities and capabilities to change their own lives. It includes human rights education and access to environmental information.

  • Legality and linkage to rights: policies, processes and mechanisms should be formulated with reference to international human rights instruments and standards.

Human rights and the Environment in Scotland

The Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009 sets out ambitious targets to reduce Scotland’s carbon emissions by at least 80% by 2050 and aims to put Scotland at the forefront of building a sustainable low carbon global economy. The Commission believes that adopting an holistic human rights based approach to climate change and the environment will demonstrate further Scotland’s commitment to being an international model of best practice, as well as creating a robust framework that ensures compatibility with the European Convention on Human Rights and international standards.

Publications

Relevant human rights instruments

Charter of the United Nations

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and General Comments Nos. 4, 12 & 15 of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural rights

UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women

UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination

UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

Geneva Conventions and 1977 Additional Protocol I (during armed conflict)

Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement

European Convention on Human Rights

(In Scotland) Scotland Act 1998 and Human Rights Act 1998

 

Relevant environmental instruments 

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

Convention on Biological Diversity

Rio Declaration on Environment and Development

The Stockholm Declaration

World Health Organisation: European Charter on Environment and Health

Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention)

Draft Declaration of Principles on Human Rights and the Environment

Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009

 

Useful Links

Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights – Human rights and climate change

UN Framework Convention on Climate Change

Gateway to the UN System’s Work on Climate Change

UN Global Compact

Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative

International Council on Human Rights Policy: Climate change and human rights

Center for International Environmental Law

Greenpeace

WWF

Church of Scotland – Responding to climate change

TUC

UK Government: Understanding Climate Change

Act on CO2

Ten Personal Solutions to Global Warming

BBC Climate Change