“We are nature” – and this is very true. Nothing illustrates how closely our lives and wellbeing are linked to the Earth than when you consider the critical impact a healthy ecosystem has on us. While the intrinsic value of nature can never be fully quantified, some experts have tried to quantify this by talking about the benefits of nature in terms of “ecosystem services” or “natural capital”. But the reality is that you would not give a value to any of the basic freedoms and rights that we enjoy, such as liberty, freedom of speech or religion. So, the same can be argued for our environment and the multiple benefits it provides. Indeed, we should come to see our environment and the benefits it provides as inalienable rights.
Environmental rights, in other words the right to a clean environment, are human rights. What is more by protecting environmental rights, we can enhance human rights.
It is important that this link is recognised and the good news is that we are not starting from zero. Not only is there are a lot of data out there supporting how a clean environment can help our physical and mental health, but also support vital economic activities such as agriculture, forestry and fisheries. For example, to put this in monetary terms it is estimated 17 of the Earth’s most important ecosystems provide a total of ecosystem services at US$33 trillion a year1. But there is even more data that unveils benefits that cannot be quantified: for example, proximity to the natural environment or green space can not only prevent ill-health but it can also help patient recovery time.
Time to look at things differently
What is more, the right to a clean environment is even more important for some developing countries and particularly indigenous people. This is because, generally speaking, indigenous peoples depend directly on natural ecosystems for their livelihoods, so protecting the environment means that they can more easily enjoy other human rights such as access to food and sanitation. Similarly, the increasing threats and violence against those who protect biodiversity from poachers, illegal traffickers and illicit business activities are especially troubling and can have a negative effect on the protection of human rights. Seen under this perspective, those who protect the environment should also be considered as human rights protectors2,3.
It is therefore not surprising that a lot of governments have come to realise the significance of a clean environment also for human rights. Indeed, the first formal recognition of the right to a healthy environment came in the Stockholm Declaration in 1972 which reads: “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, and he bears a solemn responsibility to protect and improve the environment for present and future generations” 4. Today, countries such as Spain and Portugal incorporate a right to a healthy environment in their constitutions.
But despite these progressive developments, many questions about the relationship of human rights and the environment remain unresolved and require further examination. This is why in March 2012 the Human Rights Council decided to adopt a mandate on human rights and the environment, which will study the human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, and promote best practices relating to the use of human rights in environmental policymaking. A special independent rapporteur, US professor John Knox, was appointed to produce a report and inform the further deliberations of the UN.
The turning point
Over the course of this mandate, the Special rapporteur collated data from around the globe but also produced a comprehensive report on biodiversity. His report, now completed, concluded that concludes that, “in order to protect human rights, states have a general obligation to protect ecosystems and biodiversity”.
More specifically, the report argues that “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”.
It further specifies that a healthy environment is a key prerequisite enabling us to fulfil our aspirations or even live at a level commensurate with minimum standards of human dignity. But it is a two-way street: not only does a clean environment support human rights but protecting human rights helps to protect the environment. When people can 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.
The UN Special rapporteur’s report focuses on biodiversity which it considers necessary for the full enjoyment of rights to food, water, health — the right to live a full and happy life. Without the ecosystem services that a healthy natural environment can provide, it would not be possible to enjoy a whole range of human rights.
The link between biodiversity and human rights becomes all the more evident when we look into how biodiversity loss impacts us: for example, it decreases the productivity and stability of agriculture and fisheries, which undermines the right to food. It also eliminates potential sources of medicines, increases exposure to certain infectious diseases, and removes natural filters from the water cycle, undermining the right to water.
The assessment entitled “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment” was presented to the U.N.’s Human Rights Council at a meeting in early 2017, in Geneva, Switzerland5. While the UN has so far not taken a formal position on the matter, the Human Rights Council is considering whether to adopt a resolution recognizing the relationship of biodiversity and human rights. A decision is expected in 2017.
If you would like to provide your support for such a resolution, don’t hesitate to reach out to the UN’s Special rapporteur via his website or on social media.