The following is a list of key writings that describe the link between human rights and the environment, listed in order of date of publication.
Defending the Earth: Abuses of Human Rights and the Environment. Human Rights Watch and Natural Resources Defense Council (1992)
Published at the time of the Earth Summit in 1992 this groundbreaking report was the result of an unprecedented alliance between a leading human rights group and an environmental group. It was one of the first documents to call attention to the relationship between human rights and environmental abuses. Through case studies from around the world, it documents the stories of environmentalists whose rights have been seriously violated, showing how dangerous environmental policies can lead to human rights abuses and how situations of gross human rights abuses can lead to environmental degradation.
Aaron Sachs, Eco-Justice: Linking Human Rights and the Environment, Worldwatch Institute (1995)
This paper is another example of an early document focused on the human costs of environmental degradation. It is helpful in its initial exploration of the linkages between human rights and the environment at the national, institutional, community and individual level.
Alan Boyle and Michael Anderson, Human Rights Approaches to Environmental Protection. Oxford University Press (1996, reprint 1998)
This collection of essays is valuable for those who wish to approach the topic from a legal perspective. The authors explore whether human rights law, both national and international, is useful in the protection of the environment, recognizing the national and international movement to address environmental issues using a human rights framework. They discuss how human rights and the environment are related; to what extent environmental rights are recognized in existing legal arrangements; how environmental rights are defined, justified, and applied; and the advantages and disadvantages of this approach.
Barbara Rose Johnston ed., Life and Death Matters: Human Rights and the Environment at the End of the Millennium. Altamira Press (1997)
Johnston is a pioneer in the field of environmental rights, and this collection of stories, events, and experiences illustrates how environmental crises impact human rights. Although it has been criticized for its lack of a solid analytical framework to advance our understanding of the significance of the case studies, as well as the absence of a basic conceptual framework with which to associate human rights abuse and environmental destruction, the case studies are interesting and informative.
Prudence E. Taylor, “From Environmental to Ecological Human Rights: A New Dynamic in International Law?” The Georgetown International Environmental Law Review, Volume X, Issue 2, Winter 1998, 309-397.
This article is an extremely comprehensive and detailed overview of the link between environmental ethics and human rights law in the context of existing and developing international law. It is also very helpful in its logical development of the concept of “ecological rights” as distinct from other rights.
Environmentalists Under Fire: 10 Urgent Cases of Human Rights Abuses, Amnesty International and the Sierra Club, (2000)
Like the 1992 Human Rights Watch and Natural Resources Defense Council report listed above, this is also the product of a collaboration between a human rights group and an environmental group. Unlike the former, however, it focuses almost solely upon how the civil and political rights of environmentalists are being abused.
Romina Picolotti and Jorge Daniel Taillant, eds., Linking Human Rights and the Environment, University of Arizona Press (2003)
This volume is important because it is one of the most recent volumes dedicated solely to the intersection of rights and the environment. The editors are notable because of their positions as directors of an Argentina-based organization dedicated exclusively to this issue, the Center for Human Rights and Environment (CEDHA). Although the essays are uneven, the volume is helpful because it t includes a review of existing international laws and treaties establishing the right to a healthy environment, an overview of mechanisms that allow both individuals and groups to seek remedy for abuses, and specific cases that document efforts to seek redress for victims of environmental degradation through existing human rights protection mechanisms.
“Human Rights and the Environment,” EarthJustice, (2004)
Prepared for the U.N. Commission on Human Rights by EarthJustice, a public interest law firm dedicated to protecting the environment, this paper is useful because it highlights recent developments from international, regional and domestic bodies in the area of human rights and the environment. It illustrates the interdependence of human rights and the environment and highlights the increasing recognition of a human rights-based approach to environmental protection.
The following is a list of key non-governmental and governmental organizations that deal with environmental rights. Particularly for the intergovernmental organizations when the mandate is human rights or environmental problems broadly, the specific environmental rights focus is highlighted.
Begun in 2000, the American Association for the Advancement of Science's three year project entitled "Science and Human Rights" aims to develop and promote the multiple connections between human rights and environmental protection, to the benefit of both. The project seeks to incorporate environmental concerns into international human rights instruments, and also to bridge knowledge gaps between environmentalists and human rights advocates.
Founded in 1999, the Center for Human Rights and Environment (CEDHA) is an Argentina-based organization that seeks to raise awareness of the link between the environment and human rights, and increase the developmental capacity of state, civil society, and private sector actors. CEDHA's primary focus is on research, capacity-building, legislation strengthening, and litigation.
Founded in 1971, Earthjustice is an American nonprofit public interest law firm dedicated to environmental conservation and defending the universal right to a healthy environment. It has achieved landmark legal victories involving air, forests, health and communities, public lands, water, and wildlife. Though primarily focused on the United States, Earthjustice does limited international work.
Formed in 1995, Earth Rights International (ERI) is a nonprofit group of activists, organizers and lawyers with expertise in human rights, the environment, and corporate and government accountability. Located in the United States and Southeast Asia, ERI organizes, documents, litigates, teaches, and advocates around environmental rights. It is responsible for the much noted campaign and lawsuit against the UNOCAL pipeline in Burma.
The African Commission on Human and People's Rights came into force in 1986 after its adoption by the Organization of African Unity. It is charged with upholding the African Charter on Human and People's Rights, which was groundbreaking in its guarantee for all peoples to the have the right to a general satisfactory environment favorable to their development.
The Commission on Sustainable Development is a functional commission of the U.N. Economic and Social Council. It was created in 1992 to ensure effective follow-up for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development and to monitor the implementation of the Earth Summit Agreements, including the Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Rio Declaration, the Principles of Forest Management, and Agenda 21, a 300-page plan for achieving sustainable development in the 21st century
The European Court of Human Rights was instituted in 1998 as a means to systematize the hearing of Human Rights complaints from Council of Europe member states. The court's mission is to enforce the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, ratified in 1953. The Court has decided numerous cases that have upheld the environmental rights of Europeans.
The Inter-American Commission and Court on Human Rights are autonomous organs of the Organization of American States responsible for the promotion and protection of human rights. The Inter-American Commission has its headquarters in Washington, D.C and was created in 1959, while the Inter-American Court is located in San José, Costa Rica and was created in 1969. These bodies promote the observance and the defense of environmental rights by hearing petitions, carrying out on-site investigations and raising consciousness about the violations of these rights.
The United Nations Commission on Human Rights is composed of 53 states and has met annually in Geneva since 1947. Over 3,000 delegates from member and observer states and from non-governmental organizations participate. The Commission examines, monitors, and publicly reports on human rights situations in specific countries or on major phenomena of human rights violations worldwide. The Commission has working groups on the right to development and on indigenous rights, which have repeatedly dealt with issues of environmental rights.
The United Nations Development Program began as the U.N. Special Fund in 1958 and is now the United Nation's global development network that advocates for change by connecting countries to knowledge, experience and resources to help people build a better life. Its Energy and the Environment program addresses environmental degradation and lack of access to clean affordable energy services, as well as global issues such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, and ozone layer depletion by helping countries to strengthen their capacity to address these challenges at global, national, and community levels.
The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), founded in 1972 and based in Kenya, is the voice for the environment in the U.N. system. With divisions and offices that span the globe and exhaust the gamut of current environmental issues, UNEP is arguably the world's largest single entity specific to the environment, in both scope and method.
Treaties and Declarations
Divided by their classification as either treaties (which have been ratified) or declarations (which have not), the list below represents the key treaties and declarations pertaining to environmental rights. For those that relate more broadly to the concept of human rights, their contributions to environmental rights have been highlighted. The list is chronological to emphasize the development over time of the connection between human rights and environmental degradation.
Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (1972)
This convention arose out of the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization meeting in Paris in 1972. Recognizing that cultural and natural heritage are increasingly threatened by development, the convention seeks the establishment of a system for the collective protection of cultural and natural heritage. One of the most significant features of the convention is its linking of the concepts of nature conservation and the preservation of cultural sites by recognizing that cultural identity is strongly related to the natural environment in which it develops.
African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights (1981)
Written by the member states of the Organization for African Unity, this charter seeks to promote and protect human rights in Africa. It states that "all peoples shall have the right to a general satisfactory environment favorable to their development."
The Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1988)
Also known as the Protocol of San Salvador, this protocol represents an attempt to take the inter-American human rights system to a higher level by recognizing the importance of economic, social, and cultural rights. The protocol's provisions cover such areas as the right to work, the right to health, the right to food, and the right to education. It also acknowledges the right to a healthy environment. It came into effect in 1999 and has been ratified by Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, and Uruguay.
Convention on Civil Liability for Damage Resulting from Activities Dangerous to the Environment (1993)
Also known as the Lugano Convention, this document aims to ensure adequate compensation for damages resulting from activities dangerous to the environment and provides for means of prevention and reinstatement. Furthermore, it seeks to uphold people's right to access information held by bodies with public responsibility for the environment.
North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation (1993)
Also known as the NAFTA Side Agreement, this treaty aims to conserve, protect and enhance the North American environment through the establishment of a permanent trilateral body called the Commission for Environmental Cooperation. This treaty is the first environmental agreement that establishes a procedure for individuals, organizations and corporations to complain about a state's failure to comply with environmental law. Entered into force in 1994, it is signed by Canada, Mexico and the United States.
Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin (1995)
The Mekong Agreement deals with the peaceful resolution of disputes concerning the Mekong River in southeast Asia. The treaty covers such issues as freedom of navigation on the river, rational and equitable use of Mekong waters, state responsibility for damaging activities, and environmental integrity of the river. Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam are all signatories, but China and Myanmar (the two Upper Basin countries) are not parties to the agreement.
Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (1998)
Also known as the Aarhus Convention, this landmark treaty builds upon prior texts and recognizes the right of every person to a healthy environment and to protect and improve the environment for future generations. It also upholds people's rights to access information, participate in decision-making, and play a part in environment-related judicial matters. The convention is signed by thirty-five countries as well as the European Community.
Declaration on the Human Environment (1972)
Also known as the Stockholm Declaration, this document is the result of the work completed at the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. It is one of the first documents to clearly link human rights and environmental protection by recognizing that people have a right to a protected and dignified environment.
European Charter on the Environment and Health (1989)
This non-binding declaration issued by the World Health Organization recognizes the dependence of human health on a number of environmental factors and calls for all member states of the European Union to take steps to reverse or reduce environmental degradation that may pose a hazard to health.
United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (1992)
The 1992 Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro was unparalleled for a U.N. conference in both the size and scope of its concerns. Held twenty years after the first global environment conference in Stockholm, this Earth Summit aimed to aid governments in reevaluating economic development and find ways to halt the destruction of irreplaceable natural resources and pollution of the planet.
A resulting document from the Rio Earth Summit, Agenda 21 is a broad, 40-chapter statement of goals and potential programs related to all areas of sustainable development. It addresses social and economic issues (such as poverty and population dynamics), and the conservation and management of natural resources (such as preventing deforestation, promoting sustainable agriculture and protecting the atmosphere).
The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development
This brief declaration from the 1992 Earth Summit is a statement of principles on sustainable development. Its key principles deal with the right of humans to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature, the right of states to exploit their own resources but not to cause damage to other states, and the importance of eradicating poverty and reducing disparities in worldwide standards of living.
The Statement of Forest Principles
Also a product of the Rio Earth Summit, this non-legally binding agreement deals with the development, preservation, and management of the planet's remaining forests.
Draft Declaration of Principles on Human Rights and the Environment (1994)
The draft is the first international instrument to comprehensively address the linkage between human rights and the environment. It declares that all people have the right to a secure, healthy and ecologically sound environment. The declaration was attached to the report of the Special Rapporteur Madame Fatma Zohra Ksentini, of the U.N. Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, who was asked in 1989 to study the linkages between environment and human rights issues.
UN ECOSOC Report on the Environment and Human Rights: prepared by Mrs. Fatma Zohra Ksentini, Special Rapporteur (1994)
This document is the final report of a study entitled "The problem of the environment and its relation to human rights" launched by the U.N. Sub-Committee on Human Rights in 1989.
Draft International Covenant on Environment and Development (2d ed. 2000)
Prepared by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Commission on Environmental Law, this is a proposed draft of a binding global agreement on environmental conservation and sustainable development. It is intended as a starting point for debate on the content of such a possible instrument.
Human Rights and Environment Resolution (2000)
This brief resolution, drafted in 2000 at the World Conservation Congress held in Jordan, recognizes the interconnectedness of environmental degradation and human rights violations. It supports the role of grassroots movements in holding governments and multinational corporations responsible for violations of environmental rights.
Human Rights and the Environment in the Americas
2001, 2002, 2003
These brief declarations, passed by the Organization of American States (OAS) in 2000, 2001, and 2003, acknowledge a growing awareness of the need to manage the environment in a sustainable manner to promote human dignity and well being. They promote institutional cooperation in this area, particularly between the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the OAS Unit for Sustainable Development and Environment.
Johannesburg Declaration (2002)
This declaration resulted from the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in South Africa in 2002. The Summit was monumental in its launching of more than 300 voluntary public-private partnerships designed to support efforts to implement sustainable development. These partnerships are intended to provide a built-in mechanism to ensure implementation, since progress in implementing sustainable development has been extremely disappointing since the 1992 Earth Summit.
Commission on Human Rights, Resolution 2002/44, The Right to Restitution, Compensation and Rehabilitation for Victims of Grave Violations of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (2002)
This short resolution, drafted by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, requests that the international community respect the right of victims of violations of international human rights law to restitution, compensation, and rehabilitation.
Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with Regard to Human Rights (2003)
This resolution, approved by the U.N. Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, discusses the obligations of corporations to protect the human rights of workers and consumers as well as to protect the environment.