Introduction: Environmental Rights
Human Rights Dialogue: "Environmental Rights" (Spring 2004)
April 21, 2004
Although both human rights protection and environmental protection are relatively well-developed areas of public policy, recognition of the linkage between the two has been slow to develop. As activists, scholars, and policy practitioners have increasingly encountered situations at the intersection of these two areas, calls for the protection of environmental rights have intensified. In 1994 the United Nations Sub-commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities issued an extensive report on human rights and the environment, prepared by Special Rapporteur Fatma Zohra Ksentini and accompanied by a Draft Declaration of Principles, claiming the interdependence and indivisibility of human rights, an ecologically sound environment, sustainable development, and peace. Since then, the U.N. Human Rights Commission has received a series of reports from Ms. Ksentini on the narrower topic of the impact of toxic and dangerous products and wastes on human rights. In addition, regional and international tribunals have allowed victims to bring cases based on rights violations caused by environmental harm, and some national tribunals have accepted suits claiming violations of a right to a healthy environment.
Despite these developments, no binding international agreement has had environmental rights as its primary focus. In addition, the issue continues to suffer from inattention due to the fact that it fails to fit neatly within the agenda of either the human rights movement or the environmental movement. Few international human rights organizations have programs devoted to this set of rights; likewise, movements focused on protecting the environment do not generally have as their aim the more human-centered goals of environmental rights, which commonly include social justice issues such as the disproportionate suffering of poor, indigenous, and minority communities from toxic industrial activity. Even the environmental justice movement in the United States predominantly limits its scope to situations occurring within the nation’s borders.
For the past four years, Human Rights Dialogue has focused on the obstacles to greater popular legitimacy of the international human rights framework, and highlighted innovative ways in which such obstacles have been overcome in specific contexts around the world. We continue this theme in this issue through the exploration of the development of the concept of environmental rights as a response to real-world needs. The essays here collectively explore the definition, status, and relevance of the concept of environmental rights in law and politics around the world, and the extent to which a human rights lens is a helpful way in which to view environmental issues.
We have organized the issue around four sub-themes: the inseparability of human rights and environmentalism; conflicts between human rights and environmental goals; the relationship between the concept and application of environmental justice and of human rights; and the enforceability of environmental rights. While many of the essays fit within the scope of more than one section, it is hoped that such a framework will allow the implications of the various case histories to emerge more clearly. In addition, commentaries by Barbara Rose Johnston, Joanne Bauer, Jeffery Atik, and Betsy Apple are designed to draw out the implications of the essays within each section and suggest ways for improving progress toward the protection both of human beings and the natural world.
-- The Editors