The link between the natural environment and human rights is well-established. Among others, rights to clean water, to health, to a secure livelihood and to life itself are threatened by environmental degradation. And those challenging such degradation, and opposing projects harmful to the environment, are harassed, intimidated, beaten and killed; over 200 environmental activists were killed in 2017. There is a growing consensus for global recognition of the right to a healthy environment.
But even if the UN proclaims such a right, will it be enough? The facts are clear – catastrophic climate change, declining biodiversity, mass extinctions, plastic-polluted oceans, all are upon us, and it is we, as humans, who are doing the damage. The most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change adds considerable urgency to efforts to address those issues.
In countries where the right to a healthy environment is already protected, has it made a difference? How are local activists using this right to advance environmental goals? Are new approaches needed? For example, instead of proclaiming new human rights, perhaps we should grant rights to nature itself, and thereby break the age-old assumption that it is ours to exploit. A small but growing global movement is arguing for such an approach through direct action, litigation and other forms of advocacy. Can it succeed, and if nature has rights, will these cohabit easily with human rights?
Global movements to protect human rights and to protect the environment have, so far, remained largely distinct. But perhaps the environmental crisis facing the planet demands a re-think – can these movements work together for common goals, or would that dilute the strengths of each? What examples are there of successful collaboration between human rights and environmental activists?