Environment and human rights

Is protecting planet Earth, and not just the rights of the humans who inhabit it, the more urgent task?

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?


Can protecting indigenous human rights also improve conservation efforts?

May 29, 2019
By: Victoria Tauli-Corpuz
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Lands under secure indigenous tenure often have better conservation outcomes—can stronger protections ...

Climate change and human rights: lessons from litigation for the Amazon

April 25, 2019
By: César Rodríguez-Garavito

Lawsuits have become an increasingly frequent route for urgent action on climate change, but the impact ...

If nature has rights, who legitimately defends them?

March 21, 2019
By: Arpitha Kodiveri

Who speaks for nature’s rights? The question needs careful consideration, or we risk in protecting nature ...

Litigating the right to a sustainable climate system

March 21, 2019
By: Jacqueline Peel & Hari M. Osofsky
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As the climate crisis deepens, can litigation advancing a human right to a stable and sustainable climate ...

Rights as a response to ecological apocalypse

March 20, 2019
By: David R. Boyd
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Recognizing the human right to live in a healthy environment, and the rights of nature itself, are both ...

Human and non-human rights – convergence or conflict?

December 10, 2018
By: David Petrasek
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On the 70th anniversary of the UDHR, claims to recognize non-human rights are advancing and pose challenges ...

The rights of nature gaining ground

November 14, 2018
By: Mari Margil
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Nature has been treated in law as property, and exploited. But there is growing legal recognition that ...

The struggle for nonhuman rights

April 27, 2015
By: Steven M. Wise
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The Nonhuman Rights Project argues that certain animals should be legal persons. In the world of rights, ...