Thematic areas

The project is divided in five thematic areas.

  1. The fundamental right to the environment and the EU
  2. Human rights and the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity
  3. Human rights and climate change
  4. Intergenerational rights, including children rights and the environment
  5. Challenges in practice
  • The fundamental right to the environment and the EU

The first thematic area will function as an introduction to the underlying concept of the fundamental right to a healthy, safe environment. The notion of environmental rights will be introduced through the development of the human rights’ framework. A manual, developed during the early stages of the project’s implementation, will be used to present, in simple terms, the notion, historic development, and current framework of human rights, linking them with the idea of environmental rights.

This manual will feed in the analysis of existing guidance and guidelines on human rights and the environment, developing the theoretical framework and informing the discussion on the specific topics under analysis. The manual will be presented during the first scheduled meeting of the project.

  • Human rights and the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity

Biological diversity refers to all living organisms and the interactions among them. The term not only covers species diversity, but also genetic and ecosystem diversity. It thus refers to the variety of different species, including plants, animals, fungi and micro-organisms; the variety of genes within all these species; and their different habitats.

Biodiversity, the outcome of billions of years of evolution, is shaped by natural processes and interactions between humans and the environment. It is the source of the essential resources and ecosystem services that sustain human life, including food production, purification of air and water, and climate stabilization. Biodiversity directly supports human activities, such as agriculture, forestry, fisheries, and tourism. It thus underpins human well-being and livelihoods, and the full enjoyment of an extensive range of human rights, including the rights to life, health, food, water and culture.

The rapid loss of biodiversity in our era, estimated to be 100 to 1000 times higher than the background species extinction rate, has important implications for human well-being and the realization of those rights. A human rights perspective allows the demonstration of the urgent need to safeguard biodiversity and contribute towards ensuring policy coherence.

The current Biodiversity Strategy of the European Union explicitly refers in its future vision (by 2050) to protection, restoration and valuation of biodiversity’s intrinsic value, as well as to its essential contribution to human well-being. Linking the human rights framework with the biodiversity framework will provide mutual benefits, ensuring foremostly that biodiversity considerations will become more central in future development planning. The outcomes of this section of the project will feed in the existing policy dialogue, informing relevant decision-making regarding, inter alia, the future targets and visions of the European Union’s biodiversity strategies.

  • Human rights and climate change

Almost eleven years ago, the Human Rights Council adopted its first resolution on climate change and human rights, in which it underscored its concern that climate change poses an immediate and far-reaching threat to people and communities around the world and has implications for the full enjoyment of human rights.

Since then, a growing body of literature focuses on the issue, indicating that adverse effects of climate change have significant implications for the effective enjoyment of human rights, especially by those already vulnerable. The importance of a human rights perspective on climate action has been repeatedly emphasized in multilateral fora.

During the pivotal conference of the parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris in 2015, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights emphasized that urgent action to combat climate change is essential to satisfy the duties of states under human rights law. The subsequent Paris Agreement, one in which the European Union played a catalytic role during the negotiations, explicitly refers to human rights in its preamble. “Parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights, the rights to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empower of women and intergenerational equity”.

Given the strategic role that the EU played in negotiating and agreeing the Paris Agreement, the European long-term strategy for a modern, climate neutral economy, as expressed in the long-term vision document “A Clean Planet for All”, which provides the framework for the European Union’s climate strategy to 2050 is in line with the Paris Agreement.

The document warns that climate change could “have severe consequences on the productivity of Europe’s economy, infrastructure, ability to produce food, public health, biodiversity and political stability”. It further establishes the links with the enjoyment of basic rights, stating that climate change “could undermine security and prosperity in the broadest sense, damaging economic, food, water and energy systems, and in turn trigger further conflicts and migratory pressures”.

This section of the project offers an additional opportunity for increased focus on the intersection between climate change and human rights.

  • Intergenerational rights, including children rights and the environment

The undeniable links between environmental degradation and the full enjoyment of the rights of children has long been recognized at the international level. The Convention on the Rights of the Child explicitly mentions the need for “the provision of adequate nutritious foods and clean drinking-water, taking into consideration the dangers and risks of environmental pollution”.

Recently, the links between environmental degradation and the enjoyment of children’s rights received additional focus. The conclusions of both the Human Rights Council and the Special Rapporteur are indicative of the status quo. “Taken as a whole, no group in more vulnerable to environmental harm than children (persons under the age of 18), who make up 30% of the world’s population. Environmental harm has especially severe effects on children under the age of five”.

The increasing body of literature establishes that environmental degradation affects the enjoyment of a wide range of children’s rights. The list would include rights to life, health, development, adequate standard of living, play and recreation, non-discrimination, education and culture.

Furthermore, the rights of future generations, including people that are not yet born, pose additional challenges. On the one hand, almost every single significant multilateral environmental agreement or process on sustainable development underscores the potential effects of environmental harm on future generations. On the other, human rights law is primarily based on the rights of individual human beings.

The “long-term” prospect in environmental multilateral agreements or processes on sustainable development currently rarely goes beyond 2100. As we have already entered the third decade of the 21st century, this means in practice that boys and girls born nowadays, may well be alive “in the long-term” so the rights of future generations in the form of the rights of children or the rights of the unborn are interlinked. The project’s ambition is to explicitly address this rather obfuscated link.

At the policy level, the European Union has been an active leader in promoting children’s rights. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child has been ratified by all EU countries. Article 3(3) of the EU Treaty establishes the objective for the EU to promote protection of the rights of the child. The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU guarantees the protection of the rights of the child by the EU institutions and countries when they implement European law.

The project aims to contribute in ongoing work by the EU on children’s rights, by offering additional focus on the interrelationship between environmental degradation and the fulfillment of human rights.

  • Challenges in practice and overview of the project

This section will address specific challenges at the intersection of human rights and environmental protection. These include topics attracting increasing attention, such as environmental refugees and environmental rights defenders, as well as cases of potential implementation of human rights approaches to local development decisions.

Environmental refugees, a term used to describe “people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption (natural and/or triggered by people) that jeopardizes their existence and/or seriously effects the quality of their life,” has attracted attention for at least two decades. Despite the ongoing discussion on typologies and difficulties around asserting a sole cause in a given case of migration, it is undeniable that increasing pressure posed by climate change, biodiversity loss, and spread of desertification, call for further efforts and additional analytic work to inform future decision making. Recently, the Nansen Initiative, a consultative process aims at developing a protection agenda for displaced people impacted by environmental disasters of climate change. The EU is directly involved in the Nansen Initiative and has also channeled research efforts in providing additional clarity on the topic of environmental refugees.

A “human rights defender” is a term used to describe people who, individually or with others, act to promote or protect human rights. An “environmental rights defender” or “environmental defender” is a person who is defending environmental rights, when the exercise of those rights is being threatened. A growing body of literature indicates that violations of environmental rights, although significantly differing by region, have been increasing worldwide due to greater competition for given natural resources, inadequacy or limited implementation of environmental laws, and corruption. Recent work examines, among others, challenges faced by environmental defenders, especially women, violations by non-state actors, and the impact of relevant legislation. A report from 2016 on global killings of land and environmental defenders estimates that “nearly four people are murdered every week protecting their land and the natural world from industries like mining, logging and agribusiness”.

Case studies that attract national interest will also be included in the study. Implementation of human rights approaches to a healthy environment will be analyzed vis-à-vis the management decisions associated with the case of mining activities in Skouries, Halkidiki, Greece. Following years of tension, including judicial persecutions, the proposal’s ambition is to frame the ongoing discussion on a human rights framework, informing future relevant decision making.  

This final phase of the project will also include the final deliverable, which will be a synopsis of all the papers produced under the five thematic areas.