Human rights and the environment are interdependent. On the one hand, a safe, healthy environment is a precondition for the fulfillment of a wide array of human rights, including the rights to life, health, food and water. On the other, human rights’ implementation is crucial for environmental protection.
While it is rather self-evident that the development of human civilization was always dependent on the physical environment, the extent of the environmental degradation that human activities may cause has only been recognized rather recently. Thus, environmental rights, namely rights related to environmental protection, are not included in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Since the 1960s and the rise of the modern environmental movement, both our knowledge and awareness have risen significantly and almost every country in the world has enacted relevant legislative frameworks, protecting the natural environment and sustainably using natural resources. At the international level, a wide range of international agreements have been put in place, aiming to regulate and address pressing environmental problems, including climate change, biodiversity loss, ocean and forest management, desertification and dangerous chemicals. The world has shifted and environmental concerns are nowadays central in our developmental deliberations.
This new reality was evident in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, adopted at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, which also gave birth to important international Conventions, including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. The Declaration aptly stated that “in order to achieve sustainable development, environmental protection shall constitute an integral part of the development process and cannot be considered in isolation from it”. Twenty years later, Rio+20 in its outcome document “The Future We Want” reminded us the need to ensure “the promotion of an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable future for our planet, and for present and future generations”.
Rather inevitably, there has been a growing interest for formal recognition in the framework of human rights, of the importance of environmental protection for human well-being.
Progress over the last few decades cannot be underestimated. Several international treaties, regional bodies, special rapporteurs and independent experts have been working towards identifying specific aspects of the relationship, applying human rights legal frameworks to environmental issues, effectively “greening” existing rights. In addition, at the national or regional levels, the majority of countries in the world have introduced constitutional amendments to provide for the protection of the right to a healthy environment in various forms. The speed at which these amendments have been introduced in the sociopolitical sphere is remarkable, and pose additional pressure for shedding further light to this complex relationship.
Answering this need, among other initiatives, the Human Rights Council of the United Nations decided, in 2012, to appoint an independent expert with a mandate to “study the human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment and to identify and promote best practices relating to the use of human rights obligations and commitments to inform, support and strengthen environmental policy-making”. In 2015, the mandate was extended as one performed by a special rapporteur.
During the last six years, the two special rapporteurs have produced a significant amount of relevant research, which should be added to the growing body of relevant literature.
This project will offer a “helicopter view” of ongoing work and will further discuss all relevant aspects of the emerging topics. It will additionally introduce issues that have attracted relatively little attention so far.
The European Union has been at the forefront in international discussions on both human rights issues and environmental ones. It is only logical that it should be at the forefront also in the emerging discussion on the intersection of the two issues.
This project, focusing on the intersection of human rights and the environment, aims to further raise the profile and importance of environmental protection and inform relevant decision making in the struggle to ensure a sustainable future.