Establishing human rights
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948 as a reaction to the Second World War – a pledge to learn from the past and not to visit the horrors and atrocities of that time on future generations.
In 1950, shortly after the signing of the declaration, the population of the World passed 2.5 billion.
Although the Universal Declaration on Human Rights does not specifically mention the environment, it is implicit in many of its articles. Subsequent work by the UN has made link between human rights and the environment explicit. The Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972 – also called the Stockholm Declaration – said that…
“Man is both creature and moulder of his environment, which gives him physical sustenance and affords him the opportunity for intellectual, moral, social and spiritual growth.”
But it went on the caution that…
“…a stage has been reached when…man has acquired the power to transform his environment in countless ways and on an unprecedented scale.”
At the time of the Stockholm declaration the population of the Earth was about 3.7 billion people.
The 1992 Conference of Rio de Janeiro on Environment and Development reinforced the link between human rights and environmental protection. Principle 10 states that…
“[Human beings] are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature”……
“The right to development must be fulfilled so as to equitably meet developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations.”
In 1992 the population numbered around 5.3 billion.
The have been many further conferences, declarations, treaties and non-binding instruments which make clear the link between human rights and the environment. Central to many of these is not just a clear relationship between the quality of the environment and the wellbeing and health of people, but the right to information about the environment and involvement in decision making.
In September this year the International Panel on Climate Change published its Fifth Assessment Report on climate change. It of course met with the usual waves of approval and opprobrium. But the report is clear that warming of the climate system is…“unequivocal”… and that it is …“extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century”.
The impacts of climate change do not distribute themselves equitably across the world. Food and water shortages are likely for many of the world’s already poorest countries. The impacts on human health are likely to be felt most severely by the poorer members of society, the elderly and the very young. Climate change is a human rights issue.
The increase in population has been matched by an increase in affluence in many parts of the world and a corresponding increase in global consumption (although 827 million people still go to bed each night hungry). At the same time we waste much of that which we produce, both food and non-food goods.
This is not a misanthropic rant, nor is it Malthusian paranoia. Development over recent decades has seen enormous strides in improved health, education and wellbeing for many people. But the growth in world population is having catastrophic impacts on the natural environment as a result of climate change, habitat destruction and biodiversity loss, appropriation of freshwater for irrigation, and pollution. This in turn has dramatic impacts on human well-being and some of the fundamental rights associated with a safe and healthy environment.
We must find ways to protect the natural environment, but we must do it with humanity and in a way which respects fundamental human rights. If we don’t close this circle, the benefits of development and the progress with securing human rights will be undermined by the damage we are causing the natural world.
Our current approach to protecting the natural environment is demonstrably failing. Protection of the natural environment has largely been founded on the impact of its degradation on human populations.
Is it time to extend the notion of rights to the natural environment itself?
This may not be a far-fetched as it first seems. Rights are already extended to some, mainly domesticated, animals – for instance in legislation about the housing and treatment of farm animals. Some wild species of plants and animals are also given protection, although this is either piecemeal for specific species or in the form of designation status for special sites. However, this can fail to protect the underlying system which supports a particular species or habitat.
More fundamental would be to extend rights to whole ecosystems, say a river catchment or a forest – both the biotic and abiotic elements – the plants and animals as well as the water and soil. Extension of the notion of rights to ecosystems would allow those rights to be recognised in law and represented through the legal system, not purely for the benefits and dis-benefits to the human population but in their own right.
Fanciful? One of the features of corporations in the UK and elsewhere is that they have a separate legal personality, known as ‘personhood’ or being ‘artificial persons’ independent of those that work within them. A company has legally enshrined rights which can be represented in law. So the principle of ascribing rights to non-human entities and even to non-sentient entities already exists.
That being the case then it is no enormous leap to imagine ecosystems having ‘personhood’ in the same way that companies do and therefore being capable of being legally represented. Bolivia has already made moves in this direction with the passing of a law of mother earth, which establishes 11 new rights for nature. They include the right to life and to exist; the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration; the right to pure water and clean air and the right not to be polluted.
Why might it work? It offers a different way of looking at the natural world. Not one in which we protect only that which has immediate perceived benefits to us, but in which ecosystems are recognised for the entirety of their part in the global system.
Ultimately we are part of that global system although we may have deluded ourselves that we stand separate from it. In the end recognising ecosystems have rights may also protect many of the aspirations embedded in our views on human rights.
Time to extend rights to ecosystems?
Mike Townsend, Senior Conservation Adviser