The Human Right to the Environment

In September 2023 the SDG summit in New York adopted a political declaration to “act with urgency to realize its vision as a plan of action for people, planet, prosperity, peace, and partnership, leaving no one behind. We will endeavour to reach the furthest behind first.” The Scottish Government’s Human Rights Taskforce recommended including the right to a healthy environment in Scotland’s proposed Human Rights Bill.

looking across to the path and the bays including some small caves can been revealed with the Brough of Birsay in the distance

Environmental lawyer Prof. Nicholas A. Robinson sees the recognition of the Human Right to the Environment (HRE) as a first step in a long process of restoring a healthy environment for people and the planet.

Prof. Robinson, JD, Executive Governor, International Council of Environmental Law, Kerlin Professor of Environmental Law Emeritus, at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law of Pace University explained:

“The progressive attainment of Sustainable Development Goals will require investments of time and effort beyond the target date of 2030, but momentum has begun and can be sustained.

“These past 50 years, virtually all states have neglected to enforce their environmental statutes. Scientific studies confirm that harm to public health and natural systems has escalated during this time. The right to the environment will breathe rigor into the governmental enforcement of environmental protection norms. This will not be easy, as business as usual and inertia retard change. It is past time for making peace with nature.

“Business as usual is not the status quo, it is regression.

“Failure across any and all sectors to adapt and embrace the Human Right to the Environment places the life, liberty, and property of each person in jeopardy.

“Slow reforms themselves are insufficient, in light of the destruction of wildfires, floods, droughts, and heat waves on land and under ocean waters. ‘Scaling up’ requires systemic and profound change.

“Notwithstanding all their problems, courts are the one authority that can oblige the public and private sectors alike to respect the right to life.”

The United Nations General Assembly adopted its landmark Resolution A/76/300 on July 28, 2022, entitled “The human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.” A new human rights framework was launched with the adoption of that Resolution. The UN Environment Program described environmental crises of climate change, biological diversity loss, and escalating pollution of the planet as the triple threat to human civilization, calling upon all states to “make peace with nature.”

The human right “to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment” is already being implemented.

The UN General Assembly recognized that this right is related to other rights and international law, and that the vast majority of states have already incorporated the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment into their national laws.

However, in most countries this basic right is not yet being enforced in courts.

The UN General Assembly urged international organizations, commercial enterprises, and all relevant stakeholders to share best practices and further build capacity “to share good practices in order to scale up efforts to ensure a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment for all.”

Scotland’s Proposed Human Rights Bill

In June 2023 the Scottish Government launched a consultation on A Human Rights Bill for Scotland (consultation closed 5th October) which included  Recognising the Right to a Healthy Environment. The Human Rights Bill proposes to incorporate four UN human rights treaties into Scots law. The Scottish Human Rights Taskforce recommended including the right to a healthy environment with substantive and procedural elements in the statutory framework.

Social Justice Secretary in the Scottish Government Shirley-Anne Somerville said:

“Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms that belong to everyone.

“Our ambitious proposals will protect and promote these rights in every aspect of life in Scotland – from government and parliament through to the everyday interactions people have with frontline services – and ensure they apply equally across society.

had and shoulders shot of Shirley Anne Somerville

Prof. Robinson has published an article, “The Judiciary: Breathing Life into the Human Right to Life”, in Volume 53, Issue 2/3 of Environmental Policy and Law, published by IOS Press.

In it he highlights an example of international collaboration: the Global Judicial Institute on the Environment (GJIE), which is an independent association of judges launched in 2016 with the assistance of the World Commission on Environmental Law of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the UN Environment Programme. Not all countries have judicial institutions to provide continuing judicial education of judges and court personnel. There is no inter-governmental international service to assist courts. GJIE is a network by judges for judges, filling this gap in international cooperation.

The article also highlights the “Green Amendment” to the New York Bill of Rights and its implications. New York’s Constitutional Bill of Rights now guarantees the liberty that “each person shall have a right to clean air and water and a healthful environment.” In the first year under the new Bill of Rights provision, there are now four lawsuits pending in New York courts.

See also:

a man and a woman walking by a loch with a young child between them
Autumn in Linlithgow image credit Noel Donaldson

Fiona Grahame

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