Sustainable development:
Social issues & the environment

Yves Lador

Yves Lador, Earthjustice

Yves Lador is a Permanent Representative of Earthjustice to the UN in Geneva.

Economic and Social Council Report

Human rights and the environment

Time for a Universal Declaration on Environmental Rights

Environmental law is now crossing so many disciplinary boundaries that it needs a place like Geneva - with its many specialist bodies - to be able to tackle the issues in all their dimensions.

Environmental law today has grown to such importance that it is easy to forget that when it appeared it was considered too often as declamatory and without great force. It was to challenge this vision that Earthjustice, founded under the name of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund in 1971 in California, interpreted the spirit and the letter of the law and used it with success in the US courts, contributing thus an addition to the arsenal of means of protecting the environment. This use of the law has also been extended to other countries, so much and so well that today each country has its own legal mechanisms and practices to safeguard the environment.

Similarly, when national institutions do not match the level of protection expected, cases are taken to the regional Commissions and Courts for human rights. This explains why Earthjustice, an environmental organization, came to Geneva - to take part in the work of the Commission on Human Rights, now the Human Rights Council.

Under their mandates, the United Nations bodies working on human rights, whether the Council, Special Rapporteurs (investigators), treaty compliance bodies or the High Commissioner's office are called on to develop the fundamental rights of individuals in respect of the environment, providing them not only with protection - which sometimes is vital - but also the power to act. In this task, reinforcement is offered in Geneva by the Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) through the Aarhus Convention, which has become a reference with regard to the right to information, public participation and access to justice on the environment.

Protection and democratic rights should also be able to mobilize various sectors. One example: wastes and toxic products. One of the Special Rapporteurs for the Human Rights Council has been collecting information from the public about the impact on fundamental rights of illicit traffic and dumping and has offered recommendations that are of interest to Conventions such as those of Basel, Stockholm, Rotterdam or to the secretariat of the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM).

The right to water is an issue that concerns WHO, UNDP or the London Protocol on Water and Health (UNECE) and even the High Commissioner for Human Rights, who is concerned with the obligations of states. Natural disasters should also be mentioned. A Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General has set out for the Human Rights Council the main operational guidelines on the rights of persons displaced in their own countries by natural catastrophes, thus giving an echo to the work of ISDR.

One issue which is taking on growing importance must be added to this list: the responsibility and obligations of non-state actors such as transnational enterprises, some of which have an economic, geographic and even cultural impact which largely exceeds that of certain states. To take proper account of them it is necessary to marry environmental law with, particularly, international labor law, trade law, human rights law, humanitarian law and international criminal law.

There is no single place on the planet today where international norms on the environment are defined. But in welcoming a number of specialized international agencies, Geneva offers the chance for these norms to be appreciated in their various dimensions - ecological, social and economic - and to be meshed with the other sectors concerned: basic environmental rights, environmental health, environment and work, environment and trade, etc. But for that to happen, this work must overcome the obstacle of disciplinary boundaries and not limit itself only to defining standards. It should reinforce the collection and assemblage of information, the dissemination of technical expertise and ideas, and encourage a spirit of collaboration between institutions and stakeholders.

One encouraging sign of the impact of the circulation of ideas can be found in the fact that a proposal by Ms Fatma Zohra Ksentini as a Human Rights Special Rapporteur at the beginning of the 1990s sketching out the first definition of a «right to a healthy and ecologically sustainable environment» has been taken over and incorporated in the Paris Appeal adopted on 3 February 2007 by a conference on world ecological governance (Citizens of the Earth) bringing together experts, the French Head of State and senior UN representatives: «To promote environmental ethics, we are calling for the adoption of a Universal Declaration of Environmental Rights and Duties. This common charter will ensure that present and future generations have a new human right: the right to a sound and wellpreserved environment.»