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69th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Unifying Human and Environmental Rights

By David Gallup

Why should we think beyond our humanness to a worldly, earth perspective? Does the earth have a right to exist independently from humans? Do animals, plants and even inanimate objects have rights? How should humans interact with the earth and ecosystem, not as “owners” of the earth, but as caretakers of the planet?

As we celebrate the 69th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 2017, let us take a moment to appreciate the bounty that the earth provides for humanity. It is a time to reflect, not only upon human rights, but also upon the rights of the earth itself. It is time to reflect upon how our human rights are dependent upon environmental rights. And it is time to reflect upon humanity’s duty to protect the earth.

Global warming, ozone depletion, rising sea levels, soil erosion, habitat destruction, species extinction, drug, pesticide, plastic and petroleum toxins in groundwater, pollutants in the air, landfills and oceans, deforestation, etc. These human created problems impact all life on the planet and pose a threat to all beings’ existence. We must consider how our human actions are violating that most fundamental right – the right to exist.  Although the focus of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) pertains specifically to human rights, several Articles in the Declaration can be construed to provide a basic legal framework for considering environmental rights and duties as part of our human rights and duties.

The Human Focus of the UDHR

In 1948, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed, humans were not fully aware of how our use of the earth and its resources could negatively impact the world. The link between human rights and environmental rights was not yet established. The UDHR focuses specifically on human rights, and only indirectly on environmental rights, for several reasons:

  1. The UDHR was created immediately after World War II when the rights of millions of people were violently, and for many lethally, violated. The UDHR was a reaction to the war, to develop laws of peace as an adjunct to the laws of war, with the expectation that once human rights are fully respected, humans would be less inclined to behave aggressively toward one another.
  2. The framers of the UDHR wanted to focus on human interactions – how we treat each other – in order to build a peaceful world.
  3. The conceptualization of other third or fourth generation rights (such as environmental rights) had not yet come into mainstream thought. The earth had for so long been looked upon as human property to exploit solely for human advancement.
  4. The scientific studies that reveal how treatment of the environment can impact our ability to claim and exercise our rights had not yet been conducted.

Even though the framers of the UDHR do not directly mention environmental rights, these rights can be deduced from Declaration.

The UDHR and Environmental Rights

We can extrapolate rights related to the earth from five articles of the UDHR: Articles 3, 25, 28, 29 and 30.

Article 3 of the UDHR affirms the rights to live, to freedom and to security: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person.” We now know that if the earth dies, we humans die with it. To affirm our life, liberty and security, we have the duty to act towards nature sustainably and indigenously.

Article 25(1) of the UDHR affirms the rights to health and to fulfill basic needs: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” To advance the standard of living for humanity, we must respect the web of life that supports our health and well-being.  To have abundant food and to fulfill our basic needs, we must nourish the land and maintain clean air and water. While considering standards of living, we must also be mindful of how the priority of continuous economic growth, and its concomitant resource usage, negatively impacts the environment. The earth is facing greater and greater strain from human activities that exacerbate natural phenomenon such as hurricanes, wildfires, and seismic activity.  When we are not mindful and respectful of nature’s infrastructure, nature will wreak havoc on our human infrastructure.

Article 28 of the UDHR affirms the goal of living in a world of order rather than entropy: “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.” What does a social and international order look like, that allows us to fully realize our rights? That order will come from a holistic world system that equally values both human and environmental rights. That order will come from advocating for the earth. We humans must speak up for the earth, using our “reason and conscience” (as Article 1 states) to voice and implement what the earth needs in order to heal and flourish. That order will come from the awareness of both our rights and duties as world citizens to each other and to the earth.

Article 29 of the UDHR affirms that we humans have duties to each other and the world around us:  “(1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible. (2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society. (3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.” We must expand the notion of duty to the community to mean duty to the earth as a whole, rather than only to the human community. We must secure the recognition of rights of others with the consideration that “others” includes the environment. We must exercise our rights only to the extent that this exercise does not damage the earth.

Article 30 of the UDHR affirms that humans cannot engage in any activity or perform any act that destroys our rights: “Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.” In this final Article of the Declaration, we find our ultimate human duty to the planet. Destruction of the environment eventually destroys our rights.  More than any other human activity, war violates human rights and despoils the environment. Our human rights, and ultimately world peace, are dependent upon healthy, sustainable natural and human environments.

Moving Beyond the UDHR

As our understanding of humanity’s link to the earth has evolved, activists and lawmakers have established environmental laws in an attempt to regulate human interaction with the environment. More than 80 declarations, treaties and multilateral conventions have been ratified over the past 75 years in an effort to protect various aspects of the environment. Several of the most well-known, though not yet well-implemented, include the 1972 Stockholm Declaration on the right to a healthy environment, the 1992 Rio Declaration on the protection of the integrity of the earth’s ecosystem, the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to reduce greenhouse gases, the subsequent 1997 Kyoto Protocol and 2015 Paris Agreement, and the 1998 Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters. In 2015, 193 countries adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals, of which 8 directly pertain to the environment. National governments have given themselves until 2030 to try to achieve these goals.

As environmental activists have seen nation-state treaties come and go with big fanfare but little positive change, other attempts to declare the rights of the environment have come to the fore. In 2010, at the “World Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth,” a Universal Declaration of Rights of Mother Earth proclaimed the rights of the earth and all beings and the duties of humans to the earth. Hundreds of thousands of individuals have signed a petition in support of this rights of nature declaration. Activists plan to present more than a million signatures of support to the United Nations on the 70th anniversary of the UDHR next year with the expectation that the UN will adopt the Declaration. As with many declarations and treaties, relying upon the UN or individual nations to enforce their provisions has had limited success.

Despite the plethora of laws and scientific guidelines for humans to follow to be good stewards of the earth, national governments and corporations have blocked progress toward an ecologically sustainable world. It is not necessarily a question of making new laws, which national and corporate leaders will likely ignore; rather, it is a question of enforcing the laws already on the books, engaging the public in protecting the environment, and summoning a united political will. We need to work with one human voice to govern how we treat the earth and all its inhabitants.

Universal Human Rights Require Universal Environmental Rights

Human rights, peace, and environmental activists must work together to achieve universal awareness and respect for all rights. In the future, we may adopt a Universal Declaration of Universal Rights and Duties, a compendium encompassing all human, environmental and other rights and responsibilities. For now, though, uniting as world citizens to implement universal human rights side by side with universal environmental rights is the key to survival of humanity and the earth.


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