On Human Rights and the Environment

Posted on 22 April 2021

We have many pressing issues that require international cooperation. Issues to do with the environment, pandemics, refugees, and more need to be addressed collectively by humanity. Having a body such as the United Nations is important for people’s ability to think of ourselves as in partnership for creating a more peaceable world.

The United Nations is a flawed institution. Representatives are appointed by their governments, and not voted upon by their populace. So, this institution seems distant and of little relevance to the lives of most common people. Worse is the structure of the UN Security Council which gives more power to the powerful, rather than sharing tasks of equal concern to all. Nevertheless, the United Nations has kept us talking with one another.

We have some gaping holes in our international efforts to create that peaceable world. I have heard it said (please help me find the quote), that you can learn from a culture by what it doesn’t say about itself, as much as by what it does.

The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights says nothing about universal economic parity among the peoples within and between countries. So long as there is a significant gap between the haves and the have nots, there will be a similar significant gap in power. No country that has such a gap is truly democratic. And when this gap opens wide between countries, we see some of the worst human rights abuses. We need a UN Universal Declaration of Economic Rights that explicitly addresses wealth inequities and their resolution. Simply making the poor less poor will never be enough.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights also does not address environmental rights. Humanity is but a subset of all living being. Our very existence relies on the health and well-being of the planet as a whole. Our human rights are meaningless in a world dying from misuse. The UN World Charter for Nature (1982) is an excellent document for filling the gap. The vote was 111 for, one against (United States), 18 abstentions. Sadly, it was intended to exert political and moral force, but not legal force on member states. To the best of my research and knowledge the US stated that the declaration was laudable, but did not wholly agree with its terms, and therefore voted against it. What it found disagreeable was not publicly expressed.

In 1994 a declaration of principles on human rights and the environment was drafted at the United Nations Geneva. The document went no further than this stage, and yet what it expresses is well worth our consideration. I am helping to preserve this document by posting it here.

UN Draft Principles On Human Rights And The Environment, E/CN.4/Sub.2/1994/9, Annex I (1994).

On 16 May 1994, an international group of experts on human rights and environmental protection convened at the United Nations in Geneva and drafted the first-ever declaration of principles on human rights and the environment.

The Geneva group assembled at the invitation of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund–in cooperation with the Association mondiale pour l’école instrument de paix and the Société suisse pour la protection de l’environnement- -on behalf of Madame Fatma Zohra Ksentini, Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment for the United Nations Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities.

As U.N. Special Rapporteur, Mme Ksentini has since 1989 presided over a study of the connections between human rights and the environment. Mme Ksentini’s final report to the Sub-Commission is due in August 1994. The final report will include the Draft Declaration produced at the Geneva Meeting of Experts.

The Draft Declaration is the first international instrument that comprehensively addresses the linkage between human rights and the environment. It demonstrates that accepted environmental and human rights principles embody the right of everyone to a secure, healthy and ecologically sound environment. The Draft Declaration describes the environmental dimension of established human rights, such as the rights to life, health and culture. It also describes the procedural rights, such as the right to participation, necessary for realization of the substantive rights.

The Draft Declaration also describes duties that correspond to the rights–duties that apply to individuals, governments, international organizations and transnational corporations.

Draft Declaration of Human Rights and the Environment:


Guided by the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action of the World Conference of Human Rights, and other relevant international human rights instruments,

Guided also by the Stockholm Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, the World Charter for Nature, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, Agenda 21: Programme of Action for Sustainable Development, and other relevant instruments of international environmental law,

Guided also by the Declaration on the Right to Development, which recognizes that the right to development is an essential human right and that the human person is the central subject of development,

Guided further by fundamental principles of international humanitarian law,

Reaffirming the universality, indivisibility and interdependence of all human rights,

Recognizing that sustainable development links the right to development and the right to a secure, healthy and ecologically sound environment,

Recalling the right of peoples to self-determination by virtue of which they have the right freely to determine their political status and to pursue their economic, social and cultural development,

Deeply concerned by the severe human rights consequences of environmental harm caused by poverty, structural adjustment and debt programmes and by international trade and intellectual property regimes,

Convinced that the potential irreversibility of environmental harm gives rise to special responsibility to prevent such harm,

Concerned that human rights violations lead to environmental degradation and that environmental degradation leads to human rights violations,


Part I

1. Human rights, an ecologically sound environment, sustainable development and peace are interdependent and indivisible.

2. All persons have the right to a secure, healthy and ecologically sound environment. This right and other human rights, including civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights, are universal, interdependent and indivisible.

3. All persons shall be free from any form of discrimination in regard to actions and decisions that affect the environment.

4. All persons have the right to an environment adequate to meet equitably the needs of present generations and that does not impair the rights of future generations to meet equitably their needs.

Part II

5. All persons have the right to freedom from pollution, environmental degradation and activities that adversely affect the environment, threaten life, health, livelihood, well-being or sustainable development within, across or outside national boundaries.

6. All persons have the right to protection and preservation of the air, soil, water, sea-ice, flora and fauna, and the essential processes and areas necessary to maintain biological diversity and ecosystems.

7. All persons have the right to the highest attainable standard of health free from environmental harm.

8. All persons have the right to safe and healthy food and water adequate to their well-being.

9. All persons have the right to a safe and healthy working environment.

10. All persons have the right to adequate housing, land tenure and living conditions in a secure, healthy and ecologically sound environment.

11 . All persons have the right not to be evicted from their homes or land for the purpose of, or as a consequence of, decisions or actions affecting the environment, except in emergencies or due to a compelling purpose benefiting society as a whole and not attainable by other means. All persons have the right to participate effectively in decisions and to negotiate concerning their eviction and the right, if evicted, to timely and adequate restitution, compensation and/or appropriate and sufficient accommodation or land.

12. All persons have the right to timely assistance in the event of natural or technological or other human-caused catastrophes.

13. Everyone has the right to benefit equitably from the conservation and sustainable use of nature and natural resources for cultural, ecological, educational, health, livelihood, recreational, spiritual or other purposes. This Includes ecologically sound access to nature.

Everyone has the right to preservation of unique sites, consistent with the fundamental rights of persons or groups living in the area.

14. Indigenous peoples have the right to control their lands, territories and natural resources and to maintain their traditional way of life. This includes the right to security in the enjoyment of their means of subsistence.

Indigenous peoples have the right to protection against any action or course of conduct that may result in the destruction or degradation of their territories, including land, air, water, sea-ice, wildlife or other resources.

Part III

15. All persons have the right to information concerning the environment. This includes information, howsoever compiled, on actions and courses of conduct that may affect the environment and information necessary to enable effective public participation in environmental decision-making. The information shall be timely, clear, understandable and available without undue financial burden to the applicant.

16. All persons have the right to hold and express opinions and to disseminate ideas and information regarding the environment.

17. All persons have the right to environmental and human rights education.

18. All persons have the right to active, free, and meaningful participation in planning and decision-making activities and processes that may have an impact on the environment and development. This includes the right to a prior assessment of the environmental, developmental and human rights consequences of proposed actions.

19. All persons have the right to associate freely and peacefully with others for purposes of protecting the environment or the rights of persons affected by environmental harm.

20. All persons have the right to effective remedies and redress in administrative or judicial proceedings for environmental harm or the threat of such harm.

Part IV

21. All persons, individually and in association with others, have a duty to protect and preserve the environment.

22. All States shall respect and ensure the right to a secure, healthy and ecologically sound environment. Accordingly, they shall adopt the administrative, legislative and other measures necessary to effectively implement the rights in this Declaration.

These measures shall aim at the prevention of environmental harm, at the provision of adequate remedies, and at the sustainable use of natural resources and shall include, inter alia,

  • collection and dissemination of information concerning the environment
  • prior assessment and control, licensing, regulation or prohibition of activities and substances potentially harmful to the environment;
  • public participation in environmental decision-making;
  • effective administrative and judicial remedies and redress for environmental harm and the threat of such harm;
  • monitoring, management and equitable sharing of natural resources;
  • measures to reduce wasteful processes of production and patterns of consumption;
  • measures aimed at ensuring that transnational corporations, wherever they operate, carry out their duties of environmental protection, sustainable development and respect for human rights; and
  • measures aimed at ensuring that the international organizations and agencies to which they belong observe the rights and duties in this Declaration.

23. States and all other parties shall avoid using the environment as a means of war or inflicting significant, long-term or widespread harm on the environment, and shall respect international law providing protection for the environment in times of armed conflict and cooperate in its further development.

24. All international organizations and agencies shall observe the rights and duties in this Declaration.

Part V

25. In implementing the rights and duties in this Declaration, special attention shall be given to vulnerable persons and groups.

26. The rights in this Declaration may be subject only to restrictions provided by law and which are necessary to protect public order, health and the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

27. All persons are entitled to a social and international order in which the rights in this Declaration can be fully realized.

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