Pressure is building for the United Nations to recognize a clean environment as a human right, in order to give more protection to environmentalists. But changing these decades-old treaties could be an uphill struggle.
In 1948, in the shadow of the crimes against humanity perpetrated during World War II, the United Nations adopted a universal declaration of human rights. Championed by former US first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, it pledges UN countries to protect citizens' rights to life, religion, movement, and health.
But the right to a clean environment, which many today would view as being essential to a good quality of life, is not included. That's because the declaration, which has since become part of customary international law, was written well before environmentalism took off as a movement in the 1970s.
Now a United Nations expert is trying to change that. John H. Knox, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, asked the UN this month to recognize the human right to a clean environment.
"There can no longer be any doubt that human rights and the environment are interdependent,” Knox told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. "A healthy environment is necessary for the full enjoyment of many human rights, including the rights to life, health, food, water and development. At the same time, the exercise of other freedoms, including the rights to information, participation and remedy, is vital to the protection of the environment."
Knox was presenting a report, called the "Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment”, which contains an exhaustive review of existing national laws and international agreements. The report calls on the Human Rights Council, and the UN as a whole, to adopt a global instrument calling a clean environment a human right.
The report proposes 14 framework principles, among them the requirement for states to ensure a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, and for governments to protect those who are fighting for that right.
Without international recognition, it can be hard for citizens to lodge complaints when they see pollution
"As Victor Hugo famously declared, it is impossible to resist an idea whose time has come,” Knox said. A majority of UN member countries already recognize the right in some way, and some, such as Bolivia, have even enshrined the right in their constitutions. Earlier this month, 24 Latin American and Caribbean nations signed an environmental rights pact recognizing the right.
But Knox says the absence of an equivalent at the global level has left this as an area of legal uncertainty, and means that there are no international laws to hold national governments to account. He wants the UN General Assembly to recognize the human right to a healthy environment when it meets for its general assembly in the Autumn. At its 2010 general assembly, the UN enshrined a right to water and sanitation.
A tool for citizens
Nick Meynen, an environmental justice campaigner with the European Environmental Bureau in Brussels, says having such an international recognition would help him pursue legal action around the world.
"This would reinforce future court cases, and strengthen court cases that are ongoing and that we support through our work," he told DW. "For instance, there are class action cases in the Netherlands and Belgium about air pollution that would be helped."
He notes that the Aarhus Convention, which was signed in 1998 between European countries and guarantees citizen access to information, justice and decision-making in environmental matters, has proven invaluable in helping citizens investigate environmental harm. But it's only helpful if those crimes are recognized by the national government. Having an international agreement that environmental harm is a crime against human rights would make a big difference.
Meynen says even if the general assembly doesn't take up Knox's call this year, the report itself will likely be used in future court cases. "We see more and more engaged citizens who say it's no longer tolerable to accept environmental harm," he said. "For example in Belgium, a court case over air pollution was recently started by civilians. It wasn't initiated by an NGO, just concerned citizens who say they've read what the level of air pollution is and it's not acceptable. This kind of report is what they need to make their argument stronger."
He adds that international recognition will also help protect environmental campaigners from threats of violence or arrest. A recent report from Global Witness found that 2016 was the deadliest year for environmental activists.
As UN Rapporteur for Human Rights and the Environment, Knox's previous work is already being cited by courts. For instance, last month the Inter-American Court of Human Rights cited Knox's previous testimony to the UN in a ruling equating environmental protection with human rights.
Whether the general assembly will take up Knox's cause will depend on how strongly the Human Rights Council backs his report. The Council is expected to adopt its official reaction to the report by the end of May.
Knox's term will end this summer, before the next UN general assembly, due to term limits. There is already talk of selecting a high-profile replacement who can push through the effort to its final stages. Some have suggested that the actor Leonardo DiCaprio should take on the role.
But even DiCaprio might find that changing these decades-old international treaties is hard work.