Image: Theme 'Environment' by Pancho

Human Rights and the Environment

The salvation of the world lies in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and in human responsibility. We are still under the sway of the destructive and vain belief that man is the pinnacle of creation and not just a part of it… We still don't know how to put morality ahead of politics, science and economics. We are still incapable of understanding that the only genuine backbone of all our actions – if they are to be moral – is responsibility. Responsibility is something higher than my family, my country, my firm, my success.
Vaclav Havel

When asked to talk about "the environment", what do you think of first? Eurobarometer reported answers that included climate change, pollution in towns and cities, protecting nature, disasters caused by humans such as oil spills, industrial accidents, earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters, and using up natural resources. It is no surprise that the issue of most concern varied between countries, for instance water pollution in the Baltic Sea for citizens of the Baltic states, while in Malta and Bulgaria it was air pollution.

Dioxin, a persistent bioaccumulative toxin (PBT) created in the production of PVC and vinyl, does not breakdown rapidly and travels around the globe, accumulating in fatty tissue and concentrating as it goes up the food chain. Dioxins are even found in hazardous concentrations in the tissues of polar bears and in Inuit mother's breast milk.1

This widespread concern for the state of the environment is very recent. In different cultures and throughout history there have been numerous religious and philosophical traditions regarding the relationship between human beings and the rest of nature. In the so-called "developed" world the general attitude has, until recently, been one of domination and exploitation. The wider public began to take serious notice of the extent of our destruction of the natural environment only in the early 1960s.

People realise that we cannot dump our wastes and expect them to disappear. It is obvious that what happens in one place impacts on another and that whatever we do – mine, log, build or farm – our actions have consequences both locally and globally, now and in the future. Thus our concerns about the environment cannot be separated from concerns about humanity and must be grounded in principles of equity, rights and responsibility. Here follow a few examples of how impacts on the environment are related to human rights:


The air we breathe can be contaminated, for example, by particle emissions from motor vehicles and industry as well as from household fuels and tobacco smoke. Other pollutants include low-level ozone and micro-organisms associated with damp. In the WHO European Region2, exposure to particulate matter decreases the life expectancy of every person by an average of almost 1 year. Decreased air quality violates of the right to life and to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.


The world's resources of fresh water are being depleted to meet the demands of the growing population not only for drinking and sanitation but also for increased food production, industrial processes and recreational activities.3
In 2011, 1.1 billion people – one in seven of the population – did not have access to a safe and adequate water supply, an obvious violation of the human right to life and to health. According to the WHO, 1.8 million people – mostly children under 5 living in developing countries – die every year from diarrhoeal diseases caused by unsafe water.
As water becomes scarce, issues of human security arise. Disputes can be internal to a country, for instance as happened in 2010 in New Delhi, India, where erratic water supply, and an eventual complete cut-off of water, led to violent protests and several injuries. Disputes may also be between countries that release or withhold water from a downstream neighbour as a political tool, acts of aggression or terrorism.4


Nearly one-third of the world's land surface is now in use for agriculture, and millions of acres of natural ecosystems are converted each year.6

The FAO Global Forest Resources Assessment 2010 estimated that the net loss of the world's forests is 7.3 million hectares (18 million acres) per year. Many agricultural practices are highly polluting and unsustainable. Modern farming methods need less labour, and people are forced to migrate to cities to find work. In 2007, for the first time in history, more than half the human population lived in urban areas7. Land is also taken for mining and other industries, while transport systems fragment the landscape with consequences for the movement of wildlife. In relation to human rights, all these changes may lead to violations of rights to own property, to have desirable work, rights to food and to participate in cultural life, to name but a few.

Question: In what ways are the air, water and land polluted in the environment where you live?

The world is not ours, the earth is not ours. It's a treasure we hold in trust for future generations.
African proverb

We live on a finite globe where everything is connected to everything else, for example through food chains and the water and rock cycles. There is some natural resilience, but serious disruption of these cycles, for example by pollution, unsuitable farming practices, irrigation projects or over-fishing, destabilises the natural balance. The nuclear disasters of Chernobyl and Fukushima, the death of the trees in the Black Forest in Germany from acid rain, desertification in southern Spain, the drying up of the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan, and the Ilisu dam project in Turkey are all examples of how humans in the process of development are damaging the environmental base for all economic activity and life itself.

Climate change

For examples of human rights violations related to the environment, visit:

"The declining environmental quality of planet Earth and the apparent increase in strength and frequency of natural hazards such as cyclones, floods and droughts, are intensifying peoples' vulnerability to food insecurity, ill health and unsustainable livelihoods."
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

According to the Fourth Assessment Report8 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), "In the last few years, scientific research and knowledge on climate change have progressed substantially, confirming that the current warming of the Earth's climate is very likely to be due to human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels. The Earth's warming is already having measurable consequences and future impacts are expected to be wide-ranging and costly". The report puts the level of likeliness at 90%.

In the Danube River Basin District, all countries have been working on national management plans and co-operating at the international level through the International Council for the Protection of the Danube River, with the aim of meeting the environmental objectives of the EU Water Framework Directive by 2015.5

Burning fossil fuels is the main human activity that contributes to climate change. As fuels burn they release carbon dioxide, water vapour, methane and nitrous oxide into the Earth's atmosphere where these gases trap the energy from the sun and cause global warming. The process is sometimes called the "greenhouse effect". Carbon dioxide is the most important greenhouse gas because it stays in the atmosphere for a long time. Current atmospheric levels far exceed the natural range for carbon dioxide over the past 650,000 years. The effect is serious; 11 of the 12 years from  1995 to 2006 were among the 12 warmest years of global surface temperatures on record since 1850 (the onset of industrialisation).9 Some of the current and expected consequences of global warming include:

Changing sea levels. Rising sea levels will swamp some small, low-lying island states and put millions of people in all low-lying areas at risk of flooding. Salt-water intrusion will affect low-lying farmland. The impact is already being felt in various regions of the world, especially in the South East Pacific islands and Southeast Asia.

Extreme weather. Floods, droughts and storms will become more frequent and more violent.

Extinctions. If global temperatures rise by two degrees Celsius, it is estimated that 30% of all land-living species will be threatened by an increased risk of extinction.10

Food shortages. As temperatures increase and rainfall patterns change, crop yields will drop significantly in Africa, the Middle East and India.

Water shortages. Changing rainfall patterns will result in droughts or flooding. Less water will be available.

Disease. With rising temperatures, diseases such as malaria, West Nile disease, dengue fever and river blindness will shift to different areas.

Destruction of vulnerable areas. Damaged areas, such as overgrazed rangeland, deforested mountainsides, and denuded agricultural soils, will be more vulnerable than previously to changes in climate.11

Environmental refugees. Climate change, together with other environmental problems, is contributing to high increases in the numbers of people forced to migrate or seek refuge from changes in their environment.

Question: Can you identify any consequences of climate change that have already affected your country?

The equity issue

Beginning from the stroke of New Year, as they sit down to their evening meal on 2 January, a US family will already have used, per person, the equivalent in fossil fuels that a family in Tanzania will depend on for the whole year.
Andrew Simms

The effects of climate change are being felt unevenly throughout the world. According to the IPCC the world's poorest people are likely to suffer the most. The developing nations, because of their geographical location, low incomes, weak institutions, and greater reliance on climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture, do not have the resources to adapt (for instance by growing different crops that are more suited to wetter or drier conditions).
The other aspect of the equity issue is how to share the costs of mitigation, for example paying for switching to modern technologies that burn fuels more efficiently, or to renewables such as wind, water or solar power. How to divide the responsibilities was the main stumbling block at the 17th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Durban, 2011, and it remains a challenge for negotiators.
The issues about equity are bound up with concepts of justice, and many people talk about a concept of climate justice meaning a "vision to dissolve and alleviate the unequal burdens created by climate change. Climate justice is the fair treatment of all people and freedom from discrimination with the creation of policies and projects that address climate change and the systems that create climate change and perpetuate discrimination".12

Climate change is a real threat to international peace and security.
Ban Ki-moon

Climate change may be the greatest threat to long-term human well-being, and undoubtedly needs to be addressed urgently. However, the focus on climate change can have unfortunate consequences: either other environmental problems such as pollution, over-fishing or urban development are not given sufficient attention, or the impacts of these pressures are attributed to climate change when in fact there are other causes that should be addressed. Threats to coral reefs are a good example. Warmer sea temperatures, rising sea levels and the acidification of the oceans due to climate change are certainly a potential threat to coral reefs and thus to the rights of those people who gain their livelihoods or enjoy leisure activities on them. However, the immediate threats of pollution, sedimentation due to excess run-off as a result of changes in agricultural practices, over fishing of reef fish for food, the collection of fish, snails and coral itself for hobby aquarists, and mining the coral for making cement and road-fill are a few of the immediate dangers that may destroy the reefs long before the effects of climate change take effect in 70 years.13

Population growth

Climate change should not mutate from an inconvenient truth into a convenient scapegoat for other human pressures.
Keith Brander and others14

In 1804, there were 1 billion people in the world; in 1927, 2 billion; in 1959, three billion; in 1974, four billion; 1987, five billion; six billion in 1998; seven billion in 2011. The rapid increase is due to a combination of positive changes, for instance improved sanitation, nutrition and health care, which enable people to live longer and to produce more children who survive to adulthood. However, we live on a finite globe and the increasing population is putting extreme pressure on the environment to provide even the basics of shelter, food and water.

If we cannot stabilize climate and we cannot stabilize population, there is not an ecosystem on Earth that we can save.
Worldwatch Institute

When considering pressure on the environment, not only sheer numbers but also lifestyles and patterns of consumption have to be put into the equation. Wealthy nations, like most in Europe, constitute only 20% of the world's population, yet their high standards of living mean they use more than 70% of its resources. Thus population is also an equity issue.

Question: China reduced its birth rate by enforcing a one-child policy. Do you think the Chinese government was justified in doing this? Have you heard of other methods to reduce birth rates?

Addressing the problems

Humans aren't the only species on Earth, they just act like it.

Since all human activity affects the environment, the question is how we should best protect the environment that sustains us.

One approach is through international agreements about specific issues. The UN has agreed a number of treaties and declarations on protecting the environment, for instance on air pollution, biodiversity, biosafety, desertification, endangered species, ship pollution, tropical timber, wetlands, and whaling.15
The international action to protect the ozone layer by phasing out the production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other ozone-depleting chemicals has been swift and very effective. The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer entered into force in 1989; as a result, the ozone layer should eventually recover.16

Perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date has been the Montreal Protocol.
Kofi Annan

Another example is the Kyoto Protocol (adopted in 1997, entered into force in 2005 and due to end in 2012), under which countries made specific commitments to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gasses. The Kyoto protocol is significant because it is based on principles of justice and equality and the premise of "common but differentiated responsibilities". In other words, the industrialised countries should pay more because their per-capita emissions are typically as much as 10 times the average of those in developing countries.
Expiring in 2012, the protocol needs a new international framework - negotiated and ratified - that can deliver continuity and eventually improvement in reducing the greenhouse gas emissions. For that, a renewed political commitment is needed from both signatory and non-signatory parties of the protocol.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

IPCC is the leading international body for the assessment of climate change. It was established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) to provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of knowledge on climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic impacts.
The IPCC is an intergovernmental and scientific body. Currently 194 UN and WMO countries are members of the IPCC, which reviews and assesses the most recent scientific, technical and socio-economic information produced worldwide relevant to the understanding of climate change. Because of its scientific and intergovernmental nature, the IPCC embodies a unique opportunity to provide rigorous and balanced scientific information to decision makers. The work of the organisation is therefore policy-relevant and yet policy-neutral, never policy-prescriptive.

The IPCC does not conduct any research, nor does it monitor climate related data or parameters. Thousands of scientists from all over the world contribute to the work of the IPCC on a voluntary basis.

Rights and responsibilities

The 1972 Stockholm Declaration on the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment17 can be seen as the starting point of a rights-based approach to environmental protection. It formulated the principle that "Man [should] have the fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being, and he bears a solemn responsibility to protect and improve the environment for present and future generations".
Is it possible for everyone in the world to live a life with dignity and in adequate conditions of life without devastating consequences for the environment? If yes, how? Environmental damage can be as much the result of underdevelopment as it is of development. For example, underdevelopment and consequent poverty leads to deforestation as the affected population forages for firewood to be used for cooking and warmth. Given the lack of pastures, overgrazing at the periphery of agricultural land leads to desertification. Inadequate sewage treatment and garbage collection results in a lack of potable water. Inadequate education cripples the national pursuit of a cleaner environment. Development, on the other hand, attacks the environment in another way. Economic gains motivate the destruction of forests and the displacement of tribal communities, and the maximal exploitation of natural resources. Industrialisation pollutes the air, water and atmosphere through toxic and chemical discharges during production and consumption, all in the name of development.18

The major distinction between the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol is that while the Convention encouraged industrialised countries to stabilise greenhouse gas emissions, the Protocol commits them to do so.

In 1989, the Brundtland Report sought to dissolve the inherent contradictions between environment and development through the principle of sustainable development, which it defined as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". The report was the background for the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (also known as the Earth Summit), which produced the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. The declaration (also called Agenda 21) was a plan of action to be taken on globally, nationally and locally by governments, organisations and individuals in every area in which human beings impact on the environment. Another outcome of the Rio meeting was the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The UNFCCC provides an overall framework for intergovernmental efforts to tackle the challenges of climate change.

The Århus Convention

The Århus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters was agreed by the UN Economic Commission for Europe in 1998. The convention has been ratified by 40 countries and also by the European Union. It is the first international treaty to recognise "the right of every person of present and future generations to live in an environment adequate to his or her health and being". It also recognises the right to public information on environmental issues, to participation on environmental decision making and access to independent courts in relation to environmental decisions. Despite having been ratified mostly by European and Central Asian countries only and having a very weak monitoring mechanism, the convention is of global relevance by its combination of environmental and human rights.19

The environmental movement can only survive if it becomes a justice movement. As a pure environmental movement, it will either die or it will survive as a corporate "greenwash". Anyone who's a sincere environmentalist can't stand that role. But it has limitless possibilities as both an ecological and justice-based movement.
Vandana Shiva

The human rights approach based on equity and justice, rights and responsibilities is seen by many as the way forward to protecting the environment. However, for many years activists and others in the environmental movement have argued that this premise is not enough. Their point is that if human life and health are the aims of environmental protection, then the environment will only be protected as a consequence of, and to the extent needed to protect, human well-being. In 2009 at the end of the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Bolivia, the Universal Declaration of Mother Earth (2010) was sent to the UN for consideration. Article 2 states that "Mother Earth has the right to exist, to persist and to continue the vital cycles, structures, functions and processes that sustain all beings".

The crime of ecocide

Environmental disasters such as Seveso in  1976, Bhopal in 1984, Chernobyl in 1986, Spanish waste-water spill in 1998, and Deep Water Horizon in 2010 do result in extensive litigation. However, neither the future generations nor the environment per se are ever represented in court cases.
A compelling case can also be made to put businesses that cause extensive ecological damage on trial. The term "ecocide", which refers to any large-scale destruction of the natural environment, was coined after the herbicide disaster in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. In April 2010, UK Lawyer, Polly Higgins proposed to the United Nations that ecocide be recognised as an international Crime Against Peace alongside Genocide, Crimes of Humanity, War Crimes and Crimes of Aggression, to be brought before the International Criminal Court.

[T]he creation of [the crime of] ecocide is necessary, as homicide exists for those who take a person's life, it must exist also against those who kill nature.
Jaime David Fernandez Mirabal, Environment Minister, Dominican Republic

It took Britain half the resources of this planet to achieve its prosperity. How many planets will India require for development?
Mahatma Ghandi

The role of the Council of Europe

The Council of Europe puts sustainable development at the top of its agenda. Its policy is that economic progress must not compromise the key assets of humanity: the quality of the environment and landscapes, human rights and social equity, cultural diversity and democracy. The Council of Europe views climate change as the most serious environmental problem that the world faces today, recognises the implications for human rights and is active on two fronts: preserving natural resources and biodiversity, but also protecting the diversity and vitality of the world's many cultures. The cultural pillar of sustainable development therefore requires parallel efforts to develop a culture of sustainability and to protect cultural diversity.

By its actions, the Council of Europe has helped to shape an adequate legal environment in Europe in favour of biodiversity, spatial planning and landscape management, and sustainable territorial development based on the integrated use of cultural and natural resources. The Council of Europe environment programme launched in 1961 has produced the European Landscape Convention, Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats, and the Framework Convention on the value of Cultural Heritage for Society. The Council of Europe also runs The European Diploma of Protected Areas. Created in 1965, it is awarded to protected areas because of their outstanding scientific, cultural or aesthetic qualities; they must also be the subject of a suitable conservation scheme which may be combined with a sustainable development programme.

The Council of Europe Manual on Human Rights and the Environment provides information about the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights and on the impact of the European Social Charter in relation to environmental protection.

There have been several efforts to add the right to a healthy environment to the European Convention on Human Rights, through an additional protocol but they have not succeeded. The counter-view was that the European  Court of Human Rights can deal with the most gross environmental violations under Article 8 (private and family life) of the ECHR.

Question: Should the right to a healthy environment be added to the European Convention on Human Rights?

European Court of Human Rights

Several individuals have successfully brought environment-related cases to the Court on the grounds that adverse environmental factors were the cause of breaches of one of their human rights protected by the European Convention of Human Rights. The case-law of the Court includes interferences in the right to life, the right to respect for private and family life  as well as the home, the right to a fair trial and to have access to a court, the right to receive and impart information and ideas, the right to an effective remedy and the right to the peaceful enjoyment of one's possessions.

Hamer v. Belgium

Judgment by the European Court of Human Rights of 27 November, 2007
The applicant owned a house built by her parents on forest land where building was not permitted. Proceedings were brought against her for having a house built in breach of the relevant forest legislation and the courts found she had to restitute the land to its previous state. The house was forcefully demolished. The applicant complained that her right to private life had been breached.
The Court held for the first time that, while not explicitly protected in the Convention, the environment is of value in itself in which both society and the public authorities take keen interest. Economic considerations, and even the right to property, should not have priority in the face of environmental concerns, in particular when the State has legislated in the field. Public authorities had therefore a responsibility to act in order to protect the environment.20

Participation by young people

Because youth have a stronger awareness of the issues and a greater stake in long-term sustainability, the environment is one area in which they ought to take the lead.
World Youth Report 200321

In Chapter 1 we described the "about, through and for" dimensions of human rights education and stated that the knowledge, skills and attitudes to defend human rights can only be learned through experience. "Start from where young people are" is the youth worker's mantra, and what better place to start than by getting involved in action for the environment? For example the starting point may be concerns that a local group of young people have about a local road or building development that will deprive them of a playing field, or they may want to find out how they can reduce their carbon footprint or make their homes, schools and colleges or youth clubs more environmentally-friendly. At the regional and national level, they can influence public discussion and political debate by, for example, writing letters, presenting plays and demonstrating.

Environmental protection and awareness is an important concern for many youth organisations across Europe, even if not all of them rate it as their first priority. There are several European youth organisations and movements which base their work on environment and human rights protection reflecting also the awareness that environmental education and action know no borders. In the programme of the European Youth Centres, related activities cover matters as far apart – yet very closely inter-linked – as food security, environmental justice, sustainable development and climate change.
Opportunities also exist at international level. The UNFCCC recognises the importance of youth participation and has extended the provisional constituency status to young people. This extended status allows young people to receive official information, to participate in meetings and to request speaking slots. The 16th such meeting, held in Cancun, Mexico was attended by around 500 youth delegates, youth activists and representatives of  youth  organisations from all over the world.

Caring for the future? Caring for the forest!

It was an initiative of Youth and Environment Europe (YEE) that ran in 2011 involving young people from Albania, the Czech Republic, Finland, Portugal, Russia and the United Kingdom who organised a campaign to encourage young people to mobilise to protect forests worldwide. The campaign aimed to raise awareness of threats to forests worldwide, to encourage young people to take action, to help them to discover their local forests and to empower them to care for their local forests.

Useful organisations and links

Just over half (53%) of EU citizens say they took some kind of action to combat climate change over the last six months; separating and recycling waste is the most common action undertaken, buying fewer disposable items and purchasing local and seasonal produce come next.22

The Earth Charter is a declaration of fundamental ethical principles for building a just, sustainable and peaceful global society in the 21st century:

Worldwatch, research on global environment issues:

UNite to Combat Climate Change is a UN campaign to encourage communities around the world to unite and act now to combat climate change:

Real time world statistics:

Calculate your carbon footprint. The online tools in several languages are free and easy to use:

Climate justice: A network of organisations and movements from across the globe committed to the fight for social, ecological and gender justice:

A massive central data source and a handy way to compare national statistics:

The relation between youth and climate change is very well elaborated in the United Nations' World Youth Report of 2010.

Friends of the Earth International is one of the world's largest grassroots environmental network. They campaign on today's most urgent environmental and social issues: is a global grassroots movement working to solve the climate crisis:
Wikipedia has a list of the more notable environmental organizations by organisation type (intergovernmental, governmental or non-governmental) and further subdivided by country:


2  The WHO European region comprises 53 member states. For a complete list, consult page 8 of the WHO/Europe brochure:
4 For details see
6 "World Land Use Seen As Top Environmental Issue", Science Daily,
9 IPCC, "Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide", IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007,
13 L.M. Brander, et al, "The Economic Impact of Ocean Acidification on Coral Reefs", Economic and Social Research Institute, working paper no. 282, February 2009.
14 K. Brander, et al, "The value of attribution", Nature Climate Change, Vol. 1, May 2011, p 70.
15 For more information see:


Manual for Human Rights Education
with Young People


Related activities

Key Date
  • 22 MarchWorld Day for Water
  • 23 MarchWorld Meteorological Day
  • 21 MayWorld Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development
  • 22 MayInternational Day for Biological Diversity
  • 5 JuneWorld Environment Day
  • 17 JuneWorld Day to Combat Desertification and Drought
  • 11 JulyWorld Population Day
  • Second Wednesday in OctoberInternational Day for Natural Disaster Reduction
  • 16 OctoberWorld Food Day
  • 6 NovemberInternational Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict