Concept - Human Rights for the Planet

Clean environment is a precondition to the enjoyment of human rights: the full enjoyment of everyone’s rights to life, health, quality private and family life or home, depends on unpolluted air, healthy ecosystems and their benefits to people.

The European Convention of Human Rights and its Protocols do not guarantee a right to a healthy environment, and yet the ECHR organs have ruled in nearly 300 cases concerning various forms of environmental risk and harm. By incrementally broadening the scope of political and civil rights, the European Court of Human Rights has acknowledged that human rights and a healthy environment are intrinsically linked. By doing so, it has played an important role in the greening of human rights and ensuring a better environmental protection in Europe.

Since the 1960s, the Court has thus balanced the policies of sustainable use of natural resources or the protection of endangered species with the anthropocentric right to a peaceful enjoyment of property. It has also examined ecologically unsound operations and urban development, causing pollution, occupational illnesses or nuisance, mainly, under the redefined right to respect for home and private life. The Court has also found Member States responsible for the effects of man-made and natural environmental disasters under the right to life. In the context of ecological activism, the Court has greatly strengthened participatory rights, namely the rights to information, public participation in a decision-making process and to access to justice.

Environmental protection through the judicial activity of the Court is reinforced by the work of the other organs of the Council of Europe and its programmes. The Committee of Ministers ensures that States comply with the Court’s judgments by redressing the ECHR’s violations and preventing their recurrence. The Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats lays down binding obligations of the conservation of wild fauna and flora. Its Standing Committee monitors compliance through a system of complaints and recommendations. The European Landscape Convention promotes the protection, management and planning of the landscapes. Its Working Programmes contribute to the implementation of the UN Sustainable Developments Goals. The EUR-OPA Major Hazards Agreement aims at the prevention of environmental disasters and the mitigation of their consequences, through disaster prediction research, risk management, post-crisis analysis and rehabilitation. The European Social Charter guarantees a right to health, which has found its application in the context of chemical pollution of air and water. The Charter’s Collective Complaints Procedure enables various organisations to directly apply to the European Committee of Social Rights for rulings on possible non-compliance.

Climate change, loss of biodiversity, depletion of natural resources and chemical pollution bring new challenges for the Court, the Council of Europe and Governments.

How to address human rights class-actions stemming from large-scale environmental pollution? Where to draw the line between a policy decision within the State’s margin of appreciation and a State’s failure to strike the right balance between conflicting interests? Whether to allow legal standing to applicants who vindicate collective and intergenerational rights? Ought the Court rely on the precautionary principle and adopt a new causation test in applications concerning global warming? Or should it rather refrain from taking up the role of Europe’s climate change tribunal? In the event violations are found, what measures of redress and prevention should be imposed on Member States? How to ensure better State compliance?

Meaningful answers to these questions call for a general and conceptual reflection on the role of international human rights tribunals in reviewing Member States’ efforts to comply with their obligations under the environmental law to mitigate and adapt to the effects of the climate crisis and to stop nature’s degradation.

The conference will be held on the premises of the European Court of Human Rights and under the Georgian chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. It aims at facilitating a debate between renowned practitioners and academic experts in the field of international environmental law and human rights.