Human rights and the environment

  • Although there is no specific right to a healthy environment in the European Convention on Human Rights, the convention is increasingly being used by individuals and campaign groups to help make progress on a wide range of environmental issues.
  • Environmental pollution, such as harmful industrial emissions, hazardous waste or excessive noise, can affect people’s health and well-being.
  • Judgments from the European court have already helped to strengthen environmental protections in several countries.

Examples

Tbilisi residents affected by power plant pollution win landmark case

A power plant was allowed to carry out dangerous industrial activities just metres from the apartment block where Ivane Jugheli, Otar Gureshidze and Liana Alavidze lived in Tbilisi. The European court criticised the Georgian Government’s failure to protect the residents from the resulting pollution, which breached their rights. This judgment led Georgia to strengthen its environmental laws.

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Strict curbs on industrial hazards after father and son’s complaint about cyanide use at gold mine

Baia Mare resident Vasile Tătar feared for his son Paul’s health after a mining company was allowed to continue using cyanide despite its role in a disastrous chemical spill. Vasile and Paul took their case to the European Court of Human Rights, which found that Romania had failed to uphold their right to a healthy environment. Romania took steps to better regulate risky industrial activities.

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Justice for environmental activists in ‘McLibel’ defamation case

McDonald’s brought a successful libel case against two environmental activists, Helen Steel and David Morris, who could not afford a lawyer at the time of the trial. The European court found that the UK’s refusal to grant legal aid to Helen and David caused a breach of their rights. The UK now allows legal aid to be granted, in exceptional circumstances, in defamation cases.

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New powers for state inspectors after woman wins noise pollution case

For more than a decade, Ljubica Udovičić’s home life was disrupted by excessive noise from a bar directly beneath her apartment. The police were called dozens of times because of drunk and violent customers. The European court found that the Croatian authorities had failed to act and Ljubica’s rights had been breached. This led Croatia to take steps to improve protections against noise pollution.

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Harm to family life from motorway pollution prompts better environmental protections

Natalya Grimkovskaya’s family home became almost uninhabitable after local authorities re-routed a busy motorway through the street outside. Doctors diagnosed her young son with chronic lead and copper poisoning. The European court found that the authorities had not done enough to protect Natalya’s family life. This prompted Ukraine to introduce new environmental protections.

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Homeowner compensated for collapsed property in environmental hazard zone

Detonations from an open-pit coalmine shook Dimitar Yordanov’s home after the state failed to rehouse him and his family. The European court found Bulgaria responsible for the fact that the house remained in an environmental hazard zone, in breach of Dimitar’s right to property. The court awarded him compensation for the house that he was ultimately forced to abandon.

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Better access to justice after environmental group’s legal challenge was unfairly rejected

The Conseil d’État rejected an environmental group’s challenge to a decision allowing a landfill site to be expanded because they did not include a statement of facts in their application. The European court ruled that this breached the group’s right to a fair trial. The judgment prompted the Conseil d’État to take a less formal approach when considering complaints.

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Justice for homeowners unable to challenge plans for a railway in a protected nature area

The European Court of Human Rights ruled that people living in a special nature protection area should have had the right to a full legal review of government plans to build a railway close to their homes. Sweden’s highest court has now changed its approach, strengthening people’s right to a legal review when the government makes similar decisions.

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Man acquitted of defamation after responding to allegations of contaminated drinking water

Zoran Šabanović was given a suspended prison sentence for defamation over claims he made related to water contamination. The European court found that Zoran’s conviction breached his right to free speech. Montenegro then decriminalised defamation and Zoran was acquitted after a re-trial.

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Reforms to protect free association after environmental group denied legal status

Four Ukrainians formed a group to help protect their local environment. However, when they tried to register their association the authorities refused, relying on administrative technicalities. The group had to dissolve. The European court ruled that this had violated the group’s right to freedom of association. In 2013 a new Law on Civil Associations created proper rules to protect such groups.

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USEFUL LINKS

 Protecting the environment using human rights law

Factsheets on the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights:

 Environment and the ECHR PDF (540 Ko)

 Measures adopted and reported by States (Execution of judgments) PDF (790 Ko)