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Living in a clean environment: a neglected human rights concern for all of us

Human Rights Comment
Strasbourg 04/06/2019
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Living in a clean environment: a neglected human rights concern for all of us

Tomorrow, 5 June, is World Environment Day. Initiated as an annual event by the United Nations to draw attention to pressing environmental problems, this year’s theme is air pollution. The urgency of the problem cannot be overstated. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 9 out of 10 people worldwide breathe polluted air, contributing to a third of all deaths by stroke, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. The European Environment Agency estimates that polluted air causes almost half a million premature deaths each year in the European Union alone, and WHO says it decreases every European’s life expectancy by almost an entire year. The thick smog blanketing European cities is one example that many of us know all too well: apart from my native Sarajevo, Katowice, Pristina and Skopje usually rank among the highest on lists of the most polluted cities in Europe or even the world. Air pollution contributes to respiratory diseases like asthma and allergies in children, as shown by research carried out in European nurseries and schools.

And this is just the air, but what about the other elements vital for our existence? Many Europeans expect drinkable water to be available at the turn of a tap. However, our water supply is recurrently strained from pollution, population growth and urbanisation. Parts of Greece, Portugal or Spain suffer from severe droughts and violent forest fires, while cities like Barcelona or London have struggled with water scarcity, aggravated by climate change.

Our health, food safety, as well as housing, can also be negatively affected by improper disposal of waste and toxic materials, which pollute water and soil, poison crops, and potentially contribute to a higher incidence of cancer and endocrinological disorders. Disadvantaged communities tend to be disproportionally affected by this phenomenon, as shown by the situation in the Roma settlements in Pata-Rât, Romania, or in northern Mitrovica/Mitrovicë, Kosovo* documented by my predecessors, though hazardous waste often has an impact upon the population at large, as in the case of Italy’s Terra dei Fuochi. Moreover, Europe is no stranger to the galloping decline in biodiversity worldwide.

The above facts make two things clear to me: First, the environmental degradation we are exposed to in our daily lives can lead to very serious and continuing violations of our human rights, like the right to life, health, private life and home; Second, in order to protect our human rights, we must urgently get more serious about looking after the environment we live in.

Environmental degradation and human rights: States’ existing obligations

The Council of Europe bodies overseeing the implementation of the European Convention of Human Rights and the European Social Charter have produced an extensive body of case law that delineates states parties’ obligations in the field of the environment. Despite the absence in the Convention of a specific reference to the environment, the European Court of Human Rights has clearly established that various types of environmental degradation can result in violations of substantive human rights, such as the right to life, to private and family life, the prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment, and the peaceful enjoyment of the home. Moreover, the European Committee of Social Rights has interpreted the right to health included in the Charter to encompass the right to a healthy environment.

The Court’s jurisprudence shows that states should not only investigate violations and compensate individual victims, but that they also have an obligation to prevent such violations from occurring in the first place, including through general and precautionary measures to address environmental risks in a systemic manner.[1] This may require, for example, conducting environmental risk assessments, air and water quality control, environmental regulation and emergency planning. In certain circumstances, these obligations extend to controlling pollution caused by third parties, such as private companies.[2] The European Committee of Social Rights, for its part, has found that states parties must strive to overcome pollution within a reasonable time and using available resources by taking concrete steps and monitoring progress.

Importantly, states must also guarantee procedures that allow concerned individuals to take action when confronted with environmental degradation. These include the rights to receive information about environmental issues, to participate in decision-making processes impacting the environment, and to have access to effective justice. These rights, which are enshrined in the 1998 Aarhus Convention,[3] have also been affirmed in the case-law of the Court.[4]

The standards articulated by the Council of Europe bodies should be considered within a broader body of international law (Stockholm Declaration of 1972, Rio Declaration of 1992, Paris Agreement of 2015), as well as other international and regional courts’ decisions,[5] and guidance by various international human rights monitoring bodies. The 16 Framework Principles of Human Rights and the Environment issued by the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment in 2018 give an overview of states’ obligations in this area.

Growing momentum: initiatives to assert rights related to a clean environment

I find it encouraging that the sense of an impending emergency has galvanised many people around a variety of initiatives to demand rights related to a clean and healthy environment, notably by exercising their freedom of speech and assembly. Most striking at the moment is the mobilisation of youth worldwide who, like Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, are demonstrating in great numbers at the “Fridays for Future.”

Litigation in domestic courts, aimed at compelling governments and businesses to respect human rights related to a clean and healthy environment, is also starting to bring results. A well-known ongoing case is that of the Urgenda Foundation, where a Dutch appeals court found the government’s current action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to be insufficient, basing its reasoning on the state’s obligations with regard to the right to life and to private and family life.

In many member states, National Human Rights Structures are working on human rights related to the environment, handling individual complaints, examining and reporting on environmental human rights violations, and injecting a rights-based approach in environmental policy-making. A Network of Ombudsmen was created in 2017 in the Balkans to foster regional cooperation on these matters.

Protecting and empowering environmental activists

Environmental human rights defenders make a critical contribution in ensuring that state policies are consistent with human rights and in defending victims. However, these activists are amongst those most at risk of oppression and intimidation. I am concerned that, across Europe, peaceful environmental activists have been blocked from attending environmental summits, subjected to house arrest and surveillance measures, violent physical attacks and legislation that effectively impedes their ability to carry out their work. All too often, they are simply ignored by policy-makers. This must stop.

States must ensure the safety of environmental human rights defenders and guarantee enabling conditions for the work, as underscored in a recent resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council. Political leaders must also refrain from using language about environmental defenders that stigmatises them or otherwise undermines the fundamental importance of their engagement.

Time to act now

The UN Human Rights Committee recently warned: “[e]nvironmental degradation, climate change and unsustainable development constitute some of the most pressing and serious threats to the ability of present and future generations to enjoy the right to life”. The urgency, the interdependence between human rights and the environment, as well as the standards to be respected by states, are clear. We now must turn the page on poor governance and short-sighted, careless politicking, and act to preserve our future.

States must adopt – and adhere to - ambitious, holistic policies and measures to preserve the environment and biodiversity, combat air, water and soil pollution, mitigate climate change and ensure proper waste disposal. In doing so, they should pay extra attention to protect the rights of those most vulnerable, including children, the poor and marginalised communities who tend to be disproportionally affected by environmental degradation. Rather than a piecemeal approach that merely reacts to individual complaints, what is needed is a preventive approach at national and local level grounded in the human rights standards of the Council of Europe. This also means ensuring that environmental policies are accompanied by measures to protect the rights of those they may impact, including the right to work and to an adequate standard of living of those working in mining or heavy industries, for example. It is extremely important for states to educate people from an early age of the need to preserve the environment and teach them how to do so. Further, states must ensure people’s rights to information, participation and redress, and demonstrate their commitment to doing so by ratifying the Aarhus convention.

European countries must not disregard the consequences of the pollution produced on our continent for the human rights of people living in other parts of the world. Europe should strive to set an example in acting resolutely to prevent human rights violations caused by climate change.

I see an important role for the Council of Europe in helping member states prevent further violations of the ECHR related to environmental harm. The Organisation should insist on swift execution of the Court’s judgments related to environmental rights.

Finally, I encourage all member states of the Council of Europe to support current efforts to obtain explicit recognition, at the United Nations level, of the right to a healthy environment.[6] As shown above, many of the elements constitutive of this right are well-established. Over 25 member states of the Council of Europe have already included this right in their constitutions. International recognition would help clearly state the law, put a clean environment on par with other key objectives of social policy, and help raise awareness about the dramatic human rights impact of environmental pollution.

As Commissioner for Human Rights, I intend to do my part, notably by taking under scrutiny human rights violations caused by environmental degradation in my work. Environmental degradation and human suffering are flip sides of the same coin. Our efforts to protect human rights should therefore go hand in hand with protecting the environment. Let us clean up our common home together.

Dunja Mijatović


[1] See, for example, Tătar v. Romania (2009).

[2] See, for example, López Ostra v. Spain (1994).

[3] The UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention) has been ratified by 47 states, 41 of which are member states of the Council of Europe. Six member states (Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco, the Russian Federation, San Marino and Turkey) have not yet ratified it.

[4] See, for example, Guerra and Others v. Italy (1998); Giacomelli v. Italy (2006); Di Sarno v. Italy (2012); Öneryildiz v. Turkey (2004) and Fadeyeva v. Russia (2005).

[5] See, for example, Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Advisory Opinion nr 23, 2017, official summary.

[6] This could happen through various means, including a resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council or General Assembly, or the adoption of the Global Compact for the Environment, proposed by France, as explained by the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment.