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Environment Essay: The evolution of the linkage between the environment and human rights

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The United Nations (UN) Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm in 1972, declared that: man’s environment, the natural and the man-made, are essential to his well-being and to the enjoyment of basic human rightseven the right to life itself.

Today, the relationship between the environment and human rights has long been recognised and has evolved in many ways. This essay will attempt to analyse the connection between the environment and human rights. Because of limitations on length, it will broadly place human rights within the framework of a holistic view of development (i.e., one that lends importance to more that simply economic development). It will also discuss their relationship within the discourse of Sustainable Development, a principal concept linking the environment and human rights.

The UN Conference on the Human Environment was held at a time when development discourse was dominated by theories of dependency, world systems, and modes of production. The Stockholm conference importantly acknowledged that environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens, and in that capacity established not just the importance of sustaining the environment because it provides for life and basic human rights, but also the importance of sustaining basic human rights in an attempt to defend the environment. Though the need to protect the environment had long been recognised, this conference paved the way for the environment and development to be discussed as a single issue something that did not occur until the Brundtland Report in 1987.

The Brundtland Report launched the term Sustainable Development (SD), or development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs (WCED, 1987: 43). Although it is often regarded as a dangerously slippery concept (The Economist, 2002) the common characteristic of most definitions of the term is the emphasis on equity both across and within generations. Barrow (1995: 17) identifies ten themes that characterise conventional SD:

– maintenance of ecological integrity;
– integration of environmental care and development;
– adoption of an international stance;
– satisfaction of basic human needs for all;
– stress for normative planning;
– stress on application of science to development problems;
– acceptance of some economic growth;
– attaching a proper value to the natural and cultural environment;
– the adoption of a long-term view of development; and, again
– a call for inter- as well as intra- generational equality

SD has introduced and affirmed many new concepts into the development arena including, but not limited to, a rights-based approach to development and the importance of the environment. The environment played a central role in the Brundtland Report, and it was subsequently attacked for being eco-centric.

The Brundtland Report was followed up by the UN Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Though the Rio conference set in motion a trend towards human (rather than environmental) rights, it still held the environment in the limelight. Moreover, ‘rights to information, participation and remedies in respect to environmental conditions’ formed the focus of the Rio declaration (Shelton, 2002: 2), thus accentuating the importance of human rights in environmental protection.

Since Rio, concern for the environment has (rightly) continued to grow. However, the tendency toward concern for human rather than environmental rights within the sustainable agenda (i.e., a growing concern for the intra- (as opposed to inter-) generational equality) has continued as it is acknowledge that we cannot ignore the deprived today in trying to prevent deprivation in the future (Anand and Sen, 2000: 2030). Many of the alternate definitions of SD have tried, with varying degrees, of success, to resolve the seemingly contradictory notion inherent to SD development frequently involved capitalist or industrial development, and thus the reference to sustainability is certainly then undermined by the paradox of what this type of ‘development’ means for the environment (Redclift, 1987).

Conventional wisdom holds that Southern nations are too preoccupied with economic survival to worry about environmental quality (Dunlap: 1994: 115), something that was, to some extent, reflected in the Rio conference. Governments of developing countries wanted to discuss the idea of ‘development’, and the governments of richer countries that of ‘sustainability’ (to the neglect of development) (Dunlap: 1994: 115). Though economic development need not be unequivocally associated with environmental degradation it must also be recognised that nations (or perhaps more importantly, people within nations) will rightly put more focus on sustaining people’s well-being than the environment’s. In short, though some government policies in the developing world may be viewed as inconclusive because they fall short of protecting natural resources, such seemingly ‘irrational’ policies may reflect economic necessity in countries that have little choice but to perpetuate practices that contribute to environmental degradation in the absence of alternate sources of income (Bryant and Bailey, 1997: 59).

This view of environmental protection versus human rights was pertinent at the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development (or Rio + 10), held in Johannesburg in 1992. In the run-up to the summit African leaders made it clear that they expected to talk about jobs, not birds (The Economist, 2002b). The Economist stated that without ‘concrete’ or ‘pragmatic’ action to fight poverty, fine words on greenery, global warming or fish stocks will come to naught (The Economist, 2002b). In other words, sustaining deprivation cannot be our goal (Anand and Sen, 2000: 2030), and whilst surely the conditions for most of the world’s poor can be sustained, the issue is that they should not be (Marcuse, 1998: 106). SD is often received with hostility in LDCs where it is seen as an attempt to challenge the developing world’s elemental right to develop: after all, grinding poverty, it turns out, is pretty sustainable (The Economist, 2002b).

The achievement of environmental protection and respect for human rights can only be reached if we do not succumb to the notion that they are mutually exclusive. Human life, and human rights, cannot exist without a relatively healthy environment, and the environment cannot be protected without the acceptance and protection of basic human rights. Though aspects of each may at times need to be sacrificed for progress in the other, it remains vital to navigate the obstacles and move towards a sustainable world.

Anand, S. and Sen, A. (2000) ‘Human Development and Economic Sustainability’, World Development, 28 (12), 2029-2049.
Barrow, C. J. (1995) ‘Sustainable Development: Concept, Value and Practice’, Third World Planning Review, 17(4), 369-386.
Bryant, R. L. and Bailey, S. (1997) Third World Political Ecology, London: Routledge.
Dunlap, R. (1994) ‘International Attitudes Towards Environment and Development’, in Helge Ole Bergensen and Georg Parmann (eds.), Green Globe Yearbook of International Co-operation on Environment and Development, Oxford: Oxford University Press), 115-126.
Marcuse, P. (1998) ‘Sustainability is not enough’, Environment and Urbanization, 10(2), 103-111.
Redclift, M. (1987) Sustainability: life chances and livelihood, London: Routledge.
Shelton, D. (2002) Human Rights and Environment Issues in Multilateral Treaties Adopted between 1991 and 2001, background paper for the Joint UNEP-OHCHR Expert Seminar on Human Rights and the Environment, Geneva, 14-16 January 2002.
The Economist (2002) The Johannesburg Summit: Sustaining the poor’s development, 29 August 2002.
The Economist (2002b) Africa expects to talk about jobs, not birds, 22 August 2002.
WCED (1987) Our Common Future, The Brundtland Report, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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