The human right to a healthy environment

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Pictured is two hands holding a pile of small leaves in a heart shape. The environment should be considered a human right, and, to some activists, is equivalent to some of the freedoms mentioned in the 1st Amendment. Photo credit to Min An

Does the environment count as a human right? Who checks if human rights organizations are doing their job? How do human rights organizations keep up with globalization? Bi Zhao, professor of human rights and political science at Whitworth University, presented her research on climate change activism to the human rights organization Amnesty International.  

Activists would view environmental human rights as being equivalent to freedom of speech, assembly and association, according to Zhao. Another form of human rights can include those legalized in treaties and declarations. This conceptualization began at the Stockholm Conference in 1972. At the conference, environmental rights were put at the forefront of human rights, Zhao said. Documents like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples stated the rights for people to have access to food, shelter, sanitation and water.  

“While the world today may have fewer dictators than the 1960s, what we do have now is climate change and growing environmental pressures and deprivation,” Zhao said. “So, it is crucial to understand how these two norms and movements converge. How the framework of environmental human rights might impact human-nature relations and the power dynamics that many human rights activists seek to change.”  

Amnesty International (AI)  is an independent human rights organization founded in the United Kingdom in 1961. According to Amnesty International’s site, AI is an independent human rights organization that uses research to lobby against governments and corporations on the abuses of international law.  

It was not until 2001 that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) formally legalized the recognition of economic, cultural and social rights. Despite this movement, there was pushback from human rights experts because of the ambiguity in identifying victims, perpetrators and solutions in this new mission for human rights organizations. To examine AI’s effectiveness in fighting for human rights,  Zhao examined 32 AI Urgent Action and annual reports from 1998 to 2022.  

Urgent Action reports are letters usually to heads of state which are composed by AI members, citing the background of the international law violation, legal evidence to support their stance and recommendations to remedy the situation. She noticed that AI usually mentions the right to a healthy environment only in politically motivated contexts or crises cases for racial, ethnic and religious minorities or citizens of political conflict.  

Zhao gave the example of AI issuing a statement to Indonesia but referring specifically to the Shia, a religious minority. Another example is the AI statement given to the Israeli government due to its treatment of Palestinians. She said that Urgent Actions can also serve as an educative tool to the public space. Zhao hopes to continue her research by looking at other global campaigns and human dignity reports.  

 “Their [AI’s] research and information are often from partnering with local NGOs. One of them prominently is Global Witness, which does a lot of this environmental work,” Zhao said. “Non-state actors partner with those on the ground, like local community organizations. It’s where you make the connection and have the correct information from grassroots to advocacy.” 

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