Healthy Environment is our Fundamental Human Right

N. Munal Meitei, Environmentalist

N. Munal Meitei

Human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom of expression, the right to work and education inherent to all human beings. Human Rights Day is observed on 10th December with this year’s theme, ‘Consolidating and Sustaining Human Rights Culture into the Future’. Human rights and the environment are intertwined; human rights cannot be enjoyed without a safe, clean and healthy environment and whilst polluted, hazardous and otherwise unhealthy environments potentially violate human rights.

Humanity as a participant in the ecosystems, at the center of ecology, health, as well as human rights are entitled to live in harmony with nature. Climate change interferes the fundamentals of human rights – including the right to life, health, culture, food, self-determination, property and to development. The poorest and most vulnerable will suffer first, and perhaps most, but ultimately to everyone.

A human rights perspective directly addresses environmental impacts on the life, health, private life and property of individuals. Man is both a creature and a moulder of his environment, which gives him the opportunity for intellectual, moral, social and spiritual growth.

The right to life cannot be realised without the basic right to clean air, water and land. There are two main approaches to human rights and the environment: the use of existing human rights and the need for new human rights for a safe and clean environment. The rights we have already are civil, political, economic, social and cultural. Civil and political rights provide for moral and political order. The right to health recognises the need for environmental improvement.

All human beings depend on the environment in which we live. A sustainable environment is integral to getting the full meaning of a wide range of human rights, including the rights to life, health, food, water and sanitation. Without a healthy environment, we are unable to fulfill our aspirations and dignity. Protecting human rights helps to protect the environment. When people are able to learn about and participate in decision making including the right to manage their own natural resources then they can ensure for a sustainable environment.

Articulating a right to a decent or healthy environment within the context of economic, social, and cultural rights is not inherently problematic. The environment thus brings together the existing civil, political, economic and social rights in one coherent way to re-conceptualize human rights on the environment as a public interest and responsibility for all.

Using existing human rights law to grapple with the environment is more challenging. The response of human rights law – if it is to have one – needs to be in global terms, treating the global environment and climate as the common concern of humanity. The policies of individual states on energy use, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, land use and deforestation could be scrutinized and balanced against the evidence of their global impact on human rights and the environment.

In recent years, the relationship between human rights and environmental issues has become an issue of vigorous debate. Stockholm Declaration, 1972 establishes a foundation for the fundamental human rights to live in dignity in a healthy environment for the present and future. In 1992, twenty years later at the Earth Summit, Rio Declaration mentioned mankind being at the centre of sustainable development, environmental protection and human rights cannot be isolated one another.

The human right to a healthy environment is controversial, inter alia, because it has individual as well as collective aspects. The right to health embraces a wide range of socio-economic factors such as food and nutrition, housing, access to safe and potable water and adequate sanitation, safe and healthy working conditions and a healthy environment.

Article 51-A (g) of the Indian Constitution also envisages all persons to have the right to secure a healthy and ecologically sound environment. Such rights including civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights are universal, interdependent and indivisible. When environmental rights are violated, people and the planet suffer from reduced health and well-being.

Climate change threatens all human rights, disproportionately affecting those who are already in vulnerable situations. Rights to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is crucial to tackling the unprecedented climate crisis that is threatening human rights and the future of the planet. It recognizes that the protection of the environment is equally important for the enjoyment of human rights and ecosystem services. Biodiversity loss also has enormous implications for human rights and well-being.

In the face of environmental degradation, equality for all also means advancing the right to a healthy environment and climate justice. These impacts disproportionately the persons, groups and peoples in vulnerable situations and exacerbate existing inequalities that negatively affect the human rights of present and future generations.

Climate change impacts human rights in a big way with increased temperature, melting polar ice, rising sea levels, increased drought, high-density rainfalls, cyclones, floods, landslides and forest fires and the poorest of the poor suffer the most. Therefore to enjoy the full dignity of human rights for all, we should conserve our environment.

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