Edited by Anna Grear and Louis J. Kotzé
Chapter 12: The United Nations, human rights and the environment
In the past five years, the ‘environmental rights revolution’ reached an apex when two states in Latin America created constitutional rights for nature itself. This development represents the culmination or extension of a decades-long process of codification of environmental rights for humans in more than 90 national constitutions. Constitutional environmental rights have made real, measurable, and substantial impacts on domestic legislation, litigation and, most importantly, environmental performance. In the rise of environmental human rights, it would seem at first blush that individual nation-states have played a dominant role. Regional human rights institutions, influential scholarship and ambitious civil society activism have also made major contributions to the evolution of environmental human rights. The casual observer might reasonably believe that the important efforts of non-United Nations (UN) actors have eclipsed the role of the UN in this field. However, a close examination of the history and progression of environmental human rights throughout the world demonstrates that the UN has played a crucial role in both catalyzing and consolidating the recognition of human rights in the environment. This chapter will survey the UN’s involvement in the emergence of environmental human rights in the global legal order, and will make proposals for future UN action in this area. In particular, the author suggests that the UN should continue to emphasize the necessity of environmental protection in the stewardship of all human rights, while providing guidance on the existence and content of the free-standing right to a healthy environment. A General Assembly resolution clearly recognizing the right to environment would provide a solid foundation on which to begin the process of negotiating a specific binding multi-lateral treaty committing states to respect, protect and promote environmental human rights on all levels.
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