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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


July-August 2007

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Bytes of Note - Environment and Human Rights

Over the past several years, many intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations have made efforts to frame a wide range of environmental issues as human rights issues, including water and sanitation; pollution; disasters; global warming; sustainable development; and biodiversity.

The subject of human rights in general is highly complex with a decades-long history in the international arena. A familiar starting point is the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in December 1948. The declaration has many of the same principles as the United States Bill of Rights. While the Universal Declaration enumerates basic rights of people in less than 2,000 words, the current UN employee human rights handbook stretches to 116 pages and describes the roles of various agreements and UN bodies in international human rights law.

A series of background papers prepared for a joint 2002 UN Environment Programme/UN High Commissioner for Human Rights seminar on environmental human rights is available. The European Parliament has sponsored a preliminary report that analyzes pros and cons and speculates on “actionable” environmental human rights law.

While Tufts University’s list of multilateral treaties covers human rights in general, it also includes the 1994 Draft Declaration of Principles on Human Rights and the Environment. In a similar vein, the University of Minnesota’s online Human Rights Library includes the 1972/1973 Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, which states in part that people have a “fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being.” Figuring out the place of environmental rights concerns among other recognized human rights is a key task, with considerable overlap. For example, important studies in domestic water use such as the Drawers of Water project have shown that women’s rights are closely linked to water rights.

Amnesty International, the most prominent advocacy organization for human rights, has an environmental component within its “Business and Human Rights” program. In addition, the nonprofit Center for International Environmental Law has a capacity-building program, including an international fellowship on human rights and the environment.

Finally, while thinking about the environment in human rights terms has become more prominent in recent years, it may not be such a new idea. For example, Jewish and Islamic laws have long recognized the right of thirst—people and their livestock have a right to drink when they are thirsty, and the right extends to community outsiders (Mélanne A. Civic, “A Comparative Analysis of the Israeli and Arab Water Law Traditions…”; Dante A. Caponera, “Ownership and Transfer of Water and Land in Islam”; and James Salzman, “Thirst: A Short History of Drinking Water.” More recently, the World Council of Churches and other Christian ecumenical organizations have also recognized a right to water.

GEORGE E. CLARK is the environmental resources librarian at the Harvard College Library. Material for Bytes of Note may be directed to him at

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