Defining our rights to a healthy environment

Saturday February 18, 2017 Written by Published in Environment
The signs of an unhealthy lagoon have confronted many beach-goers over the last few years. The sight of green weed piled up on beaches around the island has unfortunately become common. 17021763 The signs of an unhealthy lagoon have confronted many beach-goers over the last few years. The sight of green weed piled up on beaches around the island has unfortunately become common. 17021763

This weekly column is supplied by Te Ipukarea Society. It deals with conservation and environment matters of concern to the Cook Islands.

Most people would agree that all human beings deserve the right to a healthy environment, but what exactly are your rights when it comes to the environment? 

To be enforceable, rights must be embedded in fundamental legal documents. In this article Te Ipukarea Society looks into some of the international laws relating to people’s rights to having a healthy environment. 

According to The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), more than two million annual deaths and billions of cases of diseases are attributed to pollution. All over the world, people experience the negative effects of environmental degradation and ecosystems decline.  These include water shortage, fisheries depletion, natural disasters due to deforestation and unsafe management and disposal of toxic and dangerous wastes and products.

Since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was ratified by United Nations (UN) member countries in 1948, the principle of basic human rights has gained global acceptance. No global consensus existed before the UDHR stated that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” 

Among its 30 articles, the declaration asserts that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person, and guarantees to all people the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being. 

That last guarantee has been elaborated in subsequent international agreements, including the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child which the Cook Islands is signatory to, which states that nations will: “recognise the right of the child to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health,” and specifically notes that governments will take measures that account for “the dangers and risks of environmental pollution.”

There are three main dimensions of the interrelationship between human rights and environmental protection:

A healthy environment as a pre-requisite for the enjoyment of human rights (implying that human rights obligations of States should include the duty to ensure the level of environmental protection necessary to allow the full exercise of protected rights); Certain human rights, especially access to information, participation in decision-making, and access to justice in environmental matters, as essential to good environmental decision-making (implying that human rights must be implemented in order to ensure environmental protection); and 

The right to a safe, healthy and ecologically-balanced environment as a human right in itself (this approach has been debated).

The right to a healthy environment was first explicitly recognized in the Stockholm (1972) and Rio (1992) declarations as nonbinding principles. Those declarations were not intended to create legal rights and obligations. However, they did contribute to the development of international and national law.

In more recent times there have been several calls from different UN bodies to address the issues of human rights in conjunction with the environment.  The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) by Resolution 2005/60 requested the High Commissioner and invited UNEP, UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) and other relevant bodies and organisations:

“To continue to coordinate their efforts in activities relating to human rights and the environment in poverty eradication, post-conflict environmental assessment and rehabilitation, disaster prevention, post-disaster assessment and rehabilitation, to take into consideration in their work relevant findings and recommendations of others and to avoid duplication.” (paragraph 8). 

There is, of course, an integral link between the right to a healthy environment and other human rights. Indeed, it may often be easier to address environmental concerns through other human rights than through the as yet not well-defined right to a healthy environment. 

The deterioration of the environment affects the right to life, health, work and education, among other rights. Pollution of lakes and waters in a large number of countries has seriously affected the ability of fishermen to earn a decent living from their traditional work. 

Health problems caused by air and water pollution resulting from effluents of nearby (or distant) factories have been well documented. Poisoning from lead-in paint, gasoline and other sources-has been shown to affect children’s ability to learn.

In respect to Human Rights there are nine core international treaties. The core treaties address economic, social and cultural rights, civil and political rights, the elimination of racial and gender discrimination, protection against torture and forced disappearance and the rights of women, children, migrants, persons with disabilities. 

Cook Islands is a signatory to only three of these important treaties.

Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) Ratified in 1997.

Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) Ratified in 2006, and

Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (ICRPD), ratified in 2009.

One of the most important of the nine core treaties is the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), it is the oldest of the nine having come into effect in 1965. The Cook Islands has neither ratified nor signed the ICESCR, but perhaps should consider doing so. The environment is mentioned directly in the ICESCR in article 12(2) on the right to health: 

“The steps to be taken by the States Parties to the present Covenant to achieve the full realization of this right shall include those necessary for . . . (b) The improvement of all aspects of environmental and industrial hygiene.”

In 2007, cabinet appointed the Office of the Ombudsman to head the Cook Islands Human Rights Office. It has been tasked to set up a Human Rights mechanism within the Cook Islands. 

So, if you have a concern about whether your rights are not being respected, you should contact the Ombudsman.

Leave a comment