Treaties and Legal Provisions on Human Rights and the Environment

Most human rights treaties were drafted and adopted before environmental protection became a matter of international concern. As a result, there are few references to environmental matters in international human rights instruments, although the rights to life and to health are certainly included and some formulations of the latter right make reference to environmental issues.

Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1948)
Despite its non-binding status, many of its provisions are now considered to be customary international law, reasserted in many international legal documents. The declaration does not refer to the environment directly. However, Article 25 acknowledges: "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services..." The term "including" indicates that the component elements listed were not meant to form an all-inclusive list, but serve as an indication of certain factors essential for an adequate standard of living. Therefore, it can be argued that satisfying the standards of the Declaration necessitates the environment being of sufficient quality to maintain human health and well-being.

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966)
As far as the environment is concerned, this covenant is not of great importance. On the right to life (Article 6(1)), it declares: "Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life."

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966)
This covenant guarantees the right to safe and healthy working conditions (Article 7 b) and the right of children and young persons to be free from work harmful to their health (Article 10-3). The right to health (Article 12) within the Covenant expressly calls on States parties to take steps for "the improvement of all aspects of environmental and industrial hygiene and the prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational, and other diseases.

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979)
This covenant obliges States parties to eliminate discrimination against women, particularly in rural areas, to ensure that women "enjoy adequate living conditions, particularly in relation to housing, sanitation, electricity and water supply, transport and communications" (Article 14 (2)(h)).

Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989)

This covenant refers to aspects of environmental protection in relation to the child's right to health. Article 24 provides that parties (States) shall take appropriate measures to combat disease and malnutrition through the provision of adequate nutritious foods and clean drinking water, taking into consideration the dangers and risks of environmental pollution. Article 24(2)(c). Information and education is to be provided to all segments of society on hygiene and environmental sanitation. (Article 24(2)(e).

ILO Convention concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries (1989)
This convention contains numerous references to the lands, resources, and environment of indigenous peoples (e.g., Articles 2, 6, 7, 15). Part II of the Convention addresses land issues, including the rights of the peoples concerned to the natural resources pertaining to their lands. Further, governments are to ensure adequate health services are available or provide resources to indigenous groups "so that they may enjoy the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health." (Article 25(1)). Article 30 requires that governments make known to the peoples concerned their rights and duties.

Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, (1998)
Also known as The Aarhus Convention, this important convention takes a comprehensive approach to the many international agreements, utilising procedural human rights to achieve better environmental protection in order to protect human health. Thirty-five States and the European Community have signed it already. The Convention builds on prior texts, especially Principle 1 of the Stockholm Declaration, which it incorporates and strengthens. The Preamble forthrightly proclaims, "Every person has the right to live in an environment adequate to his or her health and well-being, and the duty, both individually and in association with others, to protect and improve the environment for the benefit of present and future generations." [1]

United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007)
The UN General Assembly[2] on 7 September 2007 adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It's the first General Assembly Declaration on Human Rights which recognises the conservation and protection of the environment and resources as a Human Right. For indigenous people, that is. Article 29 of the Declaration declares:1. Indigenous peoples have the right to the conservation and protection of the environment and the productive capacity of their lands or territories and resources. States shall establish and implement assistance programmes for indigenous peoples for such conservation and protection, without discrimination.
2. States shall take effective measures to ensure that no storage or disposal of hazardous materials shall take place in the lands or territories of indigenous peoples without their free, prior and informed consent.
3. States shall also take effective measures to ensure, as needed, that programmes for monitoring, maintaining and restoring the health of indigenous peoples, as developed and implemented by the peoples affected by such materials, are duly implemented.
[1] The following paragraph adds that to be able to assert the right and observe the duty, citizens must have access to information, be entitled to participate in decision-making and have access to justice in environmental matters. These provisions are repeated in Article 1 where States parties agree to guarantee the rights of access to information, public participation, and access to justice. Article 19 opens the door to accession by States outside the ECE region; provided that they are members of the UN and that the Meeting of the Parties of the Convention approves the accession.[2] Taking note of the recommendation of the Human Rights Council contained in its resolution 1/2 of 29 June 2006, by which the Council adopted the text of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

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