Political, social, economic and cultural rights are promoted and protected in almost every corner of the world through treaties, agreements and conventions that have been developed and strengthened through the years. However, it is still unclear where environmental rights stand in this universal human rights system

Environmental human rights is a concept probably not many are accustomed to hearing, but what if understanding this notion or idea could help us reclaim that which we most certainly need? 

What are environmental human rights?

In order to understand what environmental human rights encompass, we first need to comprehend how human rights are divided in three different categories, also known as generations. The latter three correspond to the development of rights themselves throughout history; on the one hand, first generation rights refer mainly to civil and political rights, while second generation rights concern socio-economic and cultural rights. The main difference between these two is that the second requires some kind of institutional support. 

But environmental rights are considered third-generation rights, which still to this day bring up many philosophical arguments among scholars and regulators. As explained in ‘The Generations of Human Rights’, third generation rights require not only the need to create an institutional support by the State, but (…) they need to restrict the first generation of rights, through a so called “positive discrimination”, in the sense that these rights (…) require a limitation of rights of first generation. The environmental law allows social groups to live in a healthy environment, clean, without harmful agents to health but, at the same time, involves a number of limitations of rights of first or second generation, like owning a forest (…). 

This explanation can help us understand why third generation rights are also known as solidarity rights, that is, rights that can not be exercised individually but collectively instead. Rights such as the right of people to self-determination, the right to development or environmental law itself. Additionally, in the line of solidarity, we could consider environmental rights as rights of future generations. 

It is important to note that individual human rights sometimes fail to warrant sufficient protection for minorities; this is where collective rights enter into place, allowing for recognition and protection of their health, security and environment. And as well as group rights emerged in more recent years, it is possible for other types of rights to emerge and eventually be considered human rights.

The main challenges for exercising environmental human rights

The rise of environmental rights have changed the notion of human rights as we know them today, as these are rights that can only be viewed as group rights, but it has also brought new questions and challenges to the idea of collective human rights. On the one hand, environmental rights are group rights whose addressee is supranational, meaning the environment does not have national borders; and on the other hand, they invoke the rights of future generations like any other political, legal or social framework has ever done before.

Although the most coherent answer to the question of the addressee for environmental rights could be that of nation states or governments, as they are the main addressees of human rights as a whole, and indeed in the international arena power is measured out along national lines, when it comes to the environment, all nations, in one way or another, affect the natural world in a negative way and  have an impact on their neighboring states. This is, environmental issues are global and cannot be constrained to particular nation-states or territories

Another important aspect of the environmental rights dilemma is the idea of intergenerational justice. This term is conflictive since it raises the question of whether future generations can be seen as holding legitimate rights against present generations. Traditionally, when scholars discuss matters of justice, they focus on interactions among existing people, however, environmental issues, such as climate change, are inseparable from the future generations. This is what makes environmental rights unique; they have the potential to change the relationship between present and future generations.

A window of hope and legal recognition

Far from being utopic, environmental rights, or the right to a safe environment, have been recognized in a number of legal texts or agreements, although they are not fully incorporated into international law, as the responses to environmental obligations vary between countries and territories. 

Nonetheless, this has not stopped the drafting and writing of  numerous international documents invoking the recognition of environmental obligations by using the language of human rights:

For example, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) or the UN Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. The first one acknowledges a child’s right to the highest standard of health which includes the right to clean water, taking into consideration the dangers and risks of environmental pollution’. The second one included a draft principle that states human rights, an ecologically sound environment, sustainable development and peace are interdependent and indivisible’

In this regard, although much needs to be done to push the effective exercise of environmental human rights forward, it is crucial to understand all which the concept encompasses, but most importantly, how it is a matter of collective action and determination.

Engagement and transparency

In DoGood we believe that it is precisely through engaging with all stakeholders that we can enhance the value of our project and help pave the way to a more healthy and sustainable future. We want to serve as a benchmark for improvement and building of a strategy by prioritizing transparency and measurable information in order to bring light to the scope of the environmental responsibility and sustainability performance of an organization.

In this regard, it is essential to our work to promote good corporate governance, meaning that the processes of disclosure and transparency are followed so as to provide regulators and shareholders as well as the general public with precise and accurate information about the financial, operational and other aspects of the company, including a more accurate definition of the ESG performance.

We have developed a corporate government tool that helps establish ESG impact objectives for employees in regards to the sustainability strategy of the company. Through our technology we are able to activate and track employees’ impact, creating engagement that translates into improved ESG metrics, reputational value and an overall positive impact for the environment and society. 

If you want to know more about how we work to create a positive social and environmental impact, click here.