Virunga Human Rights Day: We Stand up for our Rights and the Right of a Healthy Environment

“I dream of our vast deserts, of our forests, of all our great wildernesses. We must never forget that it is our duty to protect this environment.” — Nelson Mandela.

On December 10th  we commemorate  Human Rights Day, the day the United Nations General Assembly adopted in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This year the Universal Declaration of Human Rights also turns 70 years. Today more than ever the UN has the duty to recognise the right for a healthy environment and help protect those who risk their lives to protect places like Virunga, its forests, wildlife and local populations.

“If we can’t protect them, then how can we protect the environment we all depend on” — John Knox, former UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment

Today we take action to uphold this right that protect us all.

It should be added that individuals, as well as groups, not only have the right to an adequate environment, but also the duty to protect and improve the environment. They have this responsibility not only towards other individuals or the community in which they live but towards mankind as a whole and even “future generations.”

Source: UN


We humans are, as Virginia W. Rasmussen put it, technological creatures and “tinkering is our nature.”2 Tinkering with nature is, unfortunately, not always done intelligently enough to avoid its impairment. People are not aware, or not aware enough, of the consequences of ecologically unsound activities. Many such activities, and primarily those linked to the improper use of science and technology, are going on in the world, causing deforestation, desertification, pollution of air, water, and land, damage to many plant and animal species and threats to other renewable as well as non-renewable resources of our planet.

Homo sapiens “has acquired the power to transform his environment in countless ways and on an unprecedented scale. Both aspects of man’s environment, the natural and the man-made, are essential to his well-being and to the enjoyment of basic human rights – even the right to life itself.”3 W.J.M. Mackenzie wrote that “man had been too successful as an animal; . . . by his ever accelerating growth in numbers and skills he threatened his environment and therefore (as the laws of population ecology require) his own future as a species.”4 Man’s ability to change his environment for better or for worse is, by the way, not a new development at all. Already prehistoric man could, by using fire for instance, drastically change his environment “intentionally or by accident.” “The traces of man-made fires lie over the whole prehuman world.”it is not strange that modern archaeology is concerned, besides other things, with ecology.


Our intention is certainly not to review the whole of environmental law, which has during the last two decades evolved into one of the most dynamic and expanding branches of international 6 as well as national law, but to reconsider only some problems which are more interesting than many others from the standpoint of the human rights problematic. It should be stressed, however, that all regulation in this field impinges directly or indirectly on human rights. It may be action against desertification, attempts to lessen or stop acid rain, better control of food production, efforts to make human settlements more habitable, or any other activity in the vast field of the environment, but it always protects or improves some human right.

Although this development has been rapid it is still inadequate in many fields, in spite of the fact that basic principles have been developed. Serious efforts at regulation in a more concrete way (by international conventions, by institutional arrangement, and in other ways) must be undertaken, on a global, regional, sub regional, or bilateral basis. That means more concrete legal regulation at all levels, as well as additional work on elaboration of basic principles, and in the first place of the principle of “liability and compensation for the victims of pollution and other environmental damage,” as formulated in the Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (Principle 22). Besides that, it should be kept in mind that states are responsible not only towards other states and the international community as a whole, but also towards their own citizens, who have the right to a healthy environment.

The enjoyment of all human rights is closely linked to the environmental issue. Not only rights to life and health in the first place, but also other social, economic, cultural, as well as political and civil rights, can be fully enjoyed only in a sound environment. And certainly, to go to an extreme, they cannot be enjoyed at all if the environment becomes impaired beyond a certain critical level. The whole of mankind could in such a case perish together with all its civilization, including human rights. The worse the environment becomes, the more impaired are human rights, and vice versa. That is the reason why there is the need for sustainable development and that means, in the first place, ecologically sound development of economies, science and technology, and all other fields. This is a sine qua non for both protection of the environment and further promotion of human rights.

Besides the undeniable interdependence between the environmental issue and all human rights, a new human right – the right to an adequate environment – is emerging. This right, still not precisely formulated, appears in documents and in literature, in some cases as a collective and in other cases as an individual human right.


The right to an adequate environment or, as it is termed in some texts, a satisfactory environment, is one of the so-called third-generation or solidarity rights. It can be found in international documents of both a declaratory and formally binding nature, as well as in domestic legislative and other acts of a number of countries, including some constitutions.7 The African Charter, for instance, proclaims that: “All peoples shall have the right to a general satisfactory environment favorable to their development.”8 In the Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm, 1972) it appears, however, also as an individual right. The Declaration states that: “Man has the 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 and he bears a solemn responsibility to protect and improve the environment for present and future generations.”9 It appears as an individual right also in the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, which proposes, as one of the legal principles for environmental protection and sustainable development, that:

“All human beings have the fundamental right to an environment adequate for their health and well-being.”10 Finally, it should be noted that elements of this right can be found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as in both Covenants,11 although the environment as such is scarcely mentioned in the documents.

It should be added that individuals, as well as groups, not only have the right to an adequate environment, but also the duty to protect and improve the environment. They have this responsibility not only towards other individuals or the community in which they live but towards mankind as a whole and even “future generations.”12 It is a responsibility which certainly collides in many cases with the enjoyment of their other rights, be they common citizens or those who, as scientists, technicians, decision-makers or in any other way, are more closely linked to scientific or technological development, environmental protection, health protection, or other cognate fields.


The environmental issue undoubtedly adds a new dimension to the problematic of human rights. In the first place, it shows once again that all human rights are closely interlinked, and, secondly, that the problematic of human rights is inseparable from practically all other processes in human society, and especially from economic development and the progress of science and technology. The main conclusion – that the most acceptable model of further development of human society is the model of sustainable development – has its roots primarily in the environmental issue. Policy in all fields of human activity must be environmentally sound. This is especially so in the field of human rights, which cannot be enjoyed without an adequate environment. Further development of science and technology will be beneficial to human society (i.e. it will further promote human rights) only if it is environmentally sound. Besides that, the environmental issue shows in a very clear way that all human rights should be regulated and enjoyed in a balanced way, or to put it better, in a sustainable way. That means that civil and political rights, on the one hand, and economic, social, and cultural rights on the other are needed equally and should be protected and promoted by all means. Finally, the rapid development of environmental law, together with the closely interlinked, and dialectically inseparable, law of sustainable development, are contributing to the development of international law in general and especially human rights law. We fully agree with the statement of His Excellency Judge Nagendra Singh that the efforts of the World Commission on Environment and Development to, inter alia “forge and develop the law governing the environment. . . opens up a new chapter in the history of international law.”45 This is so because that effort succeeded in efficiently combining environment and development in the concept of sustainable development.

Naturally, this ecological and holistic view collides with many present human activities, especially in the field of science and technology. A good deal of what is nowadays regarded as the “progressive development of science and technology” has to be reconsidered and changed or entirely stopped. That means also that a good deal of economic activity must be transformed into what is ecologically sound and socially and politically acceptable. Besides that, many other activities, including lifestyles, should be changed, especially in the developed parts of the world. All this, we are aware, is not easy to attain, especially in the short run. The realities of our world will allow only a slow, step-by-step approach but that does not mean that the distant goal of a more ecologically, economically, morally and politically sound, and ipso facto a more just, world order should not be sought.

Excerpt from Human rights and scientific and technological development (9. Human rights and environmental issues) 

More on Right to a Healthy Environment – 2018

Submitted by John Knox & D… on Thu, 07/19/2018 – 17:27

Pursuant to Human Rights Council resolution 37/8, the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment submits his first report to the General Assembly. In the report, the Special Rapporteur recommends that the Assembly recognize the human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Drawing on the extensive experience with this right at the national and regional levels, he explains why the time has come for such recognition by the United Nations.

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