Why should environmental protection be treated as a human rights issue? A human rights perspective directly addresses environmental impacts on individual humans rather than on other states or the environment in general. It helps to promote the rule of law: governments must regulate environmental nuisances, facilitate access to justice and enforce environmental laws and judicial decisions. It promotes public participation in decision-making by government and public bodies, enhancing the legitimacy and the quality of their decisions. It may secure higher standards of environmental quality, based on the obligation of states to take measures to control pollution affecting health and private life. Lastly, it provides a basis for broadening economic and social rights to embrace environmental quality and the public interest in environmental protection – in effect the idea that there is or should be, in some form, a right to a decent environment. Potentially, amending the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in this way could provide a mechanism for balancing environmental claims against competing economic objectives. It would modernise the Covenant, while also giving it greater coherence and consistency with contemporary international environmental law and policy. In that form it could give human rights law something to contribute to the challenge of global climate change and might help to counter-act the evident inaction of states revealed by the Copenhagen and Cancun negotiations.
There is thus no shortage of reasons for advancing a human rights agenda with respect to protection of the environment. In 2011 the UN Human Rights Council decided to commission a study of human rights and the environment. This article considers the major problems and possible solutions. What more could the UN could contribute to the development of human rights approaches to environmental protection? To answer that question requires us to stand back and review the range of options that merit further attention. Broadly, we can identify five difficult questions that should occupy us in this context: the application of human rights treaties to transboundary environmental nuisances; the accountability of business and the private sector for violation of human rights and environmental norms; the development of public interest procedural rights in an environmental context; the development of a right to a decent environment; and the adoption of a declaration or some other instrument for codifying and progressively developing the law.