Human Rights and the Environment

Debates organised by the Earth Focus Foundation and ICVolunteers
Students from the Aga Khan Academy of Mombasa, Kenya, participated in the recent human rights debate.
Students from the Aga Khan Academy of Mombasa, Kenya, participated in the recent human rights debate.
By Alister Bignell, traduction française Véronique Litet, traducción española Isabelle Guinebault
28 April 2008

A student-centred discussion on the future of environmental rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) took place on April 17th at the International Conference Centre of Geneva. Organised by the Earth Focus Foundation and ICVolunteers, the event included students from schools in Geneva and Mombasa, Kenya. It provided an opportunity to learn more about existing human rights documentation from panellists, and projects working towards their improvement and enforcement.

Panellists included Dr. Kirk Boyd, human rights lawyer and co-director of the International Convention on Human Rights (ICHR) Research Project, Dr. Bruna Molina-Faidutti, international human rights lawyer, and Vita de Waal, executive director of the Foundation for Gaia.

The ICHR Research Project is an initiative of the Berkeley University California School of Law, and seeks to address the future evolution of human rights legislation. Officially launched on February 29th 2008, the '2048' project seeks to both educate and engage students in human rights and the documents that embody them. The core document, the UDHR, has its 60th anniversary this year. "Where should that list of rights be in 2048?" queried Dr Boyd, referring to the '2048' project as a way of addressing this question.

The 2048 website acts as a human rights information reference and a forum for anyone to submit their ideas concerning the redrafting of the UDHR. Comments on the website are measured by weight of idea, not position, and are a means of encouraging international dialogue, according to Dr Boyd. One of the main points of this dialogue concerns integrating currently absent environmental rights into the UDHR. The panellists highlighted the inseparability of environmental and human rights, which had until recently been dealt with as independent issues. Defining these issues as interdependent in law would have a stronger impact on curtailing the effects of climate change, said Dr Boyd. Quoting Al Gore, he said, "It's important to change light bulbs, but it's more important to change the law.".

The law does not currently extend to include the UDHR, or go beyond state jurisdiction, according to Dr Molina-Faidutti. After detailing the current human rights conventions, she stressed the need for a universal, independent and autonomous human rights court free of state control. Such a court is part of the vision of the ICHR and the 2048 project, and will make human rights enforceable beyond a regional level. Dr Molina-Faidutti added that the lack of such a judicial system pertaining to human rights had led to the bypassing of fundamental rights, often with no one being held accountable. "We are coming in a rather dark age of human rights" he commented.

The accountability of corporations featured significantly in Vita de Waal's talk, where she highlighted the growing inequalities of globalisation and the interrelation of the environment and human rights. The effects of this interrelation can be seen in countries throughout Africa and Asia, where people have suffered the consequences of corporate exploitation of resources.

Speaking about loans to these countries Mrs de Waal said: "Most often there are strings attached. Resources must be set aside for corporations to come in and take them. They then leave and the country must deal with the mess." The International Monetary Fund (IMF), European Monetary Fund (EMF) and the World Bank (WB) frequently apply these conditions to loans, said de Waal.

The corporate exploitation of the environment and the on-going issues of bio-piracy (patenting of crops), continued because corporations are not legally required to sign treaties, said de Waal. The rare exceptions to this situation occurred mainly due to citizen action, continued de Waal, as seen in India, where people campaigned for a treaty to protect their crops.

Protecting water resources also remained imperative, which included redefining water as a right, not a commodity, said de Waal. She added that the use of water as a tradable item had led to exploitation of poorer countries by privatised water companies.

Yet the solution to the water shortage issue is available, but largely unknown or ignored. A solar powered air moisture extractor could be the answer to providing water virtually anywhere on earth, revealed de Waal.

This simple, field maintainable unit comprises a basic solar panel (easily made and maintained), a filter and a reservoir to hold the water. The unit works by cooling the air as it passes through refrigerated panels (kept cold by the solar panels), resulting in condensation that then drips down through the filter and collects in the reservoir.

The unit created enormous interest amongst the students, curious to know the costs and practicalities of such a contraption. Production on a large scale is possible to address the UN estimate of 1.1 billion people currently without access to safe drinking water, said de Waal. Obstacles remained with governments close ties with or reliance on water companies and a reluctance to invest in other countries manufacturing of the unit, according to de Waal.

Following de Waal's talk, students were split into smaller groups to allow for more in depth discussion with each of the panellists. The underlying theme for students appeared to be the frustration with the time taken for change to be affected, and the lack of laws concerning human rights.

During the afternoon, under the supervision of Frederik de Cock, Managing Partner, students presented and discussed specific topics related to environment and human rights. The debate raised controversial and challenging issues, highlighting different and sometimes alternatives or opposite perspectives and positions. How to conceal culture diversity and universality? How to combine the simple enunciation of principles with their enforceability? How to respect religious believes, minorities' rights, ethical convictions, private interests and national countries' jurisdictions at the same time? 

Assumed that change is now become a global priority, the assembly was confronted to the "grey zone" of compromise and had to find a balance between rights and duties, freedoms and responsibilities. The sincere efforts to a conceptual improvement of the Declaration came together with the unavoidable concern for its concrete implementation and realistic application. Students discussed where the environmental issue stands for developed and underdeveloped countries. They pointed out the importance of environmental education and showed a keen awareness of the fact that enforcement of official declarations is lacking.

The afternoon ended up with a formal mission statement globally agreed by the assembly:

"Having met and discussed environmental rights and human rights, we conclude that they are worthy of inclusion within an international convention of Human Rights. In addition, while there are various views, there is general agreement that these rights should be enforced. And these rights should be approached with a spirit of global collective responsibility".

See the photos from the debate.

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