Human rights and environmental law have traditionally been envisaged as two distinct, independent spheres of rights. Towards the last quarter of the 20th century, however, the perception arose that the cause of protection of the environment could be promoted by setting it in the framework of human rights, which had by then been firmly established as a matter of international law and practice. Because of the many complex issues that arise when these two seemingly distinct spheres interact, it is to be expected that there are different views on how to approach ‘human rights and the environment’.

  • The first approach is one where environmental protection is described as a possible means of fulfilling human rights standards. Here, environmental law is conceptualized as ‘giving a protection that would help ensure the well-being of future generations as well as the survival of those who depend immediately upon natural resources for their livelihood.’ Here, the end is fulfilling human rights, and the route is through environmental law.
  • The second approach places the two spheres in inverted positions – it states that ‘the legal protection of human rights is an effective means to achieving the ends of conservation and environmental protection.’ The second approach therefore highlights the presently existing human rights as a route to environmental protection. The focus is on the existing human right. In this context, there exists a raging debate on whether one should recognize an actual and independent right to a satisfactory environment as a legally enforceable right. This would obviously shift the emphasis onto the environment and away from the human rights. These are the subtle distinctions between the two ways in which this approach can be taken.
  • A third approach to the question of ‘human rights and the environment’ is to deny the existence of any formal connection between the two at all. According to this approach, there is no requirement for an ‘environmental human right.’ The argument goes that, since the Stockholm Conference in 1972, international environmental law has developed to such extents that even the domestic environments of states has been internationalized. In light of the breadth of environmental law and policy, and the manner in which it intrudes into every aspect of environmental protection in an international sense and notwithstanding the concept of state sovereignty, it is argued that it is unnecessary to have a separate human right to a decent environment. This view militates against the confusion of the two distinct spheres of human rights law and environmental law. However, there are many who oppose this view. They argue that there is in fact a benefit to bringing environmental law under the ambit of human rights. Environmental law has in many parts of the world, be it at the international or domestic level, suffered from the problem of standing. Because of this barrier, it is often difficult for individuals or groups to challenge infringements of environmental law, treaties or directives, as the case may be.

There has been a great deal of debate on the theoretical soundness of the idea of a human right or rights to a satisfactory environment. For one thing, there can occasionally be a conflict, or tension, between the established human rights and the protection of the environment per se. There are circumstances where the full enjoyment of the rights to life, to healthy living and to ones culture can lead to the depletion of natural resources and environmental degradation. Nevertheless, clearly there is a prima facie rhetorical and moral advantage in making the environment a human rights issue. There has been a simultaneous increase in ‘legal claims for both human rights and environmental goods,’ which is a clear reflection of the link between ‘human’ and the ‘environment’ and the dependence of human life on the environment.

"In the future, human rights will be increasingly a universal criterion for designing ethical systems".
-- Mahnaz Afkhami