If we want a world where our human and environmental rights are elevated, we must place as much importance on our responsibilities to humanity and the planet as we put on our rights.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) sets forth the fundamental rights belonging to every individual in the world. The UDHR celebrated its 74th anniversary on December 10, 2022.
This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the Declaration on the Human Environment and the 5th anniversary of the Declaration of Ethical Principles of Climate Change. These declarations call for the preservation, enhancement, and equitable use of the environment for present and future generations.
The UN Conference of Parties that occurs every year, the most recent being COP27 in Egypt last month, develops additional accords to enforce environmental rights, such as the Loss and Damage Fund intended to assist people in places most negatively affected by climate disasters.
Distressingly, humanity has yet to fulfill the duties that arise from these global meetings of national governments and from these rights declarations. Celebrating these declarations and international agreements builds an understanding of human and environmental rights. Rights awareness is the first step. The next step is to implement the goals of the declarations, especially for people living in the most vulnerable situations.
Refugees, the stateless, the indigenous, the economically disadvantaged, those facing war, discrimination, and oppression suffer the most from deleterious human impacts on the environment. Close to 100 million internally/externally displaced and stateless persons in the world – one out of every 80 persons – have had to flee their homes to seek safe places to live. As environmental destruction worsens, climate refugees will multiply this number exponentially.
Civil society has been present during the development of human and environmental rights declarations, but individual humans do not yet have a vote in world affairs. As national citizens, individuals in democracies can vote on local issues, but we have limited or no say in how governments and corporations around the world treat the oceans, the forests, the land, the atmosphere, and other species.
In the nation-state system, governments and their leaders can violate human and environmental rights with impunity, because individual accountability for global violations does not yet exist in human and environmental rights law spheres at the world level.
But there are legal and societal measures that we can implement to realize the promise of human and environmental rights declarations.
Global institutions of world law, such as a universal rights court and a people’s world parliament, are tools that can help realign humanity’s priorities to be in sync with the needs of the Earth.
Attempts to address environmental rights judicially are in process. For example, ecocide – severe, widespread, or long-term damage to the environment – is under consideration as a crime within the jurisdiction of the existing International Criminal Court and a future International Court for the Environment. An environmental rights court would adjudicate ecocide, but not the human rights violations of people living in affected areas. A global judicial system that adjudicates violations of both human and environmental rights, a World Court of Human and Environmental Rights, would provide a holistic solution.
World law institutions are one component to realizing universal rights. The other component is empowering individual action by recognizing our legal status as world citizens. With the right to vote directly in world referenda or through world parliamentarians on issues that affect the entire world, we would increase our individual engagement and our personal responsibility.
Seeing the Earth as one, world citizens understand how our actions affect our fellow humans and the environment. Together, we can develop strategies for sustainable living based not just on human needs, but also on the needs of the Earth.
Human rights and environmental rights are intertwined. Without a safe and sustainable environment, our rights become meaningless. Without just and peaceful interactions among humans, the Earth becomes a victim of human violence, for war is one of the worst destroyers of nature.
As the brain and conscience for the planet, we world citizens have the duty to use our intelligence and empathy to harmonize the needs of humanity with the needs of the Earth.