Lives in the Balance
The Human Cost of Environmental Neglect
Every year, environmental crises affect millions of people around the world causing sickness and decimating lives and livelihoods.
When environmental degradation garners international attention its impact is often framed in terms of harm to nature. But another, often overlooked, way to understand a toxic spill or a mining disaster is in terms of its impact on human rights—not least the right to life, to health, and to safe food and water.
In 2011, in Henan province, eastern China, for example, rivers ran blood-red from pollution, and thick smoke choked the air around the lead smelters and battery factories that power the local economy—a deeply worrying situation in terms of environmental pollution. But as the Human Rights Watch 2011 report My Children Have Been Poisoned showed, Henan’s health and environmental crisis has also led to human rights violations that have robbed citizens of a host of internationally recognized rights—such as those to health and to protest peacefully—and have jeopardized the physical and intellectual development of thousands of children.
Unfortunately, in practice, governments and international agencies do not often enough analyze environmental issues through the prism of human rights or address them together in laws or institutions. But they should, and they should do so without fear that doing so will compromise efforts to achieve sustainability and environmental protection.
Indeed, rather than undermine these important goals, a human rights perspective brings an important and complementary principle to the fore—namely that governments must be accountable for their actions. And it provides advocacy tools for those affected by environmental degradation to carve out space to be heard, meaningfully participate in public debate on environmental problems, and where necessary, use independent courts to achieve accountability and redress. As the old legal maxim goes, there can be no right without a remedy.
Regional human rights instruments—such as the Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the Area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and its Additional Protocol on the Rights of Women—recognize a right to a healthy environment (or a “general satisfactory” environment in the case of the African Charter, adopted in 1981). And it has been over two decades since the United Nations General Assembly in a resolution recognized that all individuals are entitled to live in an environment adequate for their health and well-being.
In a 2001 groundbreaking ruling, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights demonstrated that regional accountability for violations of human rights, including the right to a healthy environment, was possible. The commission found that, through a consortium with Shell Petroleum Development Corporation, the former military government in Nigeria had caused environmental damage to the Ogoni People in the Niger Delta region, in violation of the right protected by African Charter. The commission found that the government had not taken the necessary steps to protect the Ogoni population from harms done by the oil production and had not “provided nor permitted studies of potential or actual environmental and health risks caused by oil operations in Ogoni Communities.” Strikingly, the commission also found that the right to life had been violated by the level of “humanly unacceptable” pollution and environmental degradation that had destroyed the lands and farms upon which the Ogonis‘ survival depended.
Yet despite such decisions, there is still insufficient human rights accountability for environmental issues, as illustrated by the scope of environmental harm that occurs globally without apparent redress. The international human rights community needs to help strengthen both the content and framework for the right to a healthy environment, and to institutionalize the link between human rights and the environment. Such steps would include developing accountability mechanisms that could offer an effective remedy for the millions of people impacted by environmental crises.
The Right to Life and to Health
Under international human rights law, governments have numerous obligations to protect their citizens’ right to life and to health. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic and Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) all establish the right to the highest attainable standard of health. Under the ICESCR, the right to health includes an obligation to improve environmental health, to protect citizens from environmental health hazards, to guarantee healthy working conditions, and to protect the right to safe food and safe water.
Yet, many governments regularly fail to protect and uphold these commitments.
Human Rights Watch has documented the devastating impact of such neglect by authorities in many parts of the world.In the state of Zamfara, northern Nigeria, for example, over 400 children have died of lead poisoning since 2010—one of the worst recorded outbreaks in history—due to exposure to lead-contaminated dust produced during small-scale gold mining. Nigeria’s government has dragged its feet in the face of this unprecedented disaster, despite many signs of an impending crisis. In the short film A Heavy Price (2012), Human Rights Watch documented how children continue to live and play in contaminated homes and face exposure to lead at life-threatening levels that can cause life-long disabilities, if not death.
Unfortunately, Nigeria is not a unique case: governments often respond to environmental problems with denial, or offer weak and disjointed responses that fail to clean up environmental damage, impose or enforce regulations, or prevent and treat resulting health conditions.