In recent years the relationship between human rights and environmental issues have become issue of vigorous debate. The link between the two emphasizes that a decent physical environment is a precondition for living a life of dignity and worth. More concretely, a decent physical environment has to do with protection from noise nuisance, air and water pollution, and dumping of toxic substances. Environmental degradation and human rights were first placed on the international agenda in 1972, at the UN Conference on the Human Environment. Principle 1 of the ‘Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment’ establishes a foundation for linking human rights and environmental protection, declaring that man has a ‘fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions of life.
In 1992, twenty years after the first global environment conference, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), also known as the Earth Summit, took place from 3-14 June in Rio de Janeiro. The Conference aimed to help governments ‘rethink economic development and find ways to halt the destruction of irreplaceable natural resources and pollution of the planet’ as, despite international efforts, environmental degradation had accelerated at an alarming rate. Delegations from 178 countries, heads of state of 108 countries and representatives of more than 1,000 NGOs attended the meetings. In Rio, three major agreements were concluded of which the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development is the most pertinent in the context of human rights and the environment. Principle 1 sets out that ‘Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature’ and Principle 4 establishes ‘In order to achieve sustainable development, environmental protection shall constitute an integral part of the development process and cannot be considered in isolation from it’.
Principle 10 of the 1992 Rio Declaration was of great importance for the developments that led to the 1998 Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention) which entered into force in 2001. The Aarhus Convention covers the three themes indicated by its title. Rather than using rights-oriented language the Convention requires states parties to ‘ensure’ that members of the public have access to information, are allowed to participate and have access to judicial review. Although the term ‘right’ is generally avoided, the objectives, structure and context of the Aarhus Convention are rights-oriented, drawing on notions of international human rights law. The Convention is intended to provide for participatory, informational and procedural rights in environmental matters.
UNEP is also strengthening its collaboration with the OHCHR to promote UN inter-agency cooperation, including within the UN Development Group. The collaboration seeks to develop guidelines and propose actions to be taken within the UN Development Assistance Framework. This would include promoting the development of integrated guidance on the practical application of human rights and environment principles for UN development cooperation at the country level.