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How Environment can be protected by International law

  • IAS NEXT, Lucknow
  • 20, Oct 2021
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Can living in a safe environment be part of our human rights?

People are facing a threat we’ve never faced before: environmental disasters. This article will enlighten you how the law is adapting to keep the world itself safe, by protecting our environment.

Does nature have any legal rights? How can laws developed for humans are adapted to protect nature?

The environment is being threatened like never before. Human activity is changing the world around us, warming the air and sea. Extreme floods, droughts and wildfires are increasingly common and affect all continents and oceans.

How the law help?

Laws are basically an agreement between people. How can you have an agreement with something that’s not a person – a tree for example? We depend on the world around us: we need clean air, clean water and clean earth to live.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says everyone has the right to life and security. We can’t have either life or security without a healthy environment. So, that’s where the law comes in.

Environmental laws started really being developed in the middle of the last century(1950s). With more and more countries agreeing treaties – international agreements – there is greater willingness to engage in conversations about how to prevent environmental disasters.

Some of the laws explained how keep the environment safe.

There are UN-sponsored international laws to deal with issues like climate change, Ozone layer depletion, protection of biological diversity, protection of international watercourses, protection of endangered species, and regulation on persistent organic pollutants.

There are also laws that are made by regional organisations, like the European Union targeting the European environment.

Many laws come from global organisations, others from regional bodies like the European Union. They cover a huge range of areas.

What kind of laws are they and what power do they have?

There are two main types of law: soft laws, which are more like political commitments or aims, and hard laws. You can be punished for breaking a hard law.

There are soft laws and there are hard lawsSoft laws are mere political commitments; they are not binding.

Hard laws are binding – say if a state ratifies a hard law and then does something that is against the letters and spirits of the law, then you can actually file a case against the state for violation of any particular Environmental  Law.

In a article of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, where it says that states have to Endeavour to improve all aspects of industrial and environmental hygiene.

We do have two types of treaties:

  • One treaty deals with the civil and political rights and
  • The other treaties deal with the economic, social and cultural rights.

They do not expressly talk about environmental rights, but protection of environment is linked to enjoyment of your civil, political, social and economic rights.

Similarly, the enjoyment of your social, political, economic and cultural rights also depend on your enjoyment of environmental rights.

So the big human rights laws don’t actually say very much about the environment. But many of your rights depend on it: without a safe environment, we couldn’t enjoy our rights

Are there any laws that give us a safe environment?

It was this year only, that in March 2021, 69 countries have agreed to work together to ensure that there is an international law that will recognise people’s right to help the environment. The major obstacles remain lack of political commitment.

Is that enough to help in the real world?

Climate change is harming people now. In 2018, more than 35,000 people were forced to flee their homes in the Mekong Delta every day.

The Mekong River is the agricultural heartland of Vietnam and home to 20% of the country’s population.

But the Mekong river doesn’t just flow through Vietnam. It starts in the Tibetan plateau, also going through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia. So, to prevent people in Vietnam fleeing their homes, we need an international agreement.

The Ganges in India: viewed as holy by millions of people, but it’s also much polluted.

To protect it, the river was, for 109 days, declared a legal person by a court in the state of Uttarakhand. It was given the same rights as a child: as it couldn’t speak for itself, a board was appointed to speak for it.

The Government eventually said this couldn’t go on, as the river went beyond the limits of Uttarakhand.

So, can the law protect the environment, as well as the people who are affected by it?

  • We have a lot of smaller laws, if you want, that protect specific aspects of the environment – for example, rivers; for example, wetlands or biodiversity – but there is no such thing as one big law for every single country of the world that protects the whole environment.
  • There are lots of small laws that deal with specific things, and there is also the Paris Agreement on climate change – a major international agreement. But what does it actually do?
  • So the Paris Agreement does something very tricky in a way: it tells the states that they can choose how to protect their environment and with… by doing so, climate change
  • Before the Paris Agreement, international laws were guiding countries.’ While now, with the Paris Agreement, international law is saying to the countries, ‘Tell me what you do and then we can will all work together towards that goal.’
  • The Paris Agreement doesn’t set laws or tell countries what to do. It set goals for climate change, but allows countries to decide how to meet them. But, with a specific problem – for example, flooding on the Mekong River – how could the law help?
  • One country can sue another if they can prove they have caused something, like damaging flooding.
  • So, while in India it may not have worked, in other countries it has worked. So, in Colombia for example, a river has been given rights.
  • But the reason it has worked is that, in addition to giving rights to the river, a commission has been created – a guardian of the river – and it’s this institution, this taking it forward, that is proving successful in providing a better environment for the river and for the people who rely on the river.
  • Other rivers have been protected this way. This was made more effective by also having a team of guardians to protect their rights.
  • The law might not have much direct power to protect the environment, but our human rights are used to help keep it safe. We’ve also seen how the Paris Agreement encourages countries to take action: an example of laws keeping us and future generations safe.