Without a healthy environment, humanity cannot survive. ERCS is advocating for a human right to a healthy environment to be included in Scots law as part of a new Human Rights (Scotland) Act.
Read on to find out why we need a human right to a healthy environment, why Scotland needs to act, and what we are doing to support this.
For more information, see our presentation to Scottish Environment LINK members, our joint briefing with Scottish Environment LINK and summary briefing on a human right to a healthy environment.
Why a human right to a healthy environment?
We all have basic needs which are fundamental to our humanity. Human rights law emerged to protect these needs as legal rights, at a time when civil and political rights and social, economic and cultural rights were in jeopardy. We are now at a tipping point where again our humanity is in jeopardy, this time because of environmental damage.
Here in Scotland, climate change is leading to increased coastal erosion and landslides, most recently seen in August with the fatal Stonehaven train derailment. Our biodiversity is under threat, with one in nine species at risk of extinction. Air pollution in many parts of Scotland is at levels which are damaging to our health.
In Scotland, people living in areas of high deprivation have disproportionately suffered from the impacts of polluting factories, proximity to contaminated, derelict land and landfill. In addition, children, the elderly, and those suffering ill health, are more negatively impacted by environmental health hazards, but are often least responsible for causing environmental damage. In this way, an unhealthy environment exacerbates existing health inequalities. What’s more, the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the inextricable links between human and ecosystem health. The unequal impacts of the pandemic have put important aspects of environmental issues in the spotlight: from global biodiversity loss to the importance of local access to good quality greenspace.
Now more than ever, our need for a healthy environment must be protected in law as a human right.
Why does Scotland need to act?
Right now, there is an exciting chance for genuine progress on human rights in Scotland. An advisory body to the Scottish Government, called the National Taskforce for Human Rights Leadership, is working on plans for a new legal framework on human rights in Scotland and is due to publish its recommendations in March. Following from a previous report in 2018, the rights recommended for inclusion are:
- civil and political rights,
- social, economic and cultural rights,
- rights belonging to children, women, persons with disabilities, and on race,
- rights for older persons and for LGBTI communities, and,
- the right to a healthy environment.
We are actively supporting the inclusion of a human right to a healthy environment and contributing to the Taskforce consultation. We are also partnering with other rights organisations to support each other’s work, because we know all human rights are connected.
A human right to a healthy environment has been expressed through various UN declarations and regional conventions since the 1970s, but it is currently inadequately protected in Scots law.
What do we mean by a human right to a healthy environment?
In 2018, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for human rights and environmental protection distilled the human right to a healthy environment into 16 Framework Principles.
The human right to a healthy environment has two sides:
- The substantive right to a healthy environment
This is about the actual right to live in a clean, safe, and healthy environment, which includes clean air, a safe climate, access to safe water and sanitation, healthy and sustainably produced food, non-toxic environments in which to live, work, study and play, and healthy biodiversity and ecosystems.
This substantive human right to a healthy environment is not protected by human rights laws in Scotland. Our strongest human rights protections stem from the European Convention on Human Rights, which does not articulate a human right to a healthy environment.
- Procedural rights in relation to a healthy environment
These refer to three rights we should be able to draw on to improve environmental outcomes and secure our substantive right to a healthy environment. Specifically, they are: (1) the right of access to environmental information; (2) the right to meaningfully participate in decision-making relating to the environment; and (3) the right of access to justice, which means the right to access fair, timely and affordable access to legal action in relation to environmental decisions, acts or omissions of a public authority as a last resort.
Scotland is obliged to implement these rights as a party to the Aarhus Convention through the UK. However, the Aarhus Convention’s decision-making bodies have consistently found the Scottish legal system to be in breach of the Convention on access to justice. This is because it is incredibly expensive to challenge environmental decisions before a court of law in Scotland (costs can run into the hundreds of thousands of pounds).
For a human right to a healthy environment to make a difference to the lives of everyone in Scotland, it must include both the procedural and substantive rights. It must be enforceable, supported via the creation of a specialist environmental court, and a learning and public information programme so that public bodies and citizens are all aware of our rights and responsibilities.
What are we doing?
The next couple of months are really important:
- in March, the Human Rights Taskforce will make its recommendations on human rights to the Scottish Government; and
- in May, the Scottish parliamentary elections will take place. Ahead of this, political parties will launch their manifestos to show what their top priorities are and what they would do if elected. We want every single political party to make a human right to a healthy environment a manifesto commitment.
In the coming weeks, we will:
- meet with all political parties to emphasise the importance of including commitments to a human right to a healthy environment within their manifestos;
- work to raise awareness of the right in Parliament;
- talk and listen to children and young people about why this right is important to them;
- work with organisations working on human rights to build links and joint work across all our human rights; and
- continue to input to the National Taskforce on Human Rights Leadership to show support for a human right to a healthy environment.
We are living in unprecedented times: from the global coronavirus pandemic to the climate and biodiversity crisis. A Human Rights (Scotland) Act is an opportunity to enshrine a human right to a healthy environment and tackle a legacy of environmental injustices. This right furthers all human rights at a time when we need them more than ever.
We will develop our campaign through 2021 and beyond.
Watch this space for regular updates on our work to secure a human right to a healthy environment as part of a Human Rights (Scotland) Act!
Advocacy Officer, ERCS