Human Rights Day marks a key moment in human history: 10 December 1948, when representatives from across the world came together to sign the UN Declaration of Human Rights, enshrining our fundamental rights and freedoms for the first time. This landmark document created universal protections that would act as a cornerstone of the international system, forever transforming the relationship between states and citizens.
Yet the rights contained within the Declaration were incomplete. As post-war industrialisation accelerated and disastrous impacts on the environment became apparent, a growing chorus of scientists and campaigners sought to highlight the catastrophic effects this would have not only on nature, but also on human health and wellbeing – a grave threat to the promise of a dignified life. Yet while environmental treaties have sprung up in the intervening decades to address particular environmental crises, it was not until July 2022 that the UN General Assembly recognised the right to a healthy environment for the first time.
In Scotland, it’s time to make this right a reality. The climate and nature emergencies, and the widespread pollution of our air, land, and water, have exposed the chronic failures of existing institutions to adequately address environmental challenges. Citizens must be able to exercise their environmental rights and use them to hold public bodies and polluters to account.
That is why ERCS launched a petition to demonstrate widespread public support for an enforceable right to a healthy environment and a dedicated Scottish Environment Court. It has now been signed by over 1,500 individuals and 66 organisations, including environmental and human rights charities, campaign groups, thinktanks, and trade unions – collectively representing thousands of members. Today, we formally hand-in the petition to the Scottish Government.
Our demands come in the wake of two major consultations that have huge implications for how our environmental rights can be exercised and enforced.
Over the summer, the Scottish Government consulted on its new Scottish Human Rights Bill, which includes a commitment to incorporate the right to a healthy environment with substantive and procedural elements. This is a major win – yet without well-defined standards and enforcement mechanisms, the right will lack ‘teeth’ and do little to improve environmental quality.
The substantive right must guarantee the highest standards for six features: clean air, safe climate, clean water, healthy and sustainably produced food, non-toxic environments, and healthy biodiversity and ecosystems. The procedural part must enshrine the Aarhus Convention and ensure that access to justice is accessible, affordable, timely and effective.
Unless we have a dedicated environment court to increase access to justice and enforce environmental law, the right to a healthy environment will not be fully realised. This brings us to the consultation on the Review of Environmental Governance, a deeply disappointing document, which dismissed the vital role of a dedicated Scottish Environment Court in upholding these new rights. Our petition directly appeals to Scottish Minister to listen to the evidence and rethink the case for an environment court.
We know there is a huge public appetite for stronger environmental action, but people often feel powerless and disconnected from the political system. An enforceable right to a healthy environment and a dedicated Scottish Environment Court is essential to protecting human life, wellbeing and dignity. The promise of environmental democracy is within reach – it is now on the Scottish Government to make it a reality.
- Benji Brown, ERCS Policy & Advocacy Officer