Human Rights and the Environment: International Instruments (legal memorandum 2003)

Subject: Human Rights & Environment (2)
Date: Mon, 16 Dec 2002 11:36:25 +0000
From: "Lalanath de Silva"

Dear colleagues/friends,

This is my second message giving more information about the Human Rights and Environment agenda. In January 2002 a very important meeting of experts was held in Geneva. It was organised jointly by the OHCHR-UNEP. In the first of these messages I gave a brief account of six useful papers presented at the meeting and a web site where you can obtain them.

In this message I want to give more information about the results of the experts meeting. I also want to share with you information about the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Optional Protocol (1) and the UN Human Rights Committee (HRC). In my next message I hope to share with you the procedure for making complaints to the HRC, important steps that need to be followed and a useful format for presenting such a complaints.


After the three day meeting in Geneva the experts issued a set of conclusions. These conclusions are very important since they set out what the future HR & E agenda will look like. At this meeting the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson and the Executive Director of UNEP Klaus Topfer made statements. These statements together with the Expert conclusions can be read on the following web page-

Both these high official made statements that indicated the desire and readiness of UN agencies to facilitate the connection between human rights and the environment and to make existing human rights treaty mechanisms available to address environmental issues. The Experts made several valuable recommendations. Among them is the following recommendation-

"Enhancing mechanisms for receiving and addressing citizens’ complaints in the field of human rights and the environment".

With these statements and conclusions, the stage has been set for further progressive development of human rights and environmental jurisprudence at the international level.


One of the important international instruments that are available for citizens to make complaints about human rights violations against their governments is the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. You can see the full text of this important Covenant together with links to comments on the implementation of each article on the following web page-

Among the rights set out in the Covenant are the "right to life" (Article 6) and the "right to equality before the law" (Article 26) and "minority rights" (Art. 27). Article 28 establishes a Human Rights committee (HRC). In addition to this Covenant there is an "Optional" Protocol (1) that allows citizen s to complain about human rights violations to the HRC (Article 1 of the Protocol). You can see the full text of the Protocol on this web page-

To see if your country is a party to the Covenant and the Optional Protocol you can visit the following web page (the first is in pdf format) and check under CCPR and CCPR-OP1 about the situation-

To see if your country made any special reservations you can visit this web page-

If your country is a party to both the Covenant and the Protocol then, generally speaking, you are entitled to send complaints in appropriate cases to the HRC.

The HRC proceedings can take between 2-4 years. It can declare that a government has violated a civil or political right set out in the Covenant. It cannot force a government to take action to remedy the violation. However, positive HRC declarations internationalises the violation, brings it to t he attention of the international community and lends credibility to the struggle of the victims.

Although there are some cases pending before the HRC that have a potential for expanding the right to life there has not yet been a clear pronouncement that this right encompass violations caused by environmental degradation.

The OHCHR-UNEP Expert conclusions however have set the stage for that development. The current jurisprudence on the HRC was summarised by Professor Dinah Shelton in his paper presented to the Experts as follows-

"The U.N. Human Rights Committee has indicated that state obligations to protect the right to life can include positive measures designed to reduce infant mortality and protect against malnutrition and epidemics. The Committee has interpreted Article 27 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in a broad manner, observing that culture manifests itself in many forms, including a particular way of life associated with the use of land resources, especially in the case of indigenous peoples. That right may include such traditional activities as fishing or hunting and the right to live in reserves protected by law. The enjoyment of those rights may require positive legal measures of protection and measures to ensure the effective participation of members of minority communities in decisions which affect them. . . . The protection of these rights is directed towards ensuring the survival and continued development of the cultural, religious and social identity of the minorities concerned, thus enriching the fabric of society as a whole" (full text at - bp2.html )


Truly, Lalanath