On Monday 5 October 2020, the European Court of Human Rights hosted a high-level conference entitled “Human Rights for the Planet”.
Both in person and online, participants looked at the rapidly-developing case-law on environmental issues of the Strasbourg court and other international tribunals. Speakers included the President of the European Court of Human Rights, Robert Spano, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Marija Pejčinović Burić, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet.
A number of the international legal standards developed by the Council of Europe – notably including the European Convention on Human Rights, the European Social Charter and the Bern Convention on the conservation of European wildlife and natural habitats – have successfully been invoked to help make progress on environmental issues.
The European Court of Human Rights has so far ruled on some 300 environment-related cases, applying concepts such as the right to life, free speech and family life to a wide range of issues including pollution, man-made or natural disasters and access to environmental information.
The European Convention on Human Rights has also been used by campaigners at the national level to encourage governments to take further steps to tackle climate change and the degradation of the natural environment.
Successive Council of Europe presidencies, and various other parts of the organisation, have called for existing legal tools to be further strengthened in order to help European states deal with the considerable environmental challenges that we all face.
Statement by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet
5 October 2020
„I am pleased to address this important conference.
The climate crisis, environmental degradation, biodiversity loss and pollution constitute some of humanity’s gravest challenges, contributing both directly and indirectly to human rights violations around the world.
As in the COVID-19 pandemic, the most affected are often those already in vulnerable situations. Indeed, intersecting environmental, health and socio-economic crises are reversing global development gains and placing people and planet under stress.
In the face of environmental harm and injustice, the law is one of our most effective tools to hold Governments to account, to uphold our rights and to protect human health and the Earth’s natural systems.
Consider the Council of Europe.
Neither the European Convention on Human Rights nor its Protocols bear any explicit reference to the environment.
However, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled in nearly 300 cases related to environmental harms affecting the enjoyment of a broad range of human rights, such as the right to life and rights to private and family life.
And, for its part, the European Committee of Social Rights has found that in the European Social Charter, the right to protection of health includes the right to a healthy environment.
The fundamental role of the Courts is to deliver justice through fair and effective application of existing laws and principles that place human dignity at their heart.
If the law does not explicitly address an issue, it is both proper and right for Courts to interpret and develop it in order to deliver justice, including through the innovative application of norms and standards at hand.
Even in the absence of an explicitly recognized right to a healthy environment in the European Convention on Human Rights, judicial systems have taken steps to protect people from environmental harms.
Take climate change.
According to the United in Science 2020 report launched last month, the five-year period since the signing of the Paris Agreement will be the hottest on human record.
The increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, sea level rise and glacial melt, droughts and floods, coral bleaching, oceanic dead-zones and extensive wildfires severely affect countless lives and our natural systems.
Time is running out to keep global average temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
We need urgent and ambitious climate action.
Yet around the world, Governments are still holding back.
The response have been clear. Millions have taken to the streets in climate marches and a cascade of lawsuits around the world have demanded more ambitious climate action now.
In one such case, the Urgenda Foundation v. Netherlands, the Dutch Supreme Court drew on the jurisprudence of the European Court and found climate change posed an imminent danger to the rights to life and to private and family life.
Taking into consideration the best available science and the full spectrum of international law, the Court ordered the Government of the Netherlands to undertake substantial, specific steps to increase its climate mitigation efforts.
The application of human rights law in the Urgenda decision empowers people across the States members of the Council of Europe to demand more of their governments to address the climate crisis.
It has further energized a rights-based movement for climate action not just in the Netherlands, but around the world.
A movement demanding the recognition of a safe and stable climate as a matter of right.
I stand by it and reiterate my call for global recognition and effective implementation of the human right to a healthy environment.
According to the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, more than 150 countries already recognize it, showing a growing legal and normative consensus.
The European Parliament has already called for all people in Europe to be granted the right to a healthy environment.
And three consecutive presidencies of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers have called for the elaboration of a legal instrument in the area of human rights and the environment.
Whether or not formally on the books, the right to a healthy environment is, in reality, a fundamental prerequisite for the enjoyment of all other rights.
Explicit recognition will lead to more effective laws and policies and promote accountability within judicial systems for their implementation.
Adopting a new protocol to the European Convention that explicitly recognizes such a right would be a major step in the right direction.
I trust you will lead the way.