Typically we think of human rights as things like the right not to be tortured, or the right to free speech and we think of environmental problems as things like pollution or climate change, things that have technical solutions. So how do human rights and the environment go together?
1. Many things that are human rights (the right to life, the right to water, the right to food, the right to health) require a clean and safe environment. My own research on the human right to water constantly interacts with environmental work on clean water.
2. Some human rights theorists and activists argue that we actually have a human right to a clean environment, because so many other rights are dependent on the environment. See Richard Hiskes’ book The Human Right to a Green Future for an example.
3. Human rights are interdependent, indivisible, and interrelated. This means that when we look at the environment from a human rights perspective, we have to recognize and respect all other human rights at the same time. For example, recycling E-Waste is really important, because it helps reclaim important materials for reuse, and it keeps toxic materials out of landfills. However, many e-waste recyclers outsource the work to countries in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, or China. There, the electronics are taken apart by people who are paid very little, given no safety protection, and are often children. In attempting to work towards an environmental goal, human rights are being violated. However, there are a growing number of responsible e-waste recyclers, so you can both respect human rights and protect the environment by taking a more holistic human rights-based approach.
Human rights are about more than just free speech – human rights are about protecting human dignity and allowing people to live full and fulfilling lives – that includes having a healthy environment!