The environment and climate change are amongst the most pressing issues for human rights. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has called it “the greatest threat to human rights” and fifteen children submitted a communication before the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in September.
Even though it seems that especially children and young people are leading this long-needed movement, thus seeking help from the CRC, the UN Human Rights Committee seems to be the UN treaty body that has been most active on the topic in the course of the past year.
The Committee has not only addressed issues concerning the interface between human rights and the environment more often than ever before, it has also very quickly intensified its jurisprudence from a mere notion of possible implications of environmental degradation on the right to life in its General Comment No. 36 over expanding this notion on other rights of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to ruling on the lawfulness of a deportation of a climate migrant less than a year later. This post traces the Committee’s skyrocketing journey over the past year.
General Comment No. 36 and the Right to a Life with Dignity
A bit over a year ago, the Committee finalized its General Comment No. 36 on the Right to Life after working on it for four years. This General Comment raises a variety of interesting issues. One of them is the right to life in the context of environmental harm:
Environmental degradation, climate change and unsustainable development constitute some of the most pressing and serious threats to the ability of present and future generations to enjoy the right to life. (para. 62)
Given the fact that when adopting General Comment No. 36, the Committee had no jurisprudence on the interface between the right to life and the environment, one can easily argue that including environmental degradation and climate change into the General Comment was a bold step. One might even argue that it was a step backwards. A few months earlier, then Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, John Knox, had argued for recognizing an independent right to a healthy environment before the Human Rights Council. Thus, by linking environmental harm to one – and only this one – ICCPR-right, the Committee has taken a much more restrictive standpoint.
It has to be noted, however, that General Comment No. 36 does not indicate for environmental degradation and climate change to be understood as threats to life. Statements concerning these issues exclusively allude to the right to live one’s life with dignity (see paras. 3, 62). As will become clear in its following practice, the Committee has created a space for its own interpretation of the elements necessary for a life with dignity, which can include the exercise of other rights, possibly even outside the ICCPR.
Environmental Pollution, the Right to Life and other Rights
In its 126th session this July, the Committee had its chance to use its general ideas of General Comment No. 36 in an individual communication on environmental pollution. In Portillo Cáceres v. Paraguay, it combined approaches of regional human rights mechanisms.
Finding a violation of article 6 ICCPR not only in the case of the deceased Mr. Rubén Portillo Cáceres, but also for the surviving family members, the Committee made use of the tool it had created with General Comment No. 36: Read the rest of this entry…