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Environmental Harm as a Human Rights: Forging New Links

By Laura Ziemer*

In a world of increasingly severe and wide-spread environmental degradation, new tools are needed to respond to environmental harm. Traditional international environmental law, that addresses the rights and obligations between nation-states, has little to offer individuals harmed by environmental damage. People whose health or livelihood is threatened by exposure to hazardous waste or the pollution of streams and rivers, for example, often have no recourse under international environmental laws. In addition, people harmed by environmental degradation are often ethnic minority groups, indigenous peoples, or people in occupied territories such as Tibet, who are marginalized within their own countries and effectively excluded from political participation or redress under national laws.

Linking human rights with the environment creates a rights-based approach to environmental protection that places the people harmed by environmental degradation at its center. Articulating the fundamental rights of peoples with respect to the environment creates the opportunity to secure those rights through human rights bodies in an international forum. This has particular force for the people most vulnerable to environmental harm and least able to access remedies or political support within their own countries. Connecting human rights and the environment reveals that human rights abuses often lead to environmental harm, just as environmental degradation may result in human rights violations.

The Environmental Dimension of Human Rights cannot be fully realized within a degraded or polluted environment. The fundamental right to life can be denied by events with environmental consequences: deaths caused by acute exposure to radioactivity or contaminated drinking water. The right to health; the right to safe and healthy working conditions; the right to adequate housing and food; these are all fundamental rights recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and all have significant environmental dimensions. Exposure to toxic chemicals through careless hazardous waste disposal or industrial practices; the marginalization of pastoralists and subsistence farmers through soil depletion, deforestation, and confiscating traditional grazing lands; thesn plateau--fencing off traditional nomadic migration routes, or using traditional grazing lands for military installations or Chinese settlements--the result is a denial of fundamental human rights.

Denial of the human right to self-determination is also tightly linked to environmental degradation. Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights--one of the fundamental international human rights instruments--declares unequivocally that "[a]ll peoples have the right of self-determination." Article 1 explains that "[b]y virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development." The Covenant's right to self-determination includes environmental sovereignty, stated as a peoples' right to "freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources . . . [and] [i]n no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence."

Denial of the right to self-determination is interwoven with the exploitation of a country's natural resources. The political and economic subjugation that exists in occupied territories creates social conditions under which extreme environmental degradation is unchecked. Deforestation of the Tibetan plateau through industrial clear-cutting by the Chinese has already claimed over one-half of the virgin forests of Tibet to feed China's enormous demand for wood and paper.2 It has also provided China with precious foreign exchange through exports of valuable old-growth logs to Japan. It is estimated that since the occupation of Tibet from 1959 to 1985, the benefit to China from the exploitation of Tibet's forests has been more than US$ 54 billion dollars.2

Deforestation on the Tibetan plateau illustrates another potent aspect of connecting human rights and the environment. With respect to deforestation, it relates to the objective visibility of a hill-side of stumps. Clear-cuts are tangible--they can be photographed and counted--in a way that human rights violations taking place behind closed doors can not. This is particularly true in Tibet where foreign press and researchers are largely excluded, travel is restricted, and freedom of expression exists only on pain of imprisonment or worse. Describing environmental harm in human rights terms creates a measure of accountability for abuses that can otherwise be difficult to quantify, report, or even detect.

The Effects of Human Rights Violations on the Environment

Conditions in occupied Tibet demonstrate a prominent feature of environmental human rights. Environmental human rights encompass not only substantive protections such as the right to life, health, traditional livelihood, and culture, but they also include procedural rights. The procedural protections of environmental human rights include the right to information about the environment; the right to express opinions about environmental issues; the right to environmental and human rights education; the right to associate peacefully with others for the purpose of protecting the environment; the right to participate in decisions affecting the environment; and the right to administrative or judicial redress for violations of protected rights. These fundamental freedoms anchor the full realization of all human rights in an open and just society.

When Tibetans are systematically excluded from decisions affecting the Tibetan plateau's environment, and when Tibetans are not given information about actions that affect the environment nor permitted to exchange freely the information they have, there is no check on the environmental harm that results. The procedural protections of environmental human rights are as important as its substantive guarantees.

Uranium mining is taking place at nine known uranium mines on the Tibetan plateau to fuel China's nuclear weapons program and development of nuclear power.3 Due to the conditions of China's occupation, Tibetans are excluded from the decisions regarding where and how such mining is taking place, and have no access to information about the significant health risks associated with exposure to waste from the mining operations. As a result, rural Tibetan villages in the vicinity of uranium mines, which have experienced illness and "mysterious" deaths among villagers and domestic animals, still have no verifiable knowledge of what risks they are living with, and no recourse for the harms their communities have suffered.4

The dual nature of environmental human rights not only calls attention to the environmental harm that has occurred, but also asks the question, "how did this happen?" By focusing on what decisions were made, who had access to information about them, and who took part in the decision, the social conditions under which environmental harm occurs can be better understood. Only when the people who are directly affected by environmental harm have a voice in what--and in what manner--environmentally significant actions are taken, is lasting environmental protection possible.

This touches on one of the most innovative aspects of human rights and the environment. Linked in a rights-based approach, environmental human rights create a mechanism to hold polluters accountable for environmental harm. Giving the people personally affected by environmental harm a voice in an international forum creates accountability. It also melds one of the greatest strengths of human rights law to one of the weakest areas of environmental law: universal standards.

The large differences in levels of environmental protection between countries is one factor that is accelerating the exploitation of labor and natural resources around the world. As trans-national corporations and governments alike search for the cheapest means of production, the lack of environmental safe-guards also means lower production costs. Low-priced goods sold on the international market often come at the expense of polluted air, fouled rivers, and deforested slopes. China has capitalized on Tibet's resource base to build part of its industrial infrastructure and place products on the world market.5 Similarly, one of China's most powerful foreign policy tools is its inexpensive labor pool and the role of its enormous population as a potential market for low-priced goods.

While the lack of universal standards is one of the biggest hurdles to environmental protection, this is one of the greatest strengths of human rights law. Fundamental notions of basic human rights have been articulated by the global community since 1948, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights entered into force. Environmental human rights use global human rights norms to state a universal standard of minimum environmental protection that applies equally to every country. In this way environmental harm is cast in terms of its toll in human suffering, which leverages human rights standards to universalize our under-standing of unacceptable environmental harm.

Environmental Human Rights as International Law

These connections between human rights and the environment are evolving as international legal norms. In the twenty years between the United Nations (U.N.) Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment in 1972 and the 1992 U.N. Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro (the "Earth Summit"), increasing attention has been paid to the impact of environmental problems on human rights. Even in 1972, the Stockholm Declaration stated the human right to "adequate condi-tions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being."6 By 1992 with the Earth Summit's adoption of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, concepts of sustainable development and the rights of future generations to a healthy environment had been added: "environmental protection shall constitute an integral part of the development process and cannot be considered in isolation from it."7

One of the most encouraging steps in this direction has been the work in the U.N. Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities over the last seven years. Since first taking up the issue in 1989, under the able leadership of the Sub-Commission's Special Rapporteur, the Sub-Commission has established that there exists meaningful precedent in international law for environmental human rights. The Sub-Commission explored the environmental dimension of human rights, and articulated the links between sustainable development, environmental protection and respect for human rights.

One of the most significant events of the Sub-Commission's study on human rights and the environment was a meeting of an international group of experts in May 1994 at the U.N. in Geneva, Switzerland. This meeting was called for by the Sub-Commission's Special Rapporteur and organized by the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, an American environmental non-governmental organization (NGO) that has played a role in the inception and progress of the Sub-Commission's work. This meeting had the ambitious goal of stating a set of principles that embodied the environmental dimension of human rights and grounded environmental rights firmly in human rights law.

The Geneva meeting achieved this goal, and produced the Draft Declaration of Principles on Human Rights and the Environment. The Draft Declaration is incorporated into the Sub-Commission's Final Report, and stands as the current reference point for environmental human rights.8


The environmental degradation of Tibet during the time of Chinese occupation violates basic human rights. The human rights to life, health, adequate food and shelter, and to culture and self-determination have all been violated in the course of reckless environmental damage. The links between human rights and the environment in Tibet also shows how violation of fundamental human rights leads to environmental harm. Systematic exclusion of Tibetans from a role in decision-making and denial of the freedoms of expression, association, and access to information have created conditions under which environmental harm to the Tibetan plateau is unchecked.

The rapidly developing area of human rights law that explicitly recognizes environmental harms as human rights violations has particular force in Tibet and other areas under occupation. What people in occupied territories, indigenous peoples, and many ethnic minorities have in common is that they most often suffer the brunt of environmental harm, and have the least access to environmental laws or the political process of their own country. Linked in a rights-based approach, human rights and the environment as international law holds promise for Tibetans, Tibet, and other peoples of the world whose special relationship with the land is being threatened.

*Laura Ziemer is an attorney and ecologist from the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, Laura Ziemer, spent the fall of 1996 in Dharamsala, India working with the Environment & Development Desk and the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy. She has prepared a report that analyzes the significant human rights components of deforestation, the nuclearization of Tibet and the planned elimination of traditional Tibetan agricultural self-sufficiency.

Ms. Ziemer can be contacted at: Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund; 11 E. Main St., Suite C, Bozeman, Montana, 59715, USA. e-mail:scldfmt@igc.apc.org


1 See, e.g., Int'l Campaign for Tibet, Nuclear Tibet: Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Waste on the Tibetan Plateau (Washington D.C., 1993); John Longworth & Gregory Williamson, China's Pastoral Region: Sheep and Wool, Minority Nationalities, Rangeland Degradation & Sustainable Development, at 42-45 (Australian Centre for Int'l Ag. Res., 1993); Tibetan Women's Assoc., "Cultivating Genocide: A Message to the World Food Summit," (FAO, Rome, Nov. 13-17, 1996).

2 Dept. of Info. & Int'l Relations (DIIR), Tibet: Environment and Development Issues 1992, at 4, 53 (Dharamsala, 1992.

3 Central Tibetan Admin., Res. & Analysis Centre, Tibet: A Land of Snows Rich in Precious Stones and Minerals, at 7-8 (1991).

4 "Tibetas Dying from Uranium Mine Waste," Tibet Information Network News Update (Sept. 11, 1992.

5 See, e.g., Zhao Ang, "The Crisis of the Forest Industry in the Tibetan Area of Sichuan and Ways Towards Positive Development," 12(1) Jinji Dili (Economic Geography), at 55-61, trans. Bai Linhan , 1992.

6 Stockholm Decl., Principle 1, U.N. Doc. A/Conf.48/14, at 2-65 (1972).

7 Rio Declaration, Principle 4, U.N. Doc. A/Conf.151/5/rev.1 (13 June 1992).

8 Final Report on Human Rights and the Environment, Comm'n on Human Rights, Subcomm'n on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, U.N. ESCOR, 46th Sess., U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/Sub.2/1994/9. 74-77 (1994).

* Article reprinted by permission from The Office of Tibet, the official agency of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in London.

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