Are Human Rights Courts the Right Venue for Environmental Disputes?
By Laura Letourneau-Tremblay, Research Assistant, PluriCourts
Recent years have seen the development of a general recognition of the interconnection between human rights and environmental protection and consequently a growing number of environmental cases adjudicated in human rights courts. Are human rights courts the right venue for environmental disputes? On 8 and 9 September, Professor Christina Voigt with PluriCourts invited renowned and young scholars and judges to discuss legitimacy issues with regards to the adjudication of environmental cases in human rights courts. Among the participants were Helen Keller, Judge, European Court of Human Rights, Margarette May Macaulay, former Judge, Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Justice Hansine Donli, former President ECOWAS, Professor Dinah Shelton, George Washington University and Professor Alan Boyle, University of Edinburgh.
Challenges to the legitimate adjudication of environmental disputes by human rights courts were identified throughout the discussions. Establishing the victim status and the causality of the harm can be challenging in environmental claims adjudicated by human rights bodies. Furthermore, the remedies offered by courts for compensating injuries might not ensure environmental protection. A human rights approach to environmental challenges could be too anthropocentric, as the alleged environmental damage will not always directly affect rights protected under human rights convention. The role of democratic processes in the context of environmental problems was also emphasized. Should decisions concerned with the public interest be made by political institutions or by human rights courts? Are democratic environmental decision-making including the participation of all the actors concerned more legitimate than decisions of human rights bodies?
In the absence of international environmental tribunal, some argued that human rights courts can offer a value-added approach complementing national legislation and providing for a unified forum when addressing global problems. Human rights courts can also help promoting the rule of law in ensuring the accountability of governments with regards to their environmental obligations.
John Knox, UN Independent Expert on Human Rights and the Environment, could not join the symposium but he was able to share his view on these important questions via a video address. Knox explained the human rights obligations of States with regards to the environment. Considering these obligations, Knox confirmed the central role of human rights courts in the protection of the environment but also emphasized their challenge in addressing transboundary environmental challenges.
The Symposium created a successful dialogue where the need for a global approach to tackle global environmental problems was highlighted. Human rights lawyers emphasized that environmental problems do not only harm nature in itself but also impact of the well-being of humans. As a result of the Symposium, the best papers presented will be published in a special edition of Journal of Human Rights and the Environment (JHRE) early next year.
You can consult the website of the Symposium for more information.