Teaching Note: Human Rights and the Environment

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Environmental Human Rights, Responsible Business Conduct, UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights


The environment has long been a subject area in responsible business conduct (RBC) guidance tools. For example, the UN Global Compact, dating from 2000, dedicates three of its ten principles to environment and only two explicitly to human rights, while the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises added a chapter on the environment in 1991, long before introducing its human rights chapter in 2011. Yet while environment has been a common theme, it has generally been treated – and taught – as distinct from human rights. An environmental human rights approach to teaching business and human rights (BHR) provides an opportunity to explore with students the interconnection and interdependence of humans (people) and the environment (planet), while also drawing attention to differential impacts of environmental harms in line with understandings of environmental justice and environmental racism.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought into focus the importance of an environmental human rights approach to BHR. This is because at the end of the day, the health of people and the health of our planet are intimately connected. For example, it is well established that loss of biodiversity and climate change are linked to a rise in zoonotic diseases. At the same time, those with health problems arising from exposure to pollution are more vulnerable to diseases like Covid-19, while those who lack access to clean water are less able to protect themselves by complying with public health guidelines such as hand washing. While lockdowns have led to temporary reductions in air pollution, as economic activities resume, pollution levels will quickly bounce back to unacceptably harmful levels. Yet, some governments and industries treat the economic challenges arising from Covid-19 as a reason to reduce environmental protection, by lowering environmental standards, suspending environmental monitoring requirements, reducing environmental enforcement, and restricting public participation, viewing it as a luxury. These actions also have adverse impacts on the work of environmental human rights defenders (EHRDs).