Citizens should be involved in the protection of the environment
The right to a healthy environment is a fundamental human right that has not yet been enshrined in international conventions or in the constitutions of many countries, although various aspects are recognised.
Every day we observe the effects of global warming and experience the disasters that are happening, most recently in Greece, as well as the loss of biodiversity and pollution. The risk is very serious and the phenomena caused by climate change affect basic human rights, such as the right to life.
It is the duty of every citizen to be aware and fight for the protection and preservation of the environment, while at the same time being entitled to demand from the state to refrain from or prevent activities and projects that may harm the environment.
Each piece of legislation, before being passed into law, should be studied and go through a consultation with citizens, in order to promote the protection of the environment. Since the citizen is the one who suffers the effects of climate change, it should be possible, by using legal procedures, to demand judicial protection of the environment, compensation as well as the issuance of an order for the removal or cessation of illegal activity.
Despite global declarations and treaties regarding human rights, to date the human right to enjoy a healthy or clean environment has not been explicitly recognised. The UN Human Rights Council in its recent Resolution of October 8, 2021, recognises access to a healthy and sustainable environment as a universal right. It only encourages states to build on their efforts in order to fulfil their human rights obligations and commitments.
The situation in Europe, at the level of the European Union and the Council of Europe, is not better, since a text recognising this right has not yet been produced. They did, however, ratify the UN Aarhus Convention, which regulates three pillars for effective citizen participation in environmental protection, i.e. public access to information, participation in decision-making and access to justice.
The European Convention on Human Rights is recognised worldwide as the leading international treaty for the declaration and protection of human rights. The fact that it does not guarantee such a fundamental human right is attributed to the fact that at the time it was agreed upon, there was no awareness of environmental issues. However, the European Court of Human Rights has developed a very interesting jurisprudence, interpreting its various provisions in an ecological and environmental approach.
The provisions of the convention interpreted using this approach are Article 8, regarding the respect for the right to private and family life, Article 2, regarding the right to life, and Article 6, regarding the right to a fair trial. Article 1 of the Additional Protocol to the Convention, which protects the right to private property, has been used in the reasoning of the court’s decisions.
It is clear that the European Court of Human Rights, in its approach to many issues through its decisions, explicitly recognises the human right to the environment, using a more liberal and broader interpretation of fundamental human rights, giving them a somewhat ‘green’ dimension.
The court has already ruled on more than 100 environment-related cases, touching on a wide variety of issues such as pollution, access to information and natural disasters. The development of jurisprudence in this field is impressive as it reinforces the interconnection between environmental protection and human rights.
Some European countries have included in their constitution the existence of a fundamental human right to a healthy and balanced environment. In some other countries even though there is no constitutional recognition, constitutional courts have finally recognised these rights connecting them to other rights such as the right to health.
George Coucounis is a lawyer practicing in Larnaca and the founder of GEORGE COUCOUNIS LLC, Advocates & Legal Consultants, www.coucounis.law, [email protected]