Human Rights & the Environment
Environmental problems, notably pollution and climate change, implicate economic, social, and cultural rights, including the rights to health and water. Procedural rights, such as the rights to assembly, expression, and information, are critical to environmental protection. Many constitutions and a number of regional human rights frameworks incorporate an independent right to an adequate and healthy environment, insisting on the inextricable link between human rights and the environment. In the last few decades, human rights advocates are increasingly challenging activity resulting in environmental harms as human rights violations before national and international courts and commissions. The International Human Rights Clinic has intervened in the space of human rights and the environment through litigation, documentation, research, and advocacy in areas such as climate change, business practices, and the residual effects of armed conflict.
Extractive industries, which are often associated with egregious abuses of human rights, have been a particular focus of the Clinic’s work in this area. We have published in-depth reports on the human rights impacts of mining on communities outside of Johannesburg, South Africa, and on indigenous peoples in and Guyana. We have scrutinized corporate activity and its impact on the environment and indigenous peoples, most significantly in Burma, including on the controversial Yadana and Shwe gas pipelines. Canada and Guyana.
We have also undertaken initiatives to advance work at the intersection of climate change and human rights, including hosting events on refugees fleeing the effects of climate change. Bonnie Docherty, Associate Director of Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection participated in the drafting of principles for helping people internally displaced from climate change. Docherty and Tyler Giannini, HRP Co-Director, proposed a convention on climate change refugees. Likewise, Aminta Ossom, Clinical Instructor in the International Human Rights Clinic, has led student teams to examine how human rights law could be used to combat the social and economic inequality that contributes to, and is driven by, climate change.
As part of its Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative, the Clinic has examined ways to address the environmental impacts of war. Docherty and Crowe were leaders in the successful efforts to ensure the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons included a provision obligating states to remediate the environment contaminated by past nuclear weapons use and testing. Docherty addresses the challenges of dealing with “toxic remnants of war” more broadly in her clinical seminars and Armed Conflict and World Heritage reading group.
Clinical Instructor Beatrice Lindstrom leads a project seeking remedies for Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities that were poisoned by lead in heavily toxic UN displacement camps during the war in Kosovo. She has also worked extensively on securing accountability for the UN’s 2010 contamination of the Artibonite River in Haiti, which led to a devastating cholera outbreak that has killed 10,000 people and sickened nearly 1 million Haitians.
- Aminta Ossom has led ongoing research focused on the relationship between climate change and inequality. For Earth Day 2021, student Cindy Wu JD’22 wrote about about how the Yamuna River in India illuminates the relationship between climate change, economics, and human rights in a blog post for HRP.
- In Fall 2020, the Clinic released, “Confronting Conflict Pollution: Principles for Assisting Victims of Toxic Remnants of War,” with the Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS). The report establishes a new framework for addressing the human harm resulting from the environmental consequences of conflict.
- In October 2016, the Clinic released a report, “The Cost of Gold: Environmental, Health, and Human Rights Consequences of Gold Mining in South Africa’s West and Central Rand,” which documented the immediate and long-term effects of South African gold mining on surrounding communities and the environment.
- In October 2016, the Clinic helped organize a three-day conference, “Climate Change Displacement: Finding Solutions to an Emerging Crisis,”which brought together experts from around the world to discuss the governance challenges that come with climate change displacement. Public events included a conversation between Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, and HLS Dean Martha Minow, and a panel discussion examining governance challenges globally and locally. The conference was co-organized with the Emmett Environmental Law and Policy Clinic and the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic.
- In November 2015, the Clinic released a joint report, “Righting Wrongs?,”which found that a controversial process created by one of the world’s largest gold mining companies to compensate women for rapes and gang rapes in Papua New Guinea was deeply flawed. The report was co-authored by the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic and led by Tyler Giannini in the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. Giannini has been working on monitoring the mine since 2006.