Human Rights & The Environment

Since the early 1990s, the international community has increasingly accepted the inextricable link between human rights and the environment. For example, it has acknowledged that procedural rights such as the rights to assembly, expression, or information, are critical to environmental protection. Several environmental problems, including pollution and climate change, are recognized to affect a host of rights. In addition, many constitutions and a number of regional human rights frameworks include an independent right to an adequate and healthy environment.

This linkage between human rights and the environment lies at the heart of much of the work of the International Human Rights Clinic. Over the past decade, we have tackled a range of issues at the intersection of rights and the environment, such as environmental justice policy in Massachusetts, right to water litigation in South Africa, and the downstream effects of dams on the rights of indigenous communities in Cambodia. We have proposed model constitutional provisions and statutes for an environmental right for future generations, as well as analyzed model approaches for their protection, including through trusts and guardianships. The Clinic has also undertaken initiatives to advance international mechanisms in the arena of climate change and human rights, most notably proposing a convention on climate change refugees and participating in the drafting of principles for helping people internally displaced from climate change.

In October 2016, the Clinic organized a three-day joint 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 organized with the Emmett Environmental Law and Policy Clinic and the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic.


From right: Maia Levenson, JD ’13, and former Clinical Advocacy Fellow Meera Shah interview residents about how mining affects their community outside of Johannesburg.

Over the years, extractive industries, which are commonly connected with egregious rights violations, have been a particular focus of the Clinic’s work. We have published in-depth reports on the human rights impacts of mining on indigenous communities in Guyana and First Nations in Canada and scrutinized corporate activity in Burma, including on the controversial Yadana and Shwe gas pipelines. In addition, some prominent Alien Tort Statute cases with which the Clinic has been involved, including Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., have at their root some connection to exploitation of natural resources and/or destruction of the environment.

The Clinic currently has several ongoing projects related to human rights and the environment. One project dating to 2006 has been investigating violence as well as environmental and health problems associated with Barrick Gold’s Porgera mine in Papua New Guinea; in November 2015, the Clinic and Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic released a report finding that the company’s process for compensating survivors of rape and gang rape was deeply flawed.

In October 2016, the Clinic released a report, “The Cost of Gold,” on the long-term effects of gold mining in South Africa on community and environmental rights. The Clinic is also examining how human rights and the environment has been used in practice over the past two decades.

During the 2019-2020 academic year, a clinical team explored how human rights organizations might advise governments on climate change.

Share By Email