How human rights and the environment are linked

What do human rights have to do with climate change, and what's Friends of the Earth doing about it?
  Published:  08 Dec 2023    |      3 minute read

Climate change threatens our human rights, and human rights are also essential for protecting our planet. But more on that later. First, let's answer some quick questions about human rights and why they're important to our work.

What's the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

The horrors of the Second World War united the international community in calling for clearly defined rights for all. The UN went on to adopt a document that sets out our fundamental human rights, including:

  • the right to life
  • freedom from arbitrary arrest and torture
  • freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association
  • the right to a fair trial
  • the right to non-discrimination.

Is the Universal Declaration legally binding?

The Declaration spells out our freedoms and rights.

Violating any of those rights is likely to attract widespread condemnation. They've become a moral benchmark for the international community.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights can't force countries to do anything. But it has inspired a range of treaties and laws that can.

Thanks to the Declaration, lots of human rights are now legally protected (most notably in the UK by the Human Rights Act 1998). This includes the rights of people at special risk – like indigenous people and human rights defenders.

Examples of legally-binding descendants of the Declaration include:

  • the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
  • the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

Other declarations and treaties also now help protect the environment and human rights. For example, the Rio Declaration on the Environment and Development recognises the importance of respecting the environment today to protect the rights of future generations. And in 2022 the UN General Assembly took the historic step of recognising the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

Environmental destruction can deny people their rights to life, health, food, water, sanitation and more. Overconsumption of natural resources like metals, trees and fertile land is damaging the environment, destroying livelihoods and harming the cultures of many communities.

Climate breakdown is also a human-rights issue. It threatens people's fundamental rights including the rights to life, food, housing and an adequate standard of living. Extreme weather, drought, and rising sea levels – made worse by climate change – are forcing millions of people to leave their homes.

People challenging these violations have themselves suffered numerous human rights abuses such as unlawful killings, ill-treatment and harassment. In 2022 at least 177 people were killed defending their land, forest or water from destruction by companies, according to Global Witness.

Are human rights under threat in the UK?

Worryingly, the UK government is trying to restrict civic space, protest rights and campaigning, which threatens our ability to protect the planet. It’s already passed the draconian Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, introduced photo voter ID and restricted the legal process known as “judicial review”. These measures limit people from making their voices heard on the streets and at the ballot box, and restrict access to justice.

A group of people, different ages and ethnicities, wearing face masks and holding placards. The main placard reads "811,833 say defend our right to protest' and others are holding smaller placards with reasons why they are protesting which aren't legible.
People protesting the Policing Bill
Credit: Megan Barclay, Friends of the Earth

And it doesn't stop there:

  • The Public Order Bill – the government is looking to pass even more authoritarian anti-protest laws, which would particularly threaten already-marginalised communities such as people of colour. This new law would seriously restrict protest rights, from banning individuals from meeting with certain people to electronic surveillance and protest-specific stop and search. Even walking around with an object such as a bike lock or glue could risk arrest.
  • The Bill of Rights – this would scrap the Human Rights Act, reducing our ability to hold public institutions and governments to account in the UK when they breach our rights. Articles that currently help protect people and planet, such as the right to life and freedom of assembly, could no longer be relied on in court to the same extent.
  • The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) – this is a last resort for people seeking redress for human rights abuse, but some of the most powerful figures in government are considering withdrawing from it.

How can we protect our human rights and the environment?

People must have the freedom to defend the environment and their rights without fear of reprisals. This includes:

  • Environmental rights: Access to information and a fair judicial system – people must be allowed to participate meaningfully in local decisions that affect them.
  • Civil liberties: Freedom to speak out or protest peacefully – peaceful protests can take the form of boycotts, rallies, art installations etc.

To protect the environment and people's wellbeing, governments need to properly regulate corporate activities, international trade, and investments by international financial institutions. They need to hold companies to account when they damage the environment or abuse human rights.

And of course they must also tackle the climate and ecological crises, so that everyone can enjoy a safe environment in which to thrive.

Holding governments to account is vital for ensuring they uphold our fundamental rights. At home we can petition, lobby and meet with our local representatives, and globally we can show solidarity with communities whose rights are threatened or abused. Many Friends of the Earth groups around the world have stood in solidarity against the threat to rights in the UK, from Brazil and Palestine to Togo and Hungary.

A group of people from FOE Brazil stand with their fists raised and a sign saying "RIP UK human rights?"
FOE Brazil solidarity action on UK human rights
Credit: Amigos da Terra Brasil (FOE Brazil)

What's Friends of the Earth doing to defend human rights?

By protecting and restoring nature – and working with communities to fend off dirty energy – Friends of the Earth is helping to defend our human rights. We are constantly working in defence of these rights in the UK and internationally.

We’re also campaigning against the new laws the UK government is proposing that threaten our rights and freedoms. You can help us stand up for people and planet today.

The government is threatening our rights and freedoms, and our ability to demand climate action

The government is threatening our rights and freedoms, and our ability to demand climate action