Practical Advantages of a Human Rights Approach
to Environmental Advocacy
Environmental advocacy is hard work. It is challenging, often discouraging and requires drawing, when possible, on deep reserves of perseverance and resilience.
Environmentalists often contend with enormously powerful industries – forestry, agriculture, oil and gas, etc — and with powerful government interests. Both industry and governments have enormous resources at their disposal while environmentalists are often poorly funded (or unfunded) and have few available resources.
In the face of such power and with a long history of losses at the hands of that power, it is easy for environmentalists to feel discouraged or hopeless and for impacted communities to feel dispirited and believe there is little they can do to effect meaningful change. We believe that a human rights approach can help.
A human rights approach is a moral appeal to parties to do the right thing, based on broadly recognized standards of just behavior expressed in internationally recognized human rights declarations, covenants, conventions and charters. (This moral appeal may also at some point be backed up by human-rights-based legal action.) We view the standards expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the declarations, covenants and conventions that arose from it — those on the rights of women, rights of children, rights of indigenous peoples, etc — as broadly endorsed public expressions of moral norms.
Powerful tools a human rights approach can use include:
1. Telling the story. Simple, clear personal accounts of direct impacts that environmental assaults have had on individuals, families and communities can be collected, documented and publicized. This “situated knowing” of personally impacted witnesses helps to awaken moral imagination and to evoke the compassion and outrage that will be necessary for change.Claims of injury or harm in these stories may need to be substantiated by reference to scientific studies and/or expert testimony, just as the moral intuitions about right and wrong will be substantiated by reference to human rights norms.
2. Claiming moral authority. Providing advocates with well researched Human Rights Impact Assessments for their specific situation can help clarify the moral dimensions and values at stake, as well as potential pressure points. Foregrounding and documenting specific human rights standards that are particularized for that situation can publicly validate the felt sense of injustice and can legitimize the sense of outrage experienced by those whose lives have been directly impacted.The primary work of Environment and Human Rights Advisory is just this, i.e., evaluating the human rights dimensions of environmental projects undertaken by private industries and governments, and preparing Human Rights Impact Assessments for them and for environmental organizations that are working with them. The reports are detailed and specified to the particular situation, noting which particular human rights norms are applicable, why they are applicable, what potential liabilities that project might face and what measures that industry or government could take to reduce those liabilities.
3. Exercising moral power. Community led public Inquiries, such as New Zealand’s 2006 “People’s Inquiry into the impacts and effects of aerial pesticide spraying over urban areas of Auckland,” and public Tribunals like the Permanent People’s Tribunal Session on Agrochemical Transnational Corporations held in Bangalore, India in December 2011, can be both educative and powerful. Since both formats, i.e., Inquiries and Tribunals, are community-initiated and led (not government-initiated), they can be structured to insure that the voices of those who have been impacted are adequately heard, understood and entered into the public record.
The practical advantages
A human rights approach:
1. provides a novel reframing of environmental issues. In addition to the inherent moral value of human rights norms, they also put into play a narrative for which industry and governments have not yet developed a well-rehearsed response.
2. reduces the problem of moral relativism. Whenever ethical questions are under discussion the problem of moral relativism raises its provocative head: “There are different moral norms all over the world, who’s to say what’s right or wrong, one person’s good is another person’s bad,” and so on. With the emergence of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, though, all that changes a bit simply because of the moral authority that attends the unprecedented widespread public endorsement of these standards. The UDHR represents the first time in history that a document about moral values has been conceived, written and endorsed by representatives of virtually every nation on earth. René Cassin, one of the drafters of the UDHR (who, for his work, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1968), has argued that, with the UDHR, ‘something new…entered the world’. It was, he said, “the first document about moral value adopted by an assembly of the human community.” The UDHR, along with the covenants and conventions that have followed from it, have a uniquely broad and powerful moral standing across the world in such a way that invoking human rights norms as moral standards may not be dismissed quite as readily as invoking other moral standards whose appeal may be more limited to certain groups or worldviews.
3. thinks from the bottom up. With the emergence of the modern human rights movement we have begun to see things from the “situated knowing” perspective of those who suffer the abuses, and not just from the standpoint of the corporations or government regulators who are inconvenienced by that suffering. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer has said so clearly in the oft quoted words from his Letters and Papers from Prison, “We have for once learnt to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled – in short, from the perspective of those who suffer.” The modern human rights movement, which expresses the moral dimension of how things look “from below,” foregrounds those personal narratives which can evoke and engage the kind of compassion that is essential for genuine change.
4. has less ethical “slippage.” The term “slippage,” at least when applied in an ethical context, might be unfamiliar to most ethicists, but the concept probably is not and the experience isn’t either. The term refers to that space of interpretability, the little leap in every ethical system between a guiding ethical principle and the specific acts chosen to live out that principle in a given situation. Practical wisdom (“prudentia”) is said to be the virtue or art of making wise practical choices when taking that existential leap from the general principle to a specific embodied action, and slippage is what makes practical wisdom so challenging.
Slippage in an ethical situation is analogous to what your auto mechanic refers to as “slop” in a gear train, as in the connection between your steering wheel and the front wheels. If we think of the steering wheel as the ethical principles used to guide life choices — such as “Act as the virtuous person would act” — then we can think of the front wheels, where the rubber meets the road, as the actual specific choices a person makes about what they will do in that situation.
Our contention is that a human rights approach to environmental issues has less ethical slippage, largely because the ethical standards articulated in human rights documents — the “right to free, prior and informed consent,” for example — are more specific than many of the more general principles found in other ethical systems. It is not that human rights norms have no slippage at all — even “No one shall be subjected to torture” has room for interpretability, as public debates in the US in recent years have shown — only that human rights norms, because of their greater specificity, have a lower slippage quotient.
5. Appeals to compassion. If Schopenhauer and Buddhism are right, compassion is the primary, or perhaps sole, motivator for ethically meaningful action. Schopenhauer and Buddhism see compassion as ontologically grounded; others see it as biologically or genetically grounded. In either case the experience of empathic connection with the suffering of others is not epiphenomenal but is in some deep way fundamental to human experience, and it is the human rights tradition, particularly with its high regard for the importance of personal narratives, that evokes and foregrounds the experience of compassion.
6. is educative. A human rights approach, even when it does not completely succeed in accomplishing the intended goals of its current project, can still serve the purpose of educating people both about the current issue and about the value of human rights norms in general.
7. provides an effective vocabulary. Human rights discourse provides a long established and well rehearsed vocabulary of broadly respected and persuasive language with genuine rhetorical power. A 2007 public opinion research survey found that human rights language had broad public appeal, and a subsequent document based on that study, Talking Human Rights in the United States: A Communications Toolkit, provides “ideas, recommendations, and best practices” for promoting human rights in the US.
8. helps with despair. Environmental advocacy can be discouraging and overwhelming, and it sometimes seems that the more one knows about all sides of a given issue, the more discouraging and hopeless the problem can feel. Sandra Steingraber refers to this as “well-informed futility syndrome,” i.e., the feeling that resistance is futile, an impression often encouraged by industry and regulatory agencies.
A human rights approach can help with this feeling of hopelessness and futility when going up against the very powerful because the three practical methods mentioned above — personal narratives, human rights reports and public hearings and tribunals — can be so effective at foregrounding the personal human impacts, and because they empower communities to take initiative even when the regulatory agencies will not. Appeal to widely recognized human rights norms can also provide both personal and public validation of a community’s sense of being wronged by environmental assaults, and in that way can re-energize communities that have lost hope.
9. sometimes just works. And sometimes the power of personal narratives, combined with a formal human rights report addressed to the relevant industry or agency, just simply works. A small community on the Oregon coast, for example, was facing an upcoming aerial pesticide spray immediately adjacent to the city boundaries and near schools and neighborhoods, despite community opposition. The community commissioned a human rights assessment and asked that it be addressed to the forestry company that was arranging the spray. Shortly after the report was sent, the company agreed to forego their planned aerial spray and instead use the less risky (and lower volume and less drift-prone) backpack spray method instead, as the community had originally requested.
10. has advantages in law. And finally, if an issue did move to the legal sphere (no small feat) individuals would have three advantages in international human rights courts that they do not normally enjoy in domestic courts:1) Every individual is considered to have legal standing in international human rights courts, which eliminates one of the larger obstacles to having a case heard. 2) Standards of proof in international human rights courts favor the plaintiff over the state. 3) The burden of proof is on the state in these cases, rather than on the plaintiff, even though the state would be the defendant. This means that facts presented by the claimant would be presumed true unless proven otherwise by the state.
Given the immense challenges of today’s environmental advocacy and the efforts to protect the planet and its peoples from the excesses of difficult-to-change industries and governments, it is no surprise that environmentalists would look for additional value approaches that might have high potential for effectiveness. Traditional utilitarian, ecological, economic and public health approaches certainly do have their merits and functional advantages, but we suggest that adding a human rights dimension to the mix offers unique advantages from which other approaches might benefit.