Knox on Human Rights: Environmental Rights and Justice in Society Today


Professor of International Law at Wake Forest John Knox visited Colgate  on Thursday, March 22 to discuss the pressing issues about the human rights to a healthy environment, in which human rights and environment are interdependent.

Meghan McMahon, Maroon-News Staff

 On Tuesday, March 20 in the Ho Science Center, John Knox, Professor of International Law at Wake Forest University, addressed the human right to a healthy environment. This lecture was a part of the Lampert Speaker Series and was co-sponsored by the Environmental Studies Program and the Sustainability Council. 

Knox opened the lecture by discussing the pressing issues of environmental rights and justice in society today. He addressed the significant changes in EPA policies, claiming that environmental rights are “in flux and possibly under siege.” Knox elaborated on the dangers associated with climate change, not only for our planet, but also for activists who face threats and attacks for their work on this controversial issue. 

Knox claimed that the human right to a healthy environment, as well as issues such as climate change, are most pressing for marginalized populations. He addressed three important questions in his lecture: does a human right to a healthy environment already exist, how do human rights and the environment relate to one another and should the United Nations recognize a human right to a healthy environment?

Knox discussed the history of human rights, including the 1948 Universal Declaration held by Eleanor Roosevelt. Although the declaration recognizes civil and political rights, it does not address environmental concerns. Knox explained that the modern environmental movement “didn’t really take off until the late 1960s.” Therefore, these rights are not mentioned in the Universal Declaration. 

Knox additionally discussed the Stockholm Declarations of 1969, which was the first time countries in the world had come together to set basic rules about environmental protection. Over 100 national constitutions ensure a right to a healthy environment, including most of Latin America, Africa, Oceania and the Middle East. 

However, Knox explained that the United States does not nationally guarantee the right to a healthy environment, though some states include this right. 

Knox believes that adopting a constitutional right to a healthy environment would provide a basis for stronger environmental laws, act as a safety net to cover gaps in protection, symbolize the importance of the environment and lead to better environmental performance in the United States. 

“States with environmental provisions in their constitutions have smaller ecological footprints,” Knox said. 

While regional human rights treaties grant the right to a healthy, satisfactory environment, Knox claims that there is opposition to adopt the right to a healthy environment at the global level. The human rights commission rejected the United Nation’s Ksentini report in 1994, advocating for the adoption of this right. Instead of implementing the right to a healthy environment, the organization took existing rights to life and explained how they were impacted by environmental harm.  

Knox explained that human rights and the environment are interdependent. People have to be able to access human rights, such as free speech, in order to push for environmental protection. States also must protect human rights from environmental harm. Additionally, nation-states have duties to provide environmental information and assess environmental impacts on human rights. Nation-states are obligated to protect environmental defenders when they are subjected to threats, refrain from restricting their work and conduct investigations of any violations against environmental defenders. However, Knox claimed nations “do a terrible job complying with them.” 

From January 2002 to December 2013, 908 environmental defenders have been killed globally. These violations of environmental protection are “especially acute in Latin America and Southeast Asia.” Knox claimed that this number understates the problem because it doesn’t account for people who are detained, harassed or receive threats. 

Knox gave the example of a woman in Vietnam whose livelihood was impacted by a massive oil spill. The woman blogged about this environmental catastrophe and criticized the state. As a result, she was sent to jail for ten years for speaking out. 

 “Most people don’t set out to be a human rights defender. Most are personally affected by a harmful environment and therefore start asking questions and want more information,” Knox said.

She explained that governments and private actors are rapidly exploiting natural resources, and the people who depend directly on these resources are thus marginalized. 

Knox claims that states must protect against foreseeable environmental harm to human rights and use discretion to strike a balance between environmental harm and human rights. 

Additionally, states have duties to protect populations from non-state actors and have heightened duties to protect the most vulnerable.  

Knox discussed his own reports on climate change and human rights.

“Climates that are most affected are the ones that have contributed the least to the problem,” he said. 

Additionally, his report discusses children and the environment: this population is the most vulnerable to environmental harm, and 1.5 million  children die because of avoidable environmental damage. 

In his most recent report, presented in March 2018, Knox proposed that the United Nations recognize the right to a healthy environment at an international level, as it would solidify and organize the existing law of environmental human rights. 

“We have the content, but we don’t have the clear label or term we can use, and it is important to recognize the right to a healthy environment at the global level,” Knox said. 

 This recognition could be a cornerstone to go beyond existing law and cover new areas.  Additionally, such policy would recognize an intrinsic value to environmental rights, as it would not only protect populations but also the natural world. 

Sophomore Zoe Frishberg reflected on the lecture. 

 “I think that it is extremely sad that so many children around the world die from living in an unhealthy environment, especially when a lot of these issues are avoidable,” she said. 

Additionally, junior Taylor Collins also found the lecture covered relevant issues. 

“It is important to take care of our environment and address issues such as climate change because environmental harm is not only affecting our world now, but also will have many implications for future generations,” she said. 

Contact Meghan McMahon at [email protected].