Right to a healthy environment for a better ‘normal’

September 1, 2020

John Leo Algo

“The highest human right is the right to life.”

These are the words of Atty. Antonio Oposa, Jr., one of the foremost environmental lawyers in the world. Integral to upholding this right is accounting for what he calls “the LAW of life”: the land, air, and water that make human life possible. When the environment is violated, so is the right of any person to a healthy environment.

Human rights have arguably never been more threatened worldwide than today. While addressing the COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated restrictions in certain freedoms such as mobility to protect public health, it also creates opportunities for abuse and violations of other human rights. The pandemic has also highlighted how long-running issues such as poverty and inequality create conditions that further threaten universal human rights.

Reports of discrimination, limiting freedom of expression, and unfair detainments have filled our screens and airwaves for 2020 alone. In the Philippines, recent political and economic decisions have openly divided public opinion, even including the families of decision-makers themselves.

Amidst the different crises facing humankind today, what should not be overlooked is the need to respect and uphold the right to a healthy environment. The environmental crisis has been the result of decades of overexploitation of the Earth’s natural resources and excessive pollution of its lands, waters, and air. The uneven distribution of the benefits of these actions have also worsened poverty, conflicts, forced migration, and other threats to human health and security.

The COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, arguably the two global threats that need to be urgently addressed the most, are both directly rooted to this neglect of the environment. And in both cases, the cries of the poor have echoed the loudest, bearing the brunt of their impacts. Without the proper protection of their right to a healthy environment, those with lesser means for self-sustenance lose the guarantee they need for satisfying their basic needs, such as food, clean water, and safe housing.

Surprisingly, this right is not recognized in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. While human rights bodies have provided a greener interpretation of right to life and health among others, this lack of recognition at the international level must be resolved as more people are negatively affected by environmental degradation.

However, this right is recognized in the constitutions of over 100 countries. The Philippine Constitution recognizes the “right of the people to a balanced and healthful ecology in accord with the rhythm and harmony of nature”. This right has been upheld in landmark cases, most notably in the 1993 “Oposa vs. Factoran” case where the Supreme Court ruled that every generation has the responsibility to preserve a healthy environment for the next.

Now more than ever, we need the Philippine government to protect and promote the right to a healthy environment. The welfare of marginalized and vulnerable sectors, including the youth, women, indigenous peoples, and those living in areas directly affected by environmentally-destructive activities, need to be focused on. Safeguards must also be implemented to prevent the killings of local environmental defenders, as the country is considered the most dangerous in Asia.

The notion that there is a dichotomy between achieving economic development and environmental protection is false. While we need to use resources from the environment to meet our needs, a sustainable management of these actions is needed for improving our quality of life without compromising ecosystems and biodiversity. As we are experiencing nowadays with extreme weather events, plastic pollution, and other impacts, treating our environment like a bank from which to withdraw resources only leads to us paying a much higher price for it. Economic growth without development benefits only the few while harming the many.

True development is not just measured by traditional external indicators such as economic productivity or technological advancement; it should also be assessed by the development of human values that allow us to utilize these benefits in a socially responsible way. It is through this lens that we must monitor our collective progress moving forward, from environmental sustainability to protecting our basic human rights.

The most tumultuous of times define the character of a generation. With the numerous crises that need to be resolved, we must use our power to rewrite the narrative of the relationship between humankind and the environment.

Every decision we make from here on out, from how we consume products and goods to where we choose to invest our funds to the way we choose which leaders to elect every three years, must be in pursuit of achieving a better ‘normal’ not just for ourselves, but for others as well. If we truly intend to avoid reliving the mirrored reflections from our past, we must recognize one simple truth …

“The highest human right is the right to life.”

John Leo is a Haribon member. He is the Program Manager of Living Laudato Si’ Philippines and Climate Action for Sustainability Initiative. He has been a citizen journalist since 2016.

Sign the petition to make a healthy natural environment a human right at under United Nations.