Reconnecting with Nature
Over the past 70 years, a series of important human rights treaties have come into being. As human rights treaties are the results of historically and politically contingent processes, they do not cover the needs and aspirations of all oppressed groups, neither do they sufficiently reflect the values, normative concepts and legal traditions of all peoples on Earth. International human rights law is rather limited insofar as it has been shaped predominantly by Western powers. Therefore, it should be regarded as work in progress. A simple test should illustrate the long-standing flaws of human rights law: Does the word ‘nature’ appear in human rights treaties? Did they recognize the inextricable connection between human beings, their communities and nature and protect this relationship as a matter of fundamental right? The answer is no (Seufert 2020).
Despite our deep connection with the rest of nature, modern (western) thinking and actions, including law and policymaking, treat humans and the rest of nature as two separate, distinct and independent spheres. This separation is central to the deep ecological crises that the world is facing, and which are manifest most strongly in human-made global warming as well as in the dramatic loss of many living species. Both climate change and the current mass extinction will deeply affect human societies because we cannot escape from these massive disturbances. The emergence of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 and the profound crisis it has caused is the latest manifestation of this distorted relationship (Wallace et al. 2020). Addressing these existential crises will require us to overcome this separation, which was for long time also reflected in human rights concepts and agreements, and to reorganize our societal relationship to nature.
Indigenous Peoples are among the first who started challenging the limited conceptual framework of human rights. They struggled for more than 30 years for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous (UNDRIP). This declaration is a watershed development for at least two reasons: it recognizes the right to land and territory and thus the importance of land, water, medicinal plants, animals and minerals for sustaining human life; and it stresses the collective dimension of this and other rights.
Indigenous Peoples are not the only social group that depends on land and territory for their livelihoods, as well as for their very existence as community. Peasants, family farmers, fisherfolk, pastoralists and other rural people also depend on nature. They have traditionally questioned the idea of turning natural resources into commodities, and have consequently demanded state/social regulation to keep community-based control of natural resources as a matter of right. This demand has been finally met with the adoption of the UN Declaration on the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas (UNDROP) in 2018. While respecting the distinct rights of Indigenous Peoples, UNDROP recognizes a right to land and other natural resources, rights to seeds and biodiversity, to water for livelihoods, to a healthy environment, as well as economic rights protecting labour and the economic activities of the rural population.
The looming collapse of the earth system as well as the rapid degradation of local ecosystems is closely linked to the sharp increase of inequalities and the concentration of resources in the hands of a few powerful actors, the destruction of the social fabric from the community to the national level and resulting migration, as well as wars and famine. The consequence is increasing violence against communities and people, which is further exacerbated by the rise of authoritarianism in all parts of the world. Non-white, male people and in particular women are affected by such violence. On the one hand, these social groups are over-exploited to perform essential care work for society; on the other hand, they depend stronger on healthy ecosystems for their livelihoods.Footnote 1 There is indeed a close link between the way societies (mis)treat and exploit humans on the one hand and nature on the other.Footnote 2
In this context, UNDRIP, UNDROP and the General Recommendation N° 34 on the rights of rural women of the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW GR34) as well as the efforts to recognize a universal human right to a healthy environment and the rights of nature in national constitutions illustrate one of the emancipatory ways in which human rights are currently evolving.Footnote 3 Human rights and ecological and climate concerns need to be brought together, in order to overcome the separation between humans and nature and to clearly formulate states’ obligations to ensure the recognition and value of care work as well as of healthy ecosystems, locally and globally. Existing entry points, such as the rights to biodiversity and the rights to land and natural resources, as well as their sustainable use, as recognized by UNDRIP, UNDROP and CEDAW GR 34 provide important building blocks. Indigenous Peoples and communities, in particular those of small-scale food producers, are those who take care of most ecosystems; protecting and strengthening their rights is therefore a key obligation of states. However, the process of reconciling legal frameworks would also have to address challenges such as establishing limits to the human use of natural resources and the question of how to deal with situations of conflicts between human needs and ecological protection.
Implementing UNDROP also provides an opportunity to re-interpret key instruments of environmental and climate law from a human rights perspective, taking into account UNDRIP as well as CEDAW GR34 and other relevant human rights standards. This is critical in order to clarify the relationship between the rights of peoples, groups and communities that directly depend on functioning ecosystems and the protection of such systems. The Convention on Biodiversity (CBD), for instance, is built upon the premise that states have sovereignty over the genetic resources in their jurisdiction. The question that arises from the recognition of specific rights of Indigenous Peoples and other rural people related to such resources by UNDRIP, UNDROP and CEDAW GR34 (as well as other human rights instruments) then is: What do states’ sovereign responsibilities entail in terms of obligations to protect and guarantee communities’ and peoples’ rights? Answering this question could help policymakers and other actors understand that key to addressing the rapid decline of biodiversity and climate change is the effective protection of Indigenous Peoples’ and other rural peoples’ management and production systems, including their tenure rights and systems, among other measures. This, as well as a better linkage between human rights spaces with those dealing with environmental, biodiversity and climate issues is crucial in order to establish multifunctional and inter-sectorial policies and institutions, which are able to address the contemporary world's multifaceted challenges.
Challenging Financial Capitalism
Another area of critical questioning of the existing human rights framework relates to whether or not human rights are a ‘handmaiden’ to capitalism. Capitalism is the main economic system today, and most people have no alternative but to rely on capitalist markets to access basic resources. At the same time, many deep criticisms have been levelled against capitalism, the concentration of wealth and power that it seems to entail, the exploitation of nature and workers and the subordination of women on which it depends. The idea of human rights that is dominant today emerged in Europe at the same time as the capitalist system, which co-evolved together. Rights, especially individual political rights and the right to property, arose as a new way to structure social relationships in a capitalist society, and an original focus was on protecting private individuals (and their wealth) from abuses or overreach by the state. How prevalent this understanding still is (Neier 2015) is illustrated with this anecdote: Amnesty International considered supporting the advocacy work of UNDROP but in the end decided not to engage, because the Declaration explicitly recognizes the human right to land. Part of the normative content of the human right to land includes the obligation to undertake redistributive land reform in contexts of strong inequality and poverty. This would have gone against an organizational decision adopted by Amnesty International during the Cold War, according to which the organization is not supposed to work on issues related to the right to property.Footnote 4
It is thus not surprising that important streams of the human rights movement do not challenge up front the existing economic system, namely financial capitalism, and its property relationships but rather frame the obvious problems of neoliberal absolutism as an issue of ‘business and human rights’. Their efforts are focused on corporate responsibility and due diligence and on bringing companies themselves to respect human rights, either voluntarily or through state legislation. As a result, today business speaks the language of human rights, is influencing conceptually and practically human rights work, and is using a human rights discourse to increase its legitimacy in global development discourse.
Given the scale of human rights violations and ecological destruction driven by today’s financial capitalism in particular, the ‘business and human rights’ approach may have brought some improvements in specific situations but it is failing to address the very scale and depth of these structural injustices. In this sense, it is failing the emancipatory potential of human rights. There are other streams of the human rights movement, which emerged rather from anti-imperialist, national liberation movements and from various grassroots struggles seeking economic justice that are increasingly focusing on overcoming the limitations of the ‘business and human rights’ approach. Noteworthy here are the efforts around the UN Treaty on Business and Human Rights seeking to clearly establish the obligation of states and the international community to mandatorily regulate transnational corporations and put an end to the rampant impunity of their crimes. Since the 1970′s, civil society organizations have been calling for the adoption of binding international regulations for transnational corporations (TNCs). No specific binding international law currently exists to prevent harm by the activities of TNCs and the enterprises connected within their supply or global productive chains. Furthermore, there is an additional gap in international law with regards to the legal accountability of such entities. Existing voluntary regulations are vague and in some cases ambiguous. They have failed to provide effective human rights protection, especially with regards to the cross-border impacts of transnational business activities and the access to justice for affected individuals and communities. Instead, human rights crimes and abuses by TNCs have become widespread in the context of globalization.Footnote 5
Other efforts go beyond prosecuting the wrongdoings of corporations. They are trying to use human rights to change some of the structures of the existing economic system: the field of tax justice is a prominent example where human rights organizationsFootnote 6 are urging states to strengthen their redistributive function in markets and society by reforming corporate global tax rules, closing down global tax havens, and re-shaping international institutions and agreements in order to be able to regulate global financial flows according to human rights obligations.
Likewise, grassroots social movements have used human rights for decades to challenge the idea that food, housing, health and education are commodities. If food is a human right and food systems are commons or public goods, individual/corporate property rights to land, water, forests, fisheries or seeds cannot be the predominant model which overrides all other forms of social relationship with these natural goods, particularly collective and community-based ones. The Human Rights Treaty Bodies as well as several UN Special Rapporteurs have analyzed in detail the impacts of privatization of public services on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights; and have provided recommendations and guidance on how to overcome these challenges (Farha 2017; Boly-Barry 2019). Human rights should play a key role in re-shaping and regulating markets and property so that they are able to fulfil a social and public function. There is therefore an urgent need for a stronger connection between human rights and economic governance in the UN system. This includes recognizing the primacy of human rights over trade and investment as well as overcoming policy and law-making fragmentation and incoherence.