Climate Action

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Climate Change Effects on Human Rights

  • Irene AntonopoulosEmail author
Living reference work entry


The climate change effects on human rights are the consequences of climate change and climate change adaptation strategies on the enjoyment of human rights as guaranteed by International Human Rights Instruments. Climate change affects the natural environment primarily. But human rights analysis focuses on the anthropocentric interests to these environmental changes: how does climate change affect human rights. The traditional notion of human rights suggests that individuals should be protected by state interference with the enjoyment of their fundamental human rights. In the case of climate change, human rights are under a threat due to a global environmental phenomenon, creating a challenge over imposing state duties to protect the affected human rights. Although the link between climate change and human rights is evident, there is little legal response that will efficiently address the protection of the rights of affected people amidst climate change effects.


The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development made explicit declarations over the need to commit to achieving sustainable development and protect human rights. “We resolve, between now and 2030, to end poverty and hunger everywhere; to combat inequalities within and among countries; to build peaceful, just and inclusive societies; to protect human rights and promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls; and to ensure the lasting protection of the planet and its natural resources … As we embark on this great collective journey, we pledge that no one will be left behind. Recognizing that the dignity of the human person is fundamental, we wish to see the Goals and targets met for all nations and peoples and for all segments of society. And we will endeavour to reach the furthest behind first” (UN General Assembly 2015). The Agenda utilizes language, common to human rights documents recognizing human dignity as a primary concern. In the Agenda, “human dignity” coexists with aims for the protection of the natural environment and natural resources. In addressing these combined aims, the Agenda seeks to eliminate inequality by providing that amidst climate change and its consequences as well as throughout the implementation of adaptation measures, “no one will be left behind” (UN General Assembly 2015). The document attempts to align eco-centric interests with human-centered interests, by seeking to ensure the protection of natural resources and achieve social cohesion for the benefit of current and future generations. This combination of aims is relatively rare and one that is not easily translated in legal rules, whether environmental laws or human rights laws. In addition, this combined approach is vulnerable to criticism, since the value of protecting the environment is overshadowed by a focus on humans and their needs in a rapidly changing natural environment. The reality is that the speed by which changes are witnessed amidst climate change creates multidimensional challenges. It therefore requires a combined and balanced approach through legally binding efforts.

The Birth of Human Rights Protection

Foundations of human rights, dated from the thirteenth century, derive from natural law theory – laws should be created to comply with natural justice – aiming at regulating human conduct (Bates 2013). With the French Revolution embodying the theories of Rousseau and Montesquieu over the meaning of natural rights and social contract, the impact of the French Declaration of the Rights of the Man and Citizen (1789) influenced the schools of thought to come, leading to the formulation of legal rules (Bates 2013). Human rights, although discussed and formulated historically, only gained an explicit recognition and one that afforded a legal protection, in the post-World War II era. Prior to the end of World War II, there was little to suggest the setting of obligations on states to protect the rights of their citizens. Even more novel was the notion that one state could interfere in the affairs of another state in ensuring such a protection.

Following the atrocities witnessed during World War II, a new approach was necessary under international law that required the setting of rules. These rules aimed at eliminating state interference with people’s rights. After the establishment of the United Nations, the UN Commission of Human Rights, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, was tasked with drafting the UN Declaration of Human Rights. The reported debates over several matters including the interpretations of “human rights” in different languages indicate political and diplomatic factors affecting the process (Whelan 2010). Although a groundbreaking moment in history, the document was never intended to be legally binding, making it vulnerable to further criticism (General Assembly 1948). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a non-legalistic document but one that created moral duties on states to protect the rights, inherent to all humans by nature, equally. Ultimately, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights created general moral duties on states to ensure the protection of individuals’ rights within their territories. This vertical relationship is better evidenced in the later internationally adopted documents of the United Nations, where states would be held liable for failing to meet their obligations in protecting the most vulnerable. Although such a lack of protection did not warrant sanctions, the political implications of inaction and the “naming and shaming” of serial human rights violators forced several states to comply with their international obligations, ensuring, to an extent, the universality of human rights (Franklin 2015).

The Effects of Climate Change on the Different Categories of Human Rights

These different UN human rights instruments protected different categories of rights. In general, human rights were traditionally seen as being separated in three categories of rights. The first-generation rights, or first category of rights, included civil and political rights such as the right to life, protection of privacy, and freedom from torture. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights came into force in 1976 and provided for the protection of this first category of rights. The focus on these rights was considered pivotal to the maintenance of a democratic society. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights came into force in 1976 as well and reflected the need for protection of rights such as the right to education and the right to adequate standard of living. But, their legal enforcement has been problematic, given their scope and the difficult obligations states have in protecting them. The obligations to protect these rights could be too onerous, especially for developing countries, considering that the protection of these rights is linked to a control of the country’s economic resources (Alston and Goodman 2013). Failure to comply with these obligations could also affect the protection of civil and political rights, considering that all rights are “indivisible, interdependent, and interrelated” (UN General Assembly 1993). The final category – third-generation solidarity rights – includes the right to development provided by the Declaration on the Right to Development. The right to development should be interpreted as the right to pursue development and not a right to be developed (Donnelly 1985), although there are multiple interpretations of the applicability of this right. The right to development has been controversial since its formulation, with some suggesting that it is pivotal to the protection of the remainder of human rights and others questioning its legal applicability (Alston and Goodman 2013).

The significance of the separation of human rights in categories is prevalent when discussing the effects of climate change on human rights. While climate change seems to affect primarily economic, social, and cultural rights, inevitably this has implications for the enjoyment of civil and political rights. Furthermore, one can argue that the third-generation rights are similarly under threat, since an obstacle to development can affect the enjoyment of the remainder human rights. These dilemmas are augmented when trying to identify the human rights violator. While states have duties to protect human rights, measures are reactionary to this rapidly developing phenomenon and difficult to be implemented in affected developing states. Ultimately, the traditional notions of human rights and state duties are blurred when trying to address the human rights effects of climate change.

Sustainable Development and Human Rights

The concept of sustainable development and its initial definition was formulated in 1983 by the World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission) which expressed a link between the environmental, economic, and social aspects of development, with a view to protecting the interests of current and future generations (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987). This approach required “intergenerational solidarity” which is an introduction of “intragenerational morality” (Stephens 2010). The interests of future generations are not only limited to the remainder of natural resources but also their ability to enjoy their fundamental human rights. But this comes contrary to the traditional scope of human rights law which covers human rights violations and not potential human rights violations affecting future generations. This disagreement between the two different concepts becomes futile due to the urgency of addressing the current problems, such as climate change affecting current generations, with a view to ensuring the welfare of future generations (Weiss 1990).

The idea of sustainable development was the result of the association between environmental degradation and its consequences to the human living conditions, inevitably connected to the protection of human rights. Therefore, the objectives of sustainable development can be traced in prevailing human rights norms as well as environmental law and economic growth goals. Efforts should be proportionally implemented and ensure that one category does not impede development in the other. For example, the protection of human rights is a prerequisite to achieving sustainable development and one that relates, prima facie, to social and economic factors (Taillant 2003). Inevitably the categories intersect. For instance, identifying and protecting those rights which are affected by environmental challenges is pivotal within the concept of sustainable development (McAllister 1992). The efficient protection of the environment leads to adequate and efficient protection of rights affected by environmental challenges. Evidently, this means that any measure that aims at addressing climate change is a measure that satisfies first human interests rather than nonhuman interests. Although this approach can be criticized as anthropocentric (Davies et al. 2017), the focus of human rights is the protection of the person, and therefore any linkages drawn from the Sustainable Development Goals are similarly anthropocentric.

This relationship was affirmed at the World Conference on the Human Environment in 1972 (United Nations 1972). The protection of human rights was directly applicable to the improvement of these human living conditions. Therefore the association of environmental degradation with the safeguarding of human rights was present since the early sustainable development strategies. Likewise, in 1992, the Rio Declaration indicated this linkage between sustainable development and the protection of human rights (UN General Assembly 1992). The declaration not only provided for guidelines for taking the necessary measures for achieving sustainable development, but also through Principle 10, it provided for people’s procedural rights in order to achieve sustainable development. The aims of sustainable development as well as the need for collective efforts toward achieving its aims were expressed in 2002, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (UN General Assembly 2002). The attention was shifted away from a combined consideration of sustainable development and human rights to a more environment-centered approach. Through the Johannesburg principles adopted, there was a commitment toward sustainable development, and a commitment to the UN Millennium Declaration was also affirmed. The goal of the 2002 Johannesburg Summit was to find better ways for the implementation of Agenda 21 10 years after its adoption. Therefore the focus remained on tackling environmental degradation and poverty as well as other “patterns of unsustainable development” (UN General Assembly 2012). But the subsequent resolution of RIO+20 stressed the importance of protecting human rights, as part of achieving sustainable development. Reaffirming the previously established sustainable development aims for “the promotion of economically, socially and environmentally sustainable future,” the resolution emphasized the need for recognizing their interlinkages (UN General Assembly 2012). It highlighted the importance of protecting the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with a special attention on women’s rights. The resolution repeatedly addressed the idea of empowering people by way of participating in sustainable development, thereby making associations with the protection of human rights in the context of sustainable development through the protection of the right to participate in the relevant decision-making process. These links are more frequent in the Sustainable Development Goals.

The Sustainable Development Goals and Human Rights Protection

Sustainable development and human rights protection are greatly linked through the protection of social elements and environmentally linked elements to the enjoyment of fundamental human rights. Nevertheless, the Millennium Development Goals did not reflect adequately on this interdependent relationship and in some occasions seemed to undermine the importance of protecting human rights in achieving these goals (Darrow 2012). As Alston explained, human rights and sustainable development were like “two ships passing in the night” missing a valuable opportunity to meet and align their aims (Alston 2005). As a result of setting separate goals, the applicable indicators were not aligned with the human rights obligations of each state (UNHCHR 2013). Identifying this gap, the post-2015 Agenda for Sustainable Development specifically mentioned the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other human rights treaties including the Declaration on the Right to Development. This declaration suggested an approach which is anthropocentric and based on human rights, with an attention on ensuring participation in decision-making, equal and fair enjoyment of the development benefits, allowing self-determination, and eliminating discrimination. These objectives, in line with sustainable development, require a universal and collective cooperation (UNHCHR 2015). Although the Millennium Development Goals reflected mostly on economic, social, and cultural rights, the Sustainable Development Goals reflected on all three categories of rights.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development reflects strongly on the protection of human rights through the 17 goals. “The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development marks a paradigm shift towards a more balanced model for sustainable development aiming to secure freedom from fear and freedom from want for all, without discrimination on any ground. Strongly grounded in international human rights standards, the new Agenda strives to leave no one behind and puts the imperative of equality and non-discrimination at its heart” (Transforming our World). Human rights “language” is used more frequently, and explicit declarations over the need to protect specific human rights are also often. This has been characterized as an “unprecedented” opportunity to align human rights protection with the Sustainable Development Goals (UNHCHR 2015). To date, no legally binding obligation has been set to that effect.

Sustainable Development Goal 13 and Human Rights

Traditionally the foundations of human rights protection focused on the protection of the individual rights from state interference. But with the effects of climate change deriving by nonhumans, the relationship between the victim and the human rights violator is near impossible to determine. Nevertheless more recent formulations of responses to climate change include recognition of the adverse effects of climate change to the enjoyment of human rights. The Paris Agreement “[reaffirmed] that climate change is a common concern of humankind, and that Parties should, when taking action to address climate change, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity” (UN 2016). Although this gives an insight into the concerns faced by these vulnerable groups, it does not provide specific guidance for a human rights law response to these.

Amidst a general recognition of the link between the enjoyment of human rights and an “environment of quality,” the links between climate change and human rights are obvious (Boer 2015). The major difference is that while private and public actors would be identified as those triggering human rights violations, climate change is a different phenomenon, albeit one that should be addressed through national measures, meeting state responsibility in combating its effects. The number one challenge when identifying human rights violations amidst climate change-related challenges is that there is no clarity over who causes climate change in order to place the blame for any related human rights violations. This would require a complicated exercise of awarding blame over greenhouse gas emissions, when in reality burden sharing in addressing the effects of climate change on people should be a priority (Türk and Nicholson 2005). Despite the fact that the Climate Change 2014 Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recognized that climate change is a human-induced phenomenon, the burden of climate change is carried around the world despite the contributions to the greenhouse gas emissions (IPCC 2014). According to the UN, “States should take into account human rights obligations and commitments relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment in the implementation and monitoring of the SDGs, bearing in mind the integrated and multi-sectoral nature of the latter” (UN General Assembly 2016). This means that, to have an accurate image of who is responsible over specific interferences with human rights amidst climate change, the state violator has to be identified as well as the victim and the specific right affected. Given the initial aims of human rights law and the cross border effects of climate change, this creates a legal lacunae.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has identified the main links between human rights and climate change to be the following: to (1) address climate change and limit the effects of climate change on the enjoyment of human rights; (2) ensure that all people are able to adapt to climate change; (3) guarantee accountability and remedies for the negative effects of climate change on human rights; (4) ensure the availability of resources to ensure the implementation of sustainable development and one that includes human rights considerations; (5) ensure global cooperation on achieving protection of human rights, given the cross border effects of climate change; (6) ensure that the needs of current and future generations will be met amidst these efforts; (7) ensure everyone should benefit equally from science and its applications; (8) protect human rights from non-state actors such as business activities; (9) act against discrimination and ensure equality; and (10) promote informed participation in decision-making (UNHCHR 2016). The main focus of these points is eliminating equality when addressing the effects of climate change and during the design and implementation of adaptation strategies, ensuring a protection across generations with the participation in decision-making of all parties. To that effect, the Human Rights Council has called for the implementation of anti-discrimination laws. “From a human rights perspective, lack of access to education, health, food security, employment, housing, health services and economic resources may often amount to a failure to achieve internationally agreed human rights” (Human Rights Council 2016). It should be noted that the language in expressing the relationship between human rights and climate change is carefully formulated. The attention is shifted toward facilitating human rights protection rather than identifying potential human rights violations.

With a focus on climate change and its severe environmental and social consequences, a human rights approach to environmental protection concentrates on the social problems caused by environmental degradation, creating objectives for empowerment toward better protection of the nonhuman environment. The effects of climate change have been mainly experienced in low-income areas and/or developing countries where the emissions of greenhouse gases were low. Achieving sustainable development should depend on the application of both environmental law and human rights law as well as other fields like law on disaster management and humanitarian law, targeting emerging problems that derive from climate change consequences (Mayer 2012). For example, attention should be paid to the human rights of “climate refugees,” who are claiming protection under the 1951 Refugee Convention based on alleged human rights violations amidst climate change effects (Refugee Appeal No. 72185/2000).

The Human Rights Council has repeatedly highlighted the dependence of the enjoyment of fundamental human rights on the addressing of the effects of climate change. The consequences of climate change on food, water, and shelter have obvious effects on the enjoyment of rights related not only to the right to food, water, and shelter but also to the right to life and right to enjoyment of private and family life. The Human Rights Council acknowledges that amidst environmental challenges and during the implementation of environmental protection measures, freedom from discrimination is pivotal. The Human Rights Council Resolution on Human Rights and the Environment recognized “that human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development, that the right to development must be fulfilled in order to meet the development and environmental needs of present and future generations equitably, and that the human person is the central subject of development and should be an active participant in and the beneficiary of the right to development” (UN General Assembly 2016). The resolution called upon states to take into consideration the fulfilment of their human rights obligations when implementing their obligations under the Sustainable Development Goals. A prevailing matter has been the protection of human rights amidst climate change but also during the implementation of adaptation measures.

The Indicators

The 2030 Sustainable Development Goals stressed the importance of ensuring the protection of the “human right to safe drinking water and sanitation and where there is improved hygiene and where food is sufficient, safe, affordable and nutritious.” These human rights aspects are affected by climate change and its effects such as floods, droughts, and rising sea levels. The further commitment to protecting the first category of rights reinforced the importance of protecting human rights as part of achieving sustainable development, a connection that was not present in previous sustainable development declarations. The agenda required the elimination of “distinction of any kind as to race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, disability or other status” (UN General Assembly 2015).

One can hardly “operationalize” the implementation of human rights without indicators. This problem has been addressed by commentators, as well as UN bodies. According to 2030 Agenda, the new indicator framework should be informed by human rights, in measuring progress. This approach meant that the indicators were not only formulated in order to take into account human rights, but the necessary data should have been collected, analyzed, and disseminated according to the established human rights principles (UN General Assembly 2015). The targets and indicators of Goal 13 are promoting the taking of action by states to implement adaptation measures to climate change and ensure education of people on these matters. In more detail, Indicator 13.1 “Strengthen resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related hazards and natural disasters in all countries” has direct links to the protection of the right to life. The remainder of the indicators have little to no relevance to legally binding human rights protection provisions. Issues related to the effects of climate change and specific threats to the enjoyment of human rights derive mostly from other goals and their targets which also address the right to health; right to adequate food; right to safe drinking water; and the right of all peoples to freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources. But this is not satisfactory. One of the major concerns around human rights protection and climate change comes from the emerging crisis of “climate-induced migration.” The increased movement caused by the severe consequences of climate change, such as floods, drought, rising sea levels, and increased frequency of extreme weather phenomena, warrants a more careful attention over the affected human rights of “climate refugees” and addressing them under international law. Specific human rights focused actions within SDG 13 is pivotal to addressing emerging challenges in line with established human rights provisions.

The Future

Addressing Goal 13 from a human rights angle requires alignment of climate change adaptation policies with human rights law. Such proposals have been made in relation to environmental policies and human rights law at a regional level (e.g., Antonopoulos 2018; Pavoni 2015). The most notable climate change focused attempt was made by the Global Network for the Study of Human Rights and the Environment (GNHRE 2016). The Declaration on Human Rights and Climate Change takes a novel approach in addressing the human rights aspects of climate change, by considering the interests of both the human and the nonhuman world in its wording. The declaration asks for a more careful consideration of the rights of members of vulnerable communities that are most likely to be affected by the multidimensional consequences of climate change such as indigenous populations. Most notably, the declaration clarifies both people’s rights amidst climate change and state duties in addressing the extraterritorial character of the phenomenon. Such clarity should be a priority for all legally binding documents to come seeking to address the human rights aspects of climate change.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Leicester De Montfort Law SchoolDe Montfort UniversityLeicesterUK

Section editors and affiliations

  • Anabela Marisa Azul
    • 1
  1. 1.Center for Neuroscience and Cell BiologyUniversity of CoimbraCoimbraPortugal