Environment and human rights is one of the top priorities for the PACE President since his election in January 2020.
PACE adopted, at its last session (29 September 2021), seven resolutions that are demanding a paradigm shift in international and national law, as well as government policies, to ensure that a healthy environment is recognised as a basic human right.
In the course of the debates, the PACE members discussed many quite far-reaching proposals to "anchor" such a right in law, policy, practice and the public consciousness.
It was unanimously agreed that a healthy environment is essential for all of us and that it must become a legally enforceable right.
One key demand is that a new right to "a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment" be added as a protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights, which could make it legally enforceable in national courts across the continent and in the European Court for Human Rights. This demand has already been communicated to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, who decide to consider the need for and feasibility of further legal instruments. The Assembly will maintain its close dialogue with the CM on this matter.
Other proposals agreed by the Assembly included more government regulation to strengthen corporate environmental responsibility, changes in criminal and civil liability to give greater protection to the biosphere, boosting participatory democracy as environmental concerns rise up the political agenda, and better harnessing the rule of law to tackle the climate crisis.
The Assembly believes that the European vision of contemporary human rights protection could become a benchmark for ecological human rights in the 21st century and an example for a wider world, if action is taken now. So far, this vision has been limited to civil and political rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights and its Protocols and socio-economic rights recognised in the European Social Charter. It is now time for Europe as a continent lead the entire world in this new legal domain.
The ECtHR’s case law provides for indirect protection of a right to the environment by sanctioning only environmental violations that simultaneously result in an infringement of other human rights already recognised in the Convention. The Court thus favours an anthropocentric and utilitarian approach to the environment which prevents natural elements from being afforded any protection per se. The Assembly believes that this clearly insufficient and it is important to recognise the intrinsic value of Nature and ecosystems in the light of the interrelationship between human societies and Nature.
The Assembly is convinced that the Council of Europe as the European continent's leading human rights and rule of law organisation should stay proactive in the evolution of human rights, adapt its legal framework accordingly and lead the European governments in these issues through its multilateral co-operation mechanisms. A legally binding and enforceable instrument, such as an additional protocol to the Convention, would finally give the Court a non-disputable base for rulings concerning human rights violations arising from environment-related adverse impacts on human health, dignity and life.
Recognising an autonomous right to a healthy environment would have the benefit of allowing a violation to be found irrespective of whether another right had been breached and would therefore raise the profile of this right. In this context, one may note that the United Nations, in its studies and resolutions on human rights and the environment, mainly refers to the human rights obligations linked to the enjoyment of "a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment". It is worth mentioning that the UN Human Rights Council adopted (on 5 October 2021) a resolution on the Human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, in which this right is recognised, and the States are called to adopt policies to ensure its full enjoyment.
With a view to achieving these ambitious goals, the Assembly urges national parliaments to advocate for adequate protection of the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment at national, European and global level. It invites them to hold extensive public consultations on this matter and to proceed with the adoption of laws and the initiation of the legal instruments necessary for the completion of the comprehensive coverage of this right, and to monitor their effective implementation.
The Assembly, however, reiterates that transparent, accountable and democratic process should be followed while implementing the aim of "net zero emissions", based on clear and credible plans to meet commitments to keep the global temperature increase in line with the preferred objective of the Paris Agreement (amounting to an increase in average temperatures of 1.5°C).
Clearly, while various protest movements have shown their strength and demonstrated the concerns of the society, there definitely needs to exist an institutional structure to allow for representative, sustainable, regular and impactful public participation. The Assembly strongly believes that representative democracy can be enriched by meaningful public participation, which also provides a credible response to citizens demands, in particular young people, to be more regularly involved in decision-making and in the debate on the ecological transition and the green recovery plan.
The Assembly believes that involving young people in decision-making processes addressing the climate crisis is of key importance.
The Assembly therefore urges governments to combine a clear political engagement and top-down leadership with bottom-up, participatory governance, to tackle the urgency of the climate crisis and ensure meaningful contributions from citizens.
Finally, it is important to stress that any public and political debates on environmental matter should be based on reason, evidence, arguments, perspectives and different forms of knowledge and not be dominated by power, money or partisan logics.