Achieving environmental justice through human rights

Many of our basic human rights are dependent on people being able to live in a clean and healthy environment. But ‘environmental rights’ are not recognised formally in Australia.

Many of our basic human rights are dependent on people being able to live in a clean and healthy environment. The right to life, cultural rights, the right to water and the right to health can’t be achieved unless we have clean air, clean water, and unpolluted land to grow food.  But ‘environmental rights’ are not recognised formally in Australia.

Envirojustice lawyers regularly witness and deal with the human rights implications of environmental issues.  These range from the exclusion of communities from participating in decision-making processes, to the detrimental environmental, health and cultural impacts resulting from development, in particular on those people most disadvantaged and disempowered.

The Victorian government is currently reviewing the Victorian Human Rights Charter to determine whether it can more effectively protect Victorian citizen’s rights. Envirojustice made a submission calling for environmental rights to be recognised and protected in the Charter.

Environmental justice and human rights

In its response to a recent State of the Environment report the Victorian Government stated:

“The Victorian Government is strongly committed to environmental justice, including ensuring that the environment is protected for the benefit of the community, that the community is meaningfully involved in decision making, that there is fair treatment through environmental regulation and that impacts and opportunities are fairly and proportionately shared.”

Although the concept of environmental justice is continually evolving , at its core achieving environmental justice means achieving two things: ensuring environmental risk is not unfairly distributed within the community, particularly to disadvantaged people (distributive justice), and ensuring that all communities can participate in decisions about the environment (procedural or participatory justice).

From our 23 years of work with Victorian communities we know that environmental injustice is experienced throughout Victoria, and in some cases significantly impacts on the human rights of individuals in those communities affected. The most obvious recent example is the Hazelwood mine fire in the Latrobe Valley, where residents were subjected to extremely high levels of toxic pollution for up to 45 days, with an ongoing inadequate response from government agencies. The Latrobe Valley community, which is already disadvantaged in a number of ways, bore – and continues to bear – a disproportionate burden of the harms that result from electricity generation that all Victorians benefit from.

One clear way of achieving the government’s commitment to environmental justice is to recognise environmental rights in the Human Rights Charter.  In most cases, environmental injustice occurs as result of government decision-making and Parliamentary law-making, and therefore incorporating environmental rights in the Charter would ensure that issues that form the basis of environmental justice are considered by government agencies and the Parliament in policy and decision-making. This would make a significant contribution to achieving the government’s commitment to environmental justice.

We are calling on the government to reduce environmental injustice in Victoria via the Charter by:

  • Protecting the specific right to a clean and healthy environment (to address the distributive justice element).
  • Protecting the specific right to access to information, public participation in decision making and access to justice in environmental matters (to address the procedural justice element).
  • Recognising the principle that all human rights are indivisible, interdependent and interrelated, and therefore extending protection under the Charter to all economic and social rights outlined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, including those rights that would directly or indirectly protect and promote environmental rights:
    • the right to an adequate standard of living;
    • the right to the highest attainable standard of health;
    • the right to water;
    • the right to food.

Climate change and human rights

The government has also stated that addressing climate change is a critical issue for Victoria, saying that “the Victorian Government will reposition Victoria as a climate change leader”.

The linkages between climate change and human rights have been well established.  Including rights in relation to climate change in the Charter would ensure that the Parliament and government agencies were properly considering the impacts their actions in mitigating or failing to mitigate climate change have on Victorian citizens. It would assist the Victorian public service to focus on and increase the priority of climate change in their decision-making.  It would therefore be an appropriate and effective way the Victorian Government could fulfill its commitment to making Victoria a climate change leader.

The independent review is due to report to the Attorney General by 1 September 2015 and the report will be tabled in Parliament by 1 October 2015. You can read our full submission here.

April 2018 update:

The Victorian Government has promised to develop a whole-of-government environmental justice strategy, as part of its response to recommendations from the recent EPA inquiry.

Environmental Justice Australia has produced a 4-page outline paper to help communities and individuals who want to engage with the Victorian Government and who may attend the consultations being run in April 2018 by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.

The paper outlines what an environmental justice model could contain and gives some preliminary suggestions about specific commitments that could be made by the Victorian Government.

An Environmental Justice Strategy for Victoria (PDF, 145KB)

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