There has been a growing trend toward the creation of a right to a healthy environment in domestic jurisdictions worldwide. From the pioneering constitutions of Portugal and Spain in 1976 and 1978 respectively, the right to a healthy environment is now included in close to half of the world’s constitutions – a remarkably rapid rate of global adoption that no other recently created human right has matched. As of 2012, 95 constitutions include a substantive right to a healthy environment and courts in at least a dozen other countries have ruled that the right to a healthy environment is implicit in the constitutional right to life. Other countries have incorporated the right into national environmental legislation. In many countries where it is recognized, the right has served as the basis for the adoption of stronger environmental laws and innovative litigation, with very positive outcomes for the protection of the environment and the rights of local populations. Despite these important successes, the spread and influence of the right to a healthy environment has been uneven across regions and groups of states. While the right to a healthy environment is well-established in Latin America and Europe, the right has not gained much traction in North America or Oceania, and implementation lags in some regions. This mixed record affects the ability of citizens to seek environmental justice, the power of courts to take measures to protect the environment, and the obligation for policy-makers to adopt more sustainable laws, policies, and practices. While scholars have long debated the nature and status of this right, the reasons for its emergence and its concrete implications for environmental governance at the domestic level are only beginning to attract academic scrutiny.
A better understanding of the processes through which rights gain traction and affect outcomes in systems of environmental governance is necessary not only to advance knowledge in this area, but to assist practitioners and communities working on these issues on the ground. To this end, the Yale / UNITAR workshop will bring together scholars and practitioners to catalyze new thinking and strategic action on the pathways through which the diffusion and effectiveness of rights in environmental governance may be enhanced.
The Yale / UNITAR workshop should result in three specific outcomes:
- the adoption of an innovative research agenda on rights in environmental governance, which will build on discussions held during the workshop and which will be released by Yale and UNITAR in the lead-up to the third Yale / UNITAR conference on environmental democracy and governance;
- the integration of insights into an on-going research and stakeholder consultation project led by the GEM Initiative and supported by the Climate and Land Use Alliance on the diffusion and effectiveness of community rights at the nexus of forest and climate governance; and
- the planning of a new initiative to enhance the recognition and implementation of the right to a healthy environment around the world.
The Yale / UNITAR workshop focuses on two principal themes:
- Explaining the Emergence of Rights in Environmental Governance Systems and Arrangements: There is an extensive body of scholarship documenting the advent of rights-based norms, institutions, and practices in different modes and systems of environmental governance around the world, including international treaties and regimes, domestic laws, courts, administrative processes, non-state market-driven systems, and non-governmental projects and arrangements. There is comparatively little research however on the explanations that can account for these phenomena. Participants at the workshop will be urged to consider the varying role of ideas, identities, and interests in the diffusion of rights in environmental governance (or lack thereof), the role of actors and institutions across multiple scales in accelerating or hindering diffusion, and the implications of these processes for the durability and effectiveness of rights in different contexts.
- Examining the Influence of Rights on Environmental Governance and Outcomes: Most of the existing literature focuses largely on the legal, ethical, and policy implications of rights for environmental governance. Further theory-development and empirical research is required to understand the different ways in which rights matter for environmental governance processes and outcomes at multiple scales (local, national, regional, and international) and across sectors (governmental, inter-governmental, commercial, and non-governmental). Participants at the workshop will be urged to reflect upon the factors and mechanisms that can best explain whether, how, and to what extent rights may influence the evolution and effectiveness of systems and regimes for environmental governance, with a particular focus on the causal and constitutive pathways though which rights may shape outcomes in particular contexts.
Following closure of the workshop, interested participants are invited to stay for a planning meeting for the 3rd Global UNITAR/Yale Conference on Environmental Governance and Democracy scheduled to take place in 2014 with the theme of “Human Rights, Climate Change and the Environment: Generating Knowledge for Policy Making”.