Enforcing Environmental Human Rights: Selected Strategies of US NGOs

Cassel, Jennifer | January 1, 2008

In spite of the clear link between environmental harm and human rights violations, international human rights law which contemplates environmental destruction as a violation of human rights has only recently begun to emerge, and clear definitions of environmental human rights have yet to be formulated. Scholars in the field have proposed different concepts of environmental rights, including environmental rights as new, separate human rights, and environmental rights as encompassed within previously established human rights. Three non-governmental organizations, Earthjustice, the Center for International Environmental Law (“CIEL”), and Earthrights, have strategically used those concepts in their pursuit of enforcing environmental human rights. Earthjustice’s strategy has involved working through the United Nations system toward establishing environmental rights as enforceable law. CIEL has pursued environmental rights enforcement by submitting petitions to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (“IACHR”). Finally, Earthrights International has focused on submitting amicus briefs in litigation in US federal courts under the Alien Torts Claims Act. Of the three strategies used by these organizations, CIEL’s strategy of petitioning the IACHR to recognize the violation of well-established human rights by means of environmental degradation has been most successful in enforcing environmental rights claims thus far. By continuing to petition regional tribunals like the IACHR to enforce both concepts of environmental rights, as well as pressing international bodies to recognize such rights, international law may finally come to recognize the inherent intertwining of human rights and the environment.