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Pakistan, South Africa have environmental human rights. Why haven’t we?

4th October 2018

Unlike 100 other countries, Australians cannot call government to account for human rights consequences of climate change inaction

  • Other countries have constitutional rights to clear air, clean water and land.
  • Citizens are successfully bringing cases against their governments for environmental human rights breaches.
  • US group of young people taking government to court for restricting their right to life, liberty and property on October 29

Australia is one of a few developed countries without laws to hold its government to account for climate change inaction and the impact of global warming on environmental human rights, says QUT law academic Dr Bridget Lewis.

“Some 100 countries have environmental human rights set out in their constitutions that declare individuals’ rights to clean air, clean water, land for livelihoods,” said Dr Lewis, whose new book Environmental Human Rights and Climate Change surveys legal mechanisms for people to assert their rights to a healthy environment and sustainable development.

“From mines and dams to coal seam gas fracking and inaction on climate change, communities around the world are taking their countries to court, and we’re starting to see more success in cases based on breaches of environmental human rights.

“Pakistan, Norway, South Africa, the Philippines and a number of Latin American nations are among countries with constitutional rights enabling individuals and communities to take their governments to task for environmental breaches, including failing to implement strong climate action.”

Dr Lewis said the newly proposed dams for Australia’s Top End could have significant implications for human rights.

“Such projects could impact on a range of human rights, particularly those of Indigenous communities.

“Australia has adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which affirms Indigenous peoples’ rights to their lands and cultures, and participation in decision-making.

“Other rights found in international human rights law could also be implicated, like the right to freedom of movement, to an adequate standard of living, and other economic rights.

“While these rights are guaranteed in international law, they depend on governments to implement them in national law, and that’s where Australia is lacking.

“We have some legislation that allows for complaints, but the available remedies are limited and if the government wants to proceed with an activity that breaches human rights then there’s not a lot that can stop them.” 

Dr Lewis said dam projects in other parts of the world had been held to breach human rights for displacing people from their land and disrupting communities and lifestyles.

“The Brazilian government is currently before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in a case brought by indigenous and traditional communities forced to leave their land for the Belo Monte Dam without compensation or adequate provision to ensure their cultural survival,” she said.

“The Australian government cites the need to combat drought and food security as key reasons for investing in dam projects like the ones under consideration.

“However, concerns about drought need to be met by strong action on climate change to ensure we don’t create new human rights problems in responding to a changing climate.

“In the US, litigation brought by Our Children’s Trust will see the US Government in court on October 29 for violating  a group of young people’s constitutional right to ‘life, liberty, and property’ by actions contributing to climate change. (Juliana v US)

“Governments’ failure to take action to avoid environmental impacts of climate change like drought, which threaten basic human rights to food, water, and an adequate standard of living, is emerging as an issue against which communities around the world are rising up.”

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