We must recognise the Human Right to a Healthy Environment

A report by Kenneth Gibson, MSP for Cunninghame North

On 17 March I spoke in a Scottish Parliament debate on the human right to a healthy environment.

I wholeheartedly supported my SNP colleague, Ruth Maguire, MSP for Cunninghame South’s, motion, that we incorporate our environment into Scotland’s human rights framework.

The idea of human rights – that everyone as a set of inalienable rights and freedoms – is a relatively modern one. Although the concept has its roots in the philosophies and ideals of the American and French Revolutions, it was not until the 20th century that these rights gained recognition on an international scale.

After the second world war, the international community was galvanised like never before. We can see this in the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the establishment and recognition of which was one of the defining achievements of the last century.

However, these rights reflect our lack of recognition, at a global level, of the scale of risk posed by environmental damage. Amazingly, UN member states have never formally recognised the human right to a healthy environment in a global instrument.

That is not to say that there has not been progress. The Stockholm Declaration of the 1972 United Nations Conference provided a non-binding set of principles and recommendations for environmental policy, and as a result over 100 countries now have a constitutional right to a healthy environment.

The UK participated in the Stockholm Conference but almost 50 years later has still to recognise the right to a healthy environment in law.

It is clear that advances in human rights protections come at times of turbulence, when social and political rights previously taken for granted are jeopardised. While it may not have been clear before, we have now reached a tipping point in the climate crisis. We can no longer deny this threat, which is increasingly obvious to Arran’s communities, not least because of increasingly frequent weather induced ferry disruptions.

Climate breakdown has already led to increased coastal erosion and landslides, biodiversity is under threat, and air pollution in parts of Scotland is at levels which are damaging to human health. It has become clear that we cannot survive without a healthy environment, which must be seen as a fundamental human right.

Tackling the climate crisis requires coordinated international action and COP26 in Glasgow this November will provide an opportunity. We are also witnessing a cultural change in Scotland and across the world, with growing demand from citizens and grass-roots organisations for environmental sustainability. Although this is true across Scotland, there is a particular drive for sustainability and environmentalism on Arran.

From the Lamlash Bay ‘No Take’ Zone to the work of Eco Savvy, we can see the hugely positive impact that progressive environmental policy can have at a community level.

If we are to survive the climate crisis, we must act now, and we must all act. This is a huge and daunting task with no easy answers. However, a commitment to recognising the right to a healthy environment fundamentally paves the way for real change. If I am returned to the Scottish Parliament in May, I will work with colleagues across the Chamber and in my constituency to ensure this human right is recognised.