From the Ogoni people devastated by oil drilling in Nigeria to the Inuit and other indigenous populations threatened by climate change, communities disparately burdened by environmental degradation are increasingly framing their demands for environmental justice in the language of environmental human rights. Domestic and international tribunals have concluded that failure to protect the environment violates a variety of human rights (including the rights to life, health, food, water, property, and privacy; the collective rights of indigenous peoples to their ancestral lands and resources; and the right to a healthy environment). Some scholars have questioned the utility of the human rights framework given the diminished governance capacity of many Third World states due to decades of intervention by international financial institutions and restrictions imposed by trade and investment agreements. Others have expressed doubts about the ability of human rights law to adequately articulate and advance the aspirations and resistance strategies of diverse grassroots social justice movements, and have warned about the susceptibility of human rights law and discourse to co-optation by powerful states to advance their own economic and political interests (for example, through “humanitarian intervention” in Third World states). This article examines the promise and the peril of environmental human rights as a means of challenging environmental injustice within nations as well as the North-South dimension of environmental injustice. Drawing a distinction between human rights discourse as a tool of popular mobilization and human rights law as codified in legal instruments and enforced by international institutions, the article examines some of the limitations of human rights law as an instrument of resistance to environmental injustice and offers several strategies to enhance its emancipatory potential.
Environmental Justice, Human Rights, and the Global South, 13 SANTA CLARA J. INT’L L. 151