Diagonal Environmental Rights

UNIVERSAL HUMAN RIGHTS AND EXTRATERRITORIAL OBLIGATIONS, Mark Gibney & Sigrun Skogly, eds., University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010

31 Pages Posted: 19 May 2008 Last revised: 21 May 2013

See all articles by John H. Knox

John H. Knox

Wake Forest University - School of Law


Environmental rights are diagonal if they are held by individuals or groups against the governments of states other than their own. The potential importance of such rights is obvious: governments' actions often affect the environment beyond their jurisdiction, and those who live in and rely upon the environment affected would like to be able to exercise rights against the governments causing them harm. Although international law has not adopted a comprehensive, uniform approach to such rights, human rights law and international environmental law have begun to develop some possible bases for diagonal environmental rights.

Human rights law operates primarily along a vertical axis, setting out individuals' rights against their governments and the corresponding duties owed by the governments, but it may also be diagonal, giving rise to duties on the part of states that extend beyond their own territory. The scope and extent of diagonal human rights are often controversial, and environmental rights face additional difficulties, because the environmental protection required by human rights is clarifying only gradually, on a case-by-case basis. To the extent that human rights require such protection when aligned vertically, it would be logical to conclude that they require the same degree of protection whenever they may be aligned diagonally. Human rights law provides few precedents to support that conclusion, however. Compared to human rights law, international environmental law (IEL) provides a clearer and more specific set of duties with respect to environmental protection. Moreover, most IEL is extraterritorial, in that it requires states to regulate actions within their control that could harm the environment beyond their territory. The problem with grounding diagonal environmental rights in IEL is that, in contrast to human rights law, most IEL operates along a horizontal axis: its duties are owed by states to other states, not to private actors. If the challenge for human rights law is to extend rights from the vertical axis to the diagonal, the challenge for IEL is to derive diagonal rights from horizontal ones.

Keywords: Human rights law, international environmental law, extraterritoriality

JEL Classification: K32, K33

Suggested Citation

Knox, John H., Diagonal Environmental Rights. UNIVERSAL HUMAN RIGHTS AND EXTRATERRITORIAL OBLIGATIONS, Mark Gibney & Sigrun Skogly, eds., University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1134863

John H. Knox (Contact Author)

Wake Forest University - School of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 7206
Winston-Salem, NC 27109
United States

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