Do We Need a Human Right to a Healthy Environment?

Santa Clara Journal of International Law, Vol. 13, No. 1, 2015

41 Pages Posted: 5 Sep 2015

See all articles by Rebecca M. Bratspies

Rebecca M. Bratspies

City University of New York - School of Law

Date Written: January 1, 2015


Melting ice, rising sea levels, and changing weather patterns attributable to climate change increasingly affect daily life for millions, and perhaps billions, of people. When the environment suffers, people suffer. Climate change increasingly interferes with the realization of fundamental, internationally recognized human rights — including the right to life, to health, to culture, to food, to self-determination, to property, and to development. The poorest and most vulnerable will suffer first, and perhaps most, but ultimately the crisis will reach all of us.

Part 1 of this paper describes why human rights are increasingly being invoked in the context of environmental decision-making. Part 2 offers a brief introduction to the limitations of domestic and international environmental law that drive interest in using human rights to address environmental challenges. Part 3 surveys existing human rights that have been pressed into service for environmental ends, and highlights the strengths and weaknesses of using existing human rights norms to advance environmental goals. Part 4 describes the emerging norms coalescing around the human right to a healthy environment. This section re-analyzes existing human rights cases through an environmental rights lens to highlight what environmental rights might add to the existing body of human rights law and jurisprudence. Part 5 considers whether invoking human rights extends state ability to regulate the environmental conduct of non-state actors like transnational corporations. Finally, Part 6 returns to the introduction — putting human rights jurisprudence in the context of the scope and scale of the environmental problems we face.

Keywords: climate change, human rights, healthy environment, sustainability, transboundary harm, future generations, environment

JEL Classification: K32, K33

Suggested Citation

Bratspies, Rebecca M., Do We Need a Human Right to a Healthy Environment? (January 1, 2015). Santa Clara Journal of International Law, Vol. 13, No. 1, 2015. Available at SSRN:

Rebecca M. Bratspies (Contact Author)

City University of New York - School of Law ( email )

2 Court Square
Long Island City, NY 11101
United States

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