Human Rights

Dr Tom Kerns













Research Project Assignment



For your research project you will 1) choose a specific individual environmental situation to research, and get that topic approved, 2) learn as much as you can about that situation by reading, researching and listening to personal stories of those who have been affected, and then 3) produce a paper that describes that situation and analyzes it in terms of human rights norms. The paper will a) be addressed to your classmates, will b) describe that specific environmental situation for them and will c) describe how it stacks up when viewed through a human rights optic.

So let’s look at this in steps:

1. Partners

You can work on this project alone if you wish, but you may also decide it’s best to work in groups of two or three (not more than three). Learning about the situation you choose could entail quite a bit of time and work, so having some help with that portion of the project could be good. If you do choose to work with others, though, each person will still write their own individual paper to turn in.

2. Choosing a topic

Your first step is to choose some environmental situation to study and analyze. It could be a pesticide spray situation, an industrial pollution situation, a smoke pollution situation, an indoor air contamination situation, something related to schools, to artificial fragrances, something related to agricultural practices or forestry, to clean surface water, to clean drinking water, about access to public spaces, something related to global climate change, etc etc. There’s a very wide range of environmental situations you could potentially choose to study.

It should be a situation in which there has already been some environmental activism involved so you’re not starting completely from scratch.

It should be a situation in which there are clear impacts on human persons, families and/or communities. The human impacts could be health related, personal, economic, societal, biological or any other kind of adverse impact that affects humans. Biological, health and economic impacts are the clearest and would work best for this assignment.

You could also choose a situation (like global warming, for example) that risks causing overall general degradation of the habitable environment which thus could potentially impact human living conditions.

Whatever topic you choose it will be best if it is a situation where the impacts on humans are obvious, egregious and documentable. If there is research about adverse impacts in the peer reviewed literature, all the better. Large scale insecticide and/or herbicide applications would be examples, especially if the pesticides are applied aerially or are liberally broadcast in public spaces. Industrial emissions would be another example, especially if on a large scale and/or if the emissions disproportionately impact low income, minority or disadvantaged populations. Burning of woody biomass, a newly emerging technology for producing electrical energy, produces air emissions (particulates and gases) that can have significant documentable health impacts.

The situation you choose does need to have clear adverse impacts on humans, though, because the human rights standards, norms and documents that you will bring to bear on the situation are themselves directly related to humans.

It would also make the human rights issues more starkly clear if there were corporate interests directly profiting from the situation, or benefiting in some way from state actions or from a state's failure to act.

The situation you choose could be geographically near you (which would save you time, but might limit your choices), or some distance away from you. It could be a currently ongoing situation (which may make it easier to find activists and other parties to talk to), or a past situation.

You could get ideas for topics by talking to someone at one of the environmental organizations in your area (such as the Washington Toxics Coalition in Seattle, for example), or by contacting one of the national or international environmental organizations, of which there are hundreds – Pesticide Action Network is one, for example, that has offices all around the world – and speaking to someone there. They would be able to suggest possible situations of concern that you could become involved in.

3. Getting your topic approved

You’ll need to get your topic approved by Tuesday afternoon of week three.

N.B.: The approval process often takes several back and forth emails, which means it can take several days or a week, sometimes longer, before a topic finally gets approved. You'll want to start the process asap so you can be sure to make the deadline. You can expect me to reply to emails within 24-36 hours (sometimes sooner, but not always) so you’ll want to start early.

The way you get your research topic approved is to send an email -- send it to my regular email address, rather than sending it inside the Angel system -- with five items on it:

  1. your name (including the names of others in your group if you choose to work as a group)
  2. a very brief description of the environmental situation you would like to study
  3. your proposed topic’s preliminary title
  4. at least three or four specific materials you plan to use for researching the situation (include author, title and publishers for each book or journal article you plan to use, the URL for websites you plan to use, etc).
  5. the date on which you will post your final paper to the class. The deadline for posting your final paper  to the classroom is anytime between the Friday of week seven and Sunday evening of week eight.

    After that you may get an email reply from me asking you to be more specific about one of the items, to find more or different materials for your research, or other specifics.

    Finally you will get an email from me saying that yes, your topic, sources and date have been approved.

    Once I write you that note formally OKing that topic, sources, and date, then from that point on your topic has been approved and you've got dibs on it (but not before that point).

  6. At that point, you post a note to the classroom telling your classmates what research project you will be working on in the coming weeks, and the date on which you will be posting your final paper to the classroom.

  7. Please send your project proposal to my regular email address. That will help me keep things more organized and will lessen the chance of your proposal getting misplaced.

4. Research

The first thing you’ll want to do is talk to people, preferably leaders, who have been actively involved in the situation you’ve chosen, and get suggestions for how best to research that situation. They should be able to suggest books, journal articles, reports, studies, official government or industry documents, websites, etc. You’ll want to rely on materials that are as authoritative and credible as possible.

In most situations there will be individuals, families or communities that have been or will be affected by the situation. Personal accounts, whether written or recorded, of how individuals and families have been adversely affected do constitute evidence and do count as research, so you will want to collect some of those personal narratives if possible.

5. Human Rights research

It will also be necessary to research human rights documents that you believe may be relevant to the environmental situation you’ve chosen. You will be reading some of those documents as part of regular assignments for this class, but you may find it useful to explore a little further than that.

Access to most relevant human rights documents can be found on the Human Rights Documents page of the Environment and Human Rights Advisory website.

6. Your paper

Your paper should be clearly and simply written and should be well documented. That means it should be based on research, should be footnoted (using any of the standard citation formats), and there should be a bibliography. The final paper will be posted into the Research Projects forum in the classroom.

In addition:

    1. The paper should be addressed directly to your classmates.

      Writing teachers tell us that it is important to know who your audience is, i.e., to have clearly in mind the people to whom you are addressing your writing.  For this research paper, your audience will be your fellow students, i.e., people who are interested in some of the same issues you're interested in and who have read the same books and class materials you have read this quarter.

      So in writing your paper you should assume the following:

      1. that your readers will probably be interested in your topic,
      2. that they are intelligent readers (so you don’t need to talk down to them),
      3. that their understanding will probably be enhanced by your showing connections between what you have researched and what they have already read and discussed in class.

    2. The paper should describe the environmental situation you’ve chosen, the facts behind it, the parties involved and the positions they’ve taken, perhaps a little of its history, and what the situation means to the different parties involved.

    3. The paper should then analyze that situation in terms of human rights standards we are studying in class. In referencing these standards the paper should point to specific human rights documents (by article, paragraph, numbers, etc), and should explain how that particular standard has been or may be violated.

      Your paper can address human rights norms that have been violated in that situation in the past, or that could be violated in the future. Your paper should reference at least five or six different human rights norms.

    4. If you like (but it's not required) you could end your paper with your recommendations for what should be done in the future. If you choose to do this, you will want to be clear about whom your recommendations are addressed to.

    5. As a way of making your paper clearer and more understandable to your classmates, it should include references to ideas and materials we have explored and discussed in class. (Without including these connections your paper will be considered incomplete and will not earn a passing grade.)

    6. There is no maximum or minimum length for your paper. The requirement is only that it should “adequately” cover your topic. One or two pages may be adequate for some papers. Eight or ten pages is probably too much for most. Please refrain from padding the paper for length. It will not be graded on length.

    7. You may supplement your paper if you like (not required) with a powerpoint presentation, with images, videos, personal narratives or other materials you think might help make it more clear.

    8. You should consider that your paper may turn out to be of use to one or more of the parties involved in the situation you are studying. They may wish to see a copy. They may decide it would be helpful if your paper were made public. You, as the author, of course, have the authority to offer or withhold such permission.

If you are working with other students on your project, each person will need to write their own individual paper.

7. Project Self Evaluation

Finally, after you have completed your paper and presented it to the class you will need to complete a Self Evaluation of your research project. That Project SE Form should be completed and submitted within a week or so of turning in your paper, and definitely no later than the final day of class.


You will definitely want to get these assignments completed on time – both getting your topic approved by Tuesday afternoon in week three, and posting the completed project paper by the deadline – because there are onerous consequences to one's grade if any part of this assignment is completed after the deadlines.

Click here to see information about the odious consequences for lateness

I hope your research becomes an interesting and learningful (?) project for you.