Human Rights

Dr Tom Kerns













"The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice."
-Martin Luther King, Jr


Human Rights Methods and Practice


This page lists some of the practical methods that human rights activists have used, and that environmental activists can use, to further the recognition and observance of human rights norms in environmental situations.

Human rights often go through several stages on their way to emerging as fully implemented rights –  initial awareness, formal articulation in declarations and proclamations, negotiated international conventions and treaties, monitoring and documenting compliance and violations, creation of domestic laws with sanctions, and finally, legal prosecution of offenders – but rights do not move through those stages on their own. They get helped and pushed through those stages by active human beings who are anxious to see their rights respected and become operationalized.

Listed below are some practical undertakings that can aid in that emergence.

  1. Include human rights language in public discourse and public actions related to this situation. Refer to specific human rights norms, such as the right to security of person, the right to inviolability of the home, the right to health, the right to a safe workplace, the right to a healthy environment and the right of mothers and children to special consideration. Include in public discourse mention of the human rights documents in which these rights are articulated, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights , the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, etc.

  2. Monitor all potential violations of human rights norms in your situation. Maintain real time records of violations. Audiotaping and videotaping of violations can be effective methods of monitoring and they can be powerful persuaders as well. Locating, accessing, maintaining and publicizing any records of compliance with and violations of human rights norms can be powerful tools.

  3. Collect personal narratives of those directly affected by the environmental situation and human rights violations in your situation. Personal accounts of how a situation has impacted oneself, one’s family and one’s neighbors can be powerful tools in bringing awareness of the situation to others.

    People sometimes find it painful to re-tell the story of how they have been impacted because in the process of writing their story they often re-live those traumatic impacts. Others can find the process of telling their story healing and empowering.

    Once personal narratives have been collected they should be made public in some fashion, anonymously or with names attached, depending on what the author prefers. One option is to publish them on a website devoted to that particular environmental situation, or on other sites such as the Personal Narratives page of the Environment and Human Rights Advisory website.

  4. Formal reports on human rights violations can be powerful tools, so write, or commission an independent third party to write, a formal report on evidence of human rights infractions in this situation.

    At this point in time, Environment and Human Rights Advisory is one of the few, perhaps the only, NGO that currently prepares such reports. See EHRA's Reports page for examples of human rights reports that have been prepared for environmental organizations and government agencies.

  5. Make specific formal recommendations to officials in the responsible company, industry or government agency in your situation, clarifying exactly what you believe they should do and refrain from doing. It may be best to make these recommendations only privately with the relevant officials, or it may be better to make the recommendations publicly.

  6. In addition to criticisms of what the industry or government agency is failing to do, it can be effective to also acknowledge what they are doing right, and to give them private and/or public credit for it.

  7. It is important to make the consequences of their actions as clear as possible, particularly the consequences – economic, social and political, for example – of ignoring basic human rights norms.
    1. The third recital in the Preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law."
    2. Loss of public confidence in a government and its agencies is not a small thing.
    3. Loss of public respect for a company or industry may have economic consequences for that company.
    4. Ensuring that human rights standards are protected and upheld is, in the end, in everyone’s best interests even when viewed through a consequentialist lens.
    5. When human rights standards are violated the consequences can be monumental, costly and long lasting.

  8. Collect studies. Develop a public collection of published biomedical and public health research studies that support causal connections between environmental pollutants and reported health effects. Your local public library may be willing to hold such a collection for you, or at least to support your efforts to make a collection.

  9. Tissue studies: Undertake a “pollution in people” study to identify pollutants and their metabolites in a sampling of people in your community. These studies initially were fairly expensive, but the price may be coming down as more such studies are being undertaken. Arrange for the studies to look particularly for pollutants, and metabolites of pollutants, that would be affecting people in your particular situation.

  10. Explore the possibility of a “lay epidemiology” effort, perhaps in connection with your county or state Department of Public Health.

    Lay epidemiology is simply a somewhat more basic form of professional epidemiology carried out by citizens in a given community; it involves interviewing community members about health effects, recording that information in qualitative and/or quantitative form, developing questionnaires, researching environmental and biomedical literature, etc., and working with professional epidemiologists to make that data available in useable form.

    Community members may trust lay epidemiologists more than they trust employees of government agencies or ministries whom they think may be more aligned with agencies ofAgriculture or Forestry. (For more information see Andrew Waterston, “Lay, Community and Worker ‘Epidemiology’ – An Integrating Strand in Participatory Research."

    One of the challenges with lay epidemiology efforts is to work with Health Department officials in your area so that data can be collected in a form that will be useful to them. Even without such cooperation, however, collecting and making public personal accounts of adverse health effects can be a meaningful and powerful tool for persuasion.

    For one example of a well-done lay epidemiology effort see this 10 page executive summary and this collection of individual complaints.

  11. Consider including indigenous communities (such as Native American communities) and leaders in your efforts to reduce environmental degradation. Some international instruments – such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the ILO Convention (No. 169) concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples – require states to take special measures to safeguard the environmental rights of indigenous peoples. Also, the guarantee of minority rights in the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (article 27) also protects indigenous populations from environmental harm.

    For further information see Chapter 5, “Indigenous Rights and Environment,” in Kravchenko and Bonine, Human Rights and the Environment: Cases, Law, and Policy (2008).

  12. Photograph and videotape industry emissions, pesticide sprays or other polluting activities in your situation. Also photograph and videotape any visible adverse effects of pollution. Make these photos and videotapes publicly available perhaps in a display at a local library or community forum. Produce short 3-6 minute videotaped documentaries to show publicly and to post on you-tube, etc.

  13. Explore connections with international and domestic human rights organizations. The Center for Human Rights and the Environment (CEDHA) in Argentina is the largest NGO that addresses environmental issues from a human rights perspective, and focuses as much on the legal aspects of human rights as on the ethical aspects. Environment and Human Rights Advisory focuses on the ethical/moral aspects of human rights norms rather than on the legal dimension. Monitoring organizations such as Human Rights Watch may be helpful. EarthJustice, the legal wing of the Sierra Club, is showing increasing interest in human rights issues, as is the Pesticide Action Network.

  14. Establish informal discussion groups to discuss human rights documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on Civil and Political Rights (which the US has both signed and ratified, giving it the force of domestic law), the Charter on Industrial Hazards and Human Rights, and the Draft Declaration of Principles on Human Rights and the Environment, all available on the Human Rights documents page of the EHRA website.

    Discussion groups can have the effect of increasing local awareness of the importance of human rights and of their applicability to environmental issues. They can also serve as public reminders to offending industries and government agencies that citizens take human rights seriously, including human rights’ relevance to environmental issues.

  15. Sponsor and publicly advertise community events, such as lectures, book discussion groups, video presentations and discussion groups about those videos -- e.g. “The Corporation,” “An Inconvenient Truth,” “A Killer Bargain,” "Flow," Bill Moyers videos on toxic chemicals, (see excerpts from part 1, part 2 and part 3, etc. -- as related to the human rights implications of your environmental issue.

    Community events like these can increase awareness of human rights norms and can serve as public reminders to offending industries and agencies that citizens take human rights seriously.

    It should go without saying that Gandhi's principles of non-violence, and conducting oneself honorably and with truthfulness, should underlie all public actions.

  16. There are four additional, larger, kinds of projects that, if done well, can have the potential for momentous impacts. Undertaking any of these projects can be challenging and time consuming, but the potential for effecting change can be significant.

    1. Rights-based local ordinances
    2. Citizens' Tribunals
    3. Citizens' Inquiries
    4. Litigation

These are a few of the practical methods that human rights activists have used, and that environmental activists can use, to further the recognition and observance of human rights norms in environmental situations.

Please write out your answers to the Discussion Questions for this lecture and post them in the Class Discussion forum in the classroom. Then discuss the ideas others have posted there for this lecture.