The Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares in its first article that ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’ Article 2 establishes that ‘Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.’ Furthermore, Article 7 stipulates that ‘All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.’
These rights have also been recognised by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in several articles. Article 2 affirms that every State party must undertake every right in the Covenant ‘without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.’ Article 3 goes on to emphasise gender equality by affirming that ‘The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to ensure the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all civil and political rights set forth in the present Covenant.’
In terms of equality before the law, Article 14 asserts that ‘all persons shall be equal before the courts and tribunals,’ and Article 26 affirms that ‘all persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.’
The rights to equality and non-discrimination have also been recognised by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which affirms that every right in the Covenant should be exercised ‘without discrimination of any kind as to race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.’
Other international human rights instruments that contain important dispositions regarding the rights to equality and non-discrimination include the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; the Convention on the Rights of the Child; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief; the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Right to equality and non-discrimination and the right to a healthy environment
The right to equality and non-discrimination is closely related to the right to a clean, safe, healthy, and sustainable environment. As the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment has affirmed, ‘the obligations of States to prohibit discrimination and to ensure equal and effective protection against discrimination apply to the equal enjoyment of human rights relating to a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.’
Existing inequalities can lead to an unequal exposure by marginalized segments of the population to the harmful effects of environmental problems. Often for historical reasons, certain social groups experience more acutely the negative effects of environmental problems such as deforestation, climate change, toxic waste, air and water pollution and desertification. This is often the result of discriminatory practices and laws, and as such, the State should take specific measures to protect the rights of these populations.
Speaking to this issue, the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment has acknowledged that segments of the population that might be particularly vulnerable to environmental harm include indigenous populations, women and girls, children, people living in poverty, older persons, persons with disabilities, marginalised minorities and displaced persons. Many of these vulnerabilities often overlap, ‘compounding the risks of environmental harm and the concomitant violation of their human rights.’
The third Principle of the Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment asserts that ‘States should prohibit discrimination and ensure equal and effective protection against discrimination in relation to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.’ As explained by the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, discrimination in regard to the environment can be direct or indirect.
Direct discrimination takes place when States fail to ensure that members of certain social groups have the same access as others to environmental information, participation in environmental decision-making processes, or effective remedies in case of environmental harm. Indirect discrimination takes place when, for example, ‘measures that adversely affect ecosystems, such as mining and logging concessions, have disproportionately severe effects on communities that rely on the ecosystems.’ Another example of indirect discrimination is the authorization of toxic and hazardous facilities next to communities composed of racial minorities or affected by extreme poverty.
As part of preventing direct or indirect discrimination, Principle 14 of the Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment affirms that ‘States should take additional measures to protect the rights of those who are most vulnerable to, or at particular risk from, environmental harm, taking into account their needs, risks and capacities.’ Vulnerable segments of the population must be permanently taken into account in decision-making processes concerning the environment. Accordingly, States must identify and protect those vulnerable to environmental harm, and must actively seek to tear down the barriers that might limit access to environmental information, participation in environmental decision-making processes, or effective remedies in case of environmental harm.
Similarly, Principle 15 of the Framework Principles On Human Rights And The Environment develops States obligations with regard to indigenous peoples and the protection of the environment as a result of recognising their vulnerability to environmental harm. These obligations are:
- ‘Recognizing and protecting their rights to the lands, territories and resources that they have traditionally owned, occupied or used;
- Consulting with them and obtaining their free, prior and informed consent before relocating them or taking or approving any other measures that may affect their lands, territories or resources;
- Respecting and protecting their traditional knowledge and practices in relation to the conservation and sustainable use of their lands, territories and resources;
- Ensuring that they fairly and equitably share the benefits from activities relating to their lands, territories or resources.’
Moreover, environmental defenders may face discrimination and threats due to their activities and beliefs regarding the protection of the environment. They are often discriminated against and stigmatized because of their activities protecting the environment, their land and territories. States must protect them from these kinds of discrimination and guarantee the fulfilment of all of their rights. Equality must be guaranteed by States in every right and for every person.
The Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment has stated on a 2018 report to the Human Rights Council,
‘The obligations of States to prohibit discrimination and to ensure equal and effective protection against discrimination undoubtedly apply to the equal enjoyment of human rights relating to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. (…) These obligations apply not only to direct discrimination, but also to indirect discrimination, when facially neutral laws, policies or practices have a disproportionate impact on the exercise of human rights as distinguished by prohibited grounds of discrimination.’