UN Resolution 48/13

Environment, Human Rights and Class Power–1

Farooque Chowdhury

Environment is human right resolved a recent UN meet. It’s a reiteration of an already discussed issue—essential to all of the human society. It’s a much important issue to the peoples in countries facing forces ravaging environment; and, ravaging of environment is an act against people as the act denies people’s right to life.

Reiterating and implementing the environment right empowers people, creates/widens people’s space for a democratic life, as environment itself is an area for democracy, for people’s participation. There’s no scope for individualism, neither for person nor for capital—irrespective of capital’s power—in the area of environment. The reasons:

[1]   No individual or a coterie of individuals create/can create livable environment at no level. Having a livable environment is a collective contribution.

[2] No capital or an alliance of capitals create/can create livable environment with its own power. Without labor, capital is lame, useless—incapable of moving a single grain of sand a millimeter.

According to a release by the UN, the Human Rights Council recognised [on October 8, 2021], for the first time, that having a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a human right. In resolution 48/13, the Council called on States to implement this newly recognised right. The text, proposed by Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland, was passed with 43 votes in favour and 4 abstentions—from Russia, India, China and Japan.

The new resolution acknowledges the damage inflicted by climate change and environmental destruction on millions of people across the world. It also underlines that the most vulnerable segments of the population are more acutely impacted. The issue will now go to the UN General Assembly in New York, for further consideration. The passage of the resolution is outcome of a decades-long effort.

A few days prior to passing of the resolution, a Reuters dispatch from Geneva said: The UK and US were among a few countries withholding support for the proposal that would recognise access to a safe and healthy environment as a human right.

The Reuters report didn’t fail to mention: “Washington has historically been hesitant to add new rights and tends to avoid legally binding treaties that could be difficult to ratify.”

According to the Reuters report, David Boyd, UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, said the UN proposal, first conceived of in the 1990s, was long overdue. “The evidence is overwhelming that these environmental challenges are directly affecting people’s enjoyment of fundamental human rights. There are definitely countries that have a deep-rooted interest in maintaining the status quo and this is a challenge to them”, he said. However he didn’t name the countries.

The report mentioned: Past UN resolutions including a 2010-resolution on the right to water and sanitation prompted countries like Tunisia to pass legislation enshrining it in domestic law. Globally, the number of climate-related litigation cases has soared in the past few years and more are invoking human rights to support their arguments. Dennis van Berkel, legal counsel to the Urgenda Foundation which won a landmark climate case against the Dutch government in 2019, said the resolution could help courts interpret the right in future cases.

The resolution will have far-reaching implication in law/legal aspects, and in areas related to property, rights—civil, fundamental, basic, political, and to people’s struggle—connected to food, health, environment and ecology, governance, participation, transparency, institution and democracy. Broadly, the resolution will/can be connected to democratic struggle, and to the struggle of the working classes.

In all exploitative societies/economies, the working classes are the first, worst and widest victims of environment-injustice, -expropriation and -appropriation as these classes are the weakest part of society in terms of (a) access to information, education, organisation, institution, facilities, rights and justice, (b) politics, and participation in political process, and (c) type/pattern/level of consumption and living condition.

In most cases, and in lands after lands, the working class life is to the level of sub-human standard. In cases, the standard of life members of these classes live in leads anybody to question—how do they survive? It’s shredded, it’s tiny pieces of motions, it’s mechanical movements of some habits void of life.

Reports by ILO and other UN organisations, by many other international organisations and media; and reports on poverty, inequality, slum, landless, children, women, food, water, health, disease, consumption, energy use, debt, living and working/work place condition, industrial and occupational accident/death/injury, chemical exposure, waste dumping/discharge of effluent, land/water body grabbing, defacing of hills and mountains, deforestation, mining, urban environment, amusement, rights, coercion, muzzling of voice, demobilisation/deactivation of organisation tell this fact. Location of housing of the working classes, and slipping out of land, encroachment/expropriation in real terms, from hands of the small landholders to the rich are two of the stark indicators of the condition of environmental rights the poor “enjoy”. This reality shows the way, the extent the working classes are deprived of rights including environmental rights.

With expropriation and appropriation of environment and ecology by the powerful, by capitals, condition of the working classes turns precarious. With obstacles to organising, with deactivating/breaking down of the working class organisations or usurping leadership of these organisations by capital the situation takes graver turn. With muzzling down of voices of the working classes the graver situation worsens further. Finding out rights, in this reality, is like searching a gold coin in a deep forest.

Recent reports on the global environment are enough to tell the condition of people, especially the working classes, as everywhere and all the time it’s the dominating interests/ruling classes that transfer the burden/brunt on the weak—the dominated people, the working classes.

The dominating interests/ruling classes have the economic and political power to transfer this. The power includes appropriate mechanism and arrangements. Wages, working and living conditions, market mechanisms, actually control over markets, and fiscal/financial measures imposed with state machine, coercion indeed, include these mechanisms and arrangements.

Moreover, the dominating interests/ruling classes have the ability/capacity to fly away from distress—be it a distress zone or a distress situation. They can escape saline water intruded area, expansion of desertification, water logged area, an area having contaminated ground water; they live far away from waste dumping site; they run away to area far away from a coming super-cyclone; their residential area’s sky isn’t overcast with black fumes from factory chimneys; they can afford ecologically produced food; the cotton cloth used for their clothes are ecologically produced—cotton not laced with harmful pesticides, etc.; the dairy products they consume are ecologically produced; the health care system they avail is of the state-of-the-art; and the arrangements they avail for recreation is super-fine.

Therefore, there remains only the poor, the people, the working classes that face all the realities of environmental degradation. This environmental divide is great, is class-wise. None can disregard this great environmental class divide. The dominating classes have the environmental-economic power, the environmental-political power. They wield these against people, against the working classes.

With imperialist wars, interventions, etc. the environmental rights are lost/harmed most; and it’s people that get destroyed by those wars, etc that bear the severest blow as all these rights are denied by imperialism.

But the environmental right remains alive, as rights of people can never be wiped out, because people can never be wiped out from the face of the earth. These rights can’t be killed and buried even if its owners—people that include the working classes—are denied and deprived of these; and the denial can’t go for permanently.

[To be continued]

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Vol 54, No. 31, Jan 30 - Feb 5, 2022