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Human rights and the international protection of biodiversity – A promising alliance (Part I)


For a long time, the legal and political endeavours to protect humans from violations of their basic rights seemed in no way connected to the preservation of biodiversity. In the past, this paradigm has been reflected by indifferent international responses to biodiversity issues: Whereas the promotion and protection of human rights has in recent decades become a major concern of the international community and the relationship between human rights and the environment has increasingly been acknowledged, the potential implications of the numerous threats to biodiversity for human well-being seem to have gone largely unnoticed. However, newer developments within the UN system point to a change of paradigm. In March 2017, a Report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment explicitly recognized biodiversity as essential to human rights for the first time.

This post examines this recent effort by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment with regard to human rights and biodiversity. It suggests that a human rights perspective can significantly advance international efforts to protect biodiversity insofar as a specific connection to human well-being can be determined. Making biodiversity a human rights issue pursues two complementary objectives: to guarantee the full enjoyment of human rights by protecting its natural foundation and to overcome the lack of implementation of the current biodiversity law regime. However, an anthropocentric approach to biodiversity has its limits as a clear connection between human well-being and the protection of species cannot always be drawn. Thus, a human rights perspective should only serve as a complement to the existing obligations of states under the international biodiversity law regime. In combination, these legal regimes could form a promising alliance to preserve biodiversity for present and future generations.


In 2016, the World Wildlife Fund warned that the decline of wildlife population is likely to reach up to 67 percent by 2020. This rapid and irretrievable extinction of countless species is not only a tremendous loss in itself, it also has enormous and multidimensional implications for the functionality of ecosystems all over the world as well as for human society. Indeed, threats to biodiversity might directly jeopardize the enjoyment of a wide range of human rights. For example, one of the most popularized current developments is the global dying of wild bees, which are not only a valuable part of many nations’ wildlife but also a priceless guarantor of food security: The services of bees and other insect pollinators have in fact been estimated in a 2005 study to be worth 153 Billion Euro to the global food economy. The right to food is also directly affected as the continuing loss of biodiversity endangers the stability and productivity of fisheries and agriculture. The cutting down of rain forests not only robs countless unknown species of their natural habitat, it also destroys the livelihood of indigenous peoples, forest-dwellers and others who rely directly on the forest and its products. The loss of biodiversity destroys natural sources of medicine and thus undermines the right to life and health. In spite of these and many other examples, the protection of biodiversity is often considered not as a contributing factor to human well-being, but a hindrance to economic development, as the recent decision of the Trump-Administration to drastically downsize two national monuments in the U.S. blatantly illustrates.

Biodiversity and human rights in public international law

The lack of understanding of the inextricable connection between human rights and biodiversity is being reflected by the current international legal system: For one, although the international Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) affirms in its Preamble that “the conservation of biological diversity is a common concern of humankind”, it fails to relate biodiversity to substantive human rights in any other provision. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora does not refer to human rights at all. Similarly, only a few regional human rights instruments make a reference to environmental protection. According to Art. 24 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, all peoples have a “right to a general satisfactory environment favourable to their development”. Art. 18 of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women ensures the right of women “to live in a healthy and sustainable environment”. Art. 11 of the Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the Area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and Art. 38 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights also contain a right to a healthy environment. Furthermore, the Aarhus-Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters explicitly aims at contributing to the protection of the right of every person to live in an environment adequate to his or her health and well-being (Art. 1). The convention has been considered as the “world’s foremost international instrument that links environmental and human rights”. At the international level, the Stockholm and Rio declarations represented a significant turn towards a human rights perspective on environmental matters, even though they did not refer to an individual right to a healthy environment as such. However, not a single international human rights contract stipulates a stand-alone right to the protection of the environment, let alone biodiversity.

The conceptual relationship between the environment and biodiversity

As the forementioned human rights instruments in each case refer exclusively to the environment, it seems vital to distinguish more carefully between the concepts of the environment in general and biodiversity specifically and to look at their interrelation. A common definition of biodiversity can easily be found as it has been laid down in the Convention on Biological Diversity: According to Art. 2 para. 1, biodiversity encompasses “the variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems”. However, there is no coherent response to the question on how to define the environment. In its broadest sense, the environment can be described as the natural world as a whole, which evidently includes biodiversity. This understanding seems to guide the efforts of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). According to a UNEP background note, environmental issues “relate to the quality and functioning of the natural environment and natural systems including biodiversity loss; greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy, energy efficiency, natural resource depletion or pollution; waste management; ozone depletion; changes in land use; ocean acidification and changes to the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles”. However, it appears that in human rights law, the environment is commonly understood in a much narrower, anthropocentric sense, primarily covering the soil, water and air that surround human beings, and only incidentally flora and fauna, and even then, only as far as they are in immediate human surroundings. Biodiversity as a whole does not fit into this narrow scheme. Against this background, it appears that the relationship of human rights and biodiversity in international law has so far remained unresolved at best. This omission may not be accidental: indeed, human rights are by definition anthropocentric, and it is therefore of little surprise that they are concerned first and foremost with the environmental issues that most directly and immediately impact on the well-being of humans. This is also why international environmentalists and animal rights activists have persistently argued that species primarily deserve protection for their own sake. However, while this moral argument is perfectly convincing in theory, it has not proven effective to trigger the international response necessary to reduce biodiversity loss.

The restrictive approach to environmental protection prevalent in human rights instruments is short-sighted and does not take into account the wide-ranging implications of biodiversity loss for the environment as a whole, and its inevitable impact on human life. However, recent developments point to a change of paradigm. At the UN level, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment has made some important steps toward the integration of biodiversity and human rights. The second part of this essay will examine and discuss his contribution.


Romy Klimke is a research assistant at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg.


Cite as: Romy Klimke, “Human rights and the international protection of biodiversity – A promising alliance (Part I)”, Völkerrechtsblog, 4 June 2018, doi: 10.17176/20180604-172423-0.

Romy Klimke
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