In celebration of Earth Day, Fordham Law’s Institute on Religion, Law & Lawyer’s Work (IRLLW) invited a group of scholars to discuss the right to a healthy environment through a human rights framework. The insightful conversation—the sixth in the institute’s “New Frontiers of Human Rights” seminar series—was presented April 24 in partnership with the Center for Research in Politics and Human Rights at Sophia University in Florence, Italy, and the Observatorio de Derechos Humanos at Universidad de Valladolid in Spain.
“Earth Day is an opportunity for us to not only reflect on our impact on the environment, but to also take action to preserve the world for future generations,” said IRLLW Director Endy Moraes during the event. “Through the years, the Institute has created spaces for dialogue that aims to increase awareness and deepen our understanding of issues concerning our planet and home, particularly after Pope Francis’  encyclical Laudato si’, in which he reminded us of the stakes for this planet, the human race, and especially the most vulnerable among us.”
Panelists included Simone Borg, professor of environmental & resources law at the University of Malta; Shaun Larcom, professor of law, economics, and institutions at the University of Cambridge; and Lucia Ann Silecchia, associate dean of faculty research and professor of law at Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law.
“The right to a healthy environment is a tough issue, and it is an area that needs more [amplification],” said John Yeboah Mensah, LL.M. ’19, who moderated the conversation. A lecturer at the University of Professional Studies Accra Law School and a S.J.D. candidate at Fordham Law, Mensah is currently researching how grassroots groups—particularly traditional leaders in Ghana—can help foster environmental protection in the implementation of public policies.
Meaningful Differences Can Be Made
Helping to set the stage with what agencies have done in this incredibly important area, Silecchia specifically explained the United Nations’ role in advancing and promoting a healthy environment. In July 2022, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a historic resolution declaring access to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, a universal human right. It also recognized the impact of climate change; the unsustainable management and use of natural resources; the pollution of air, land, and water; the unsound management of chemicals and waste; and the resulting loss in biodiversity; all of which “interfere with the enjoyment of this right—and that environmental damage has negative implications, both direct and indirect, for the effective enjoyment of all human rights,” according to the UN.
“[This document also] says that this is related to other rights in existing law,” said Silecchia, “affirming that the promotion of the human right to a clean environment requires full implementation of existing laws. It recognizes, in particular, human rights violations when the defenders of the environment are persecuted or when people are killed in efforts to bring attention to environmental problems, which is a significant human rights question.”
Given her vast experience as a practitioner, negotiator, and policymaker, Borg shared her expertise on the legal challenges faced by countries when promoting the right to a healthy environment as well as the need for more awareness and widespread literacy in environmental issues.
“Whether it’s climate change, ocean governance, or anything that deals with the protection and conservation of natural resources, it requires a real delicate balancing act, which is why, very often, we see governments postpone important decisions,” said Borg. “In reality, we have to be very careful … because, if we do not protect the environment as science tells us, we’re going to end up in a situation where life on Earth, as we know it, cannot be sustained. This is really an alarm that we need to address because there’s no other option.”
Towards the end of the conversation, Larcom explored avenues for action that can be taken by organizations, at all levels, to promote the right to a healthy environment.
“When we talk about environmental issues and rights, there’s often a focus on the state, which has a very important role to play in helping to achieve good environmental outcomes for its [constituents],” said Larcom. “There are [also]a lot of international environmental agreements [at play], in which states get together in order to achieve certain environmental aims, and there have been some great success stories there.”
He added, “There’s a huge role for religious organizations, NGOs, non-state organizations, [and]grassroots movements [to play in achieving a better environment for everyone]… but also in other ways in which people themselves are getting together to try to make a real difference. I think if enough of these non-state institutions or grassroots movements get up, or if individuals group together, we can actually make some meaningful differences in improving environmental outcomes and helping the environment.”