The right to a healthy habitat

Environmental protection and human rights are generally treated as separate subjects, despite being embraced by kindred groups. So it was not surprising that some feathers were ruffled by last week’s international conference on environmental protection as a basic human right, especially as it took place in Athens, hardly renowned for its green politics. The forum, organized by the Strasbourg-based International Insititute for Human Rights, concluded that legislation for environmental protection is inadequate and often conflicts with commercial and property laws. Furthermore, the right to a healthy environment is not specified in international treaties, and although it is enshrined in many national constitutions, the provisions are often not implemented, especially when they conflict with economic projects. Perhaps the conference organizers should be credited for lending gravity to the traditionally «soft» subject of the environment by setting it within the field of human rights and stressing that this right should be protected by law. The approach certainly provoked a reaction from Greek ministers and politicians who sought to reassure the audience of international lawyers, academics and representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) of their active concern. Parliament Speaker Anna Psarouda-Benaki was the first to defend Greece’s record, noting that a parliamentary committee on the environment has been established to improve ecosystems and reduce pollution. Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyannis remarked, «Technological developments are constantly creating new questions regarding human rights and the environment.» Interior Minister Prokopis Pavlopoulos was next up. He stressed that the conference was an opportunity «for experts to highlight the necessary legislative reforms (for environmental protection) so that lawmakers can plan for them accordingly.» Pavlopoulos was followed by a visibly sheepish Deputy Environment and Public Works Minister Themistoklis Xanthopoulos who appealed to attending experts to couch their proposals in the simplest terms possible so the ministry could act upon them. PASOK MP and former culture minister Evangelos Venizelos defended Greece’s constitutional provisions for environmental protection but acknowledged that often they are not respected. «We should give the Greek Constitution the credit it is due in comparison to constitutions of other European states,» he said, conceding that «(Greece) needs a better system of checking that constitutional provisions are being observed.» Communist Party (KKE) MP Liana Kanelli was her usual unforgiving self. «Greece has destroyed the wetland of the Marathon site for the sake of a rowing venue which was used for five days during last year’s Olympics,» she remarked. She also praised the organizers for drawing attention to a subject that commands little respect in Greece. But, invariably, there is a rift between the concept and its actualization. «Some people feel that throwing environmental protection into the basket of human rights weakens it,» Athens Academy President and professor of international public law Emmanuel Roukounas conceded. Indeed, the European Court of Human Rights has dealt with environmental protection very cautiously. But the European Parliament’s steering committee on the environment has been pushing for the inclusion of an environmental provision in the European Convention of Human Rights since 1993, he said. A key problem is the amount of gaps in environmental law, making it unclear who has the right to appeal in cases of alleged violations, Roukounas observed. Another major issue is that of privatization. «The old idea that the state takes care of us is obsolete. Private factors now influence fate of the environment,» he said. «A key problem is that human rights law often conflicts with commercial law and property laws,» according to Pierre Lambert, who presides over the Strasbourg-based institute with a Greek, Petros Pararas. «There has been little progress in establishing a balance between these things. Often measures are not taken because there are major economic concerns,» Lambert said. Lambert highlighted another paradox: The European Convention on Human Rights gives citizens the right to appeal against the state but it does not specify their right to a healthy environment. «However the convention does mention the individual’s right to a private life,» legal adviser to the European Court of Human Rights Michele de Salvia observed. Greek property development, especially on islands where there are no stringent controls, often causes environmental damage. If a plaintiff could prove that harm had been done to a forest near his property, for example – and thus affected his private life – his appeal would stand a chance, de Salvia said. But equally it has to be proven that the state failed to take adequate measures to protect the private life of its citizens, and there is insufficient assessment of the implementation of these measures, he added. However, he noted that the line taken by the European Court of Human Rights is leading to a broadening of the scope of the convention. «The court has recognized the validity of observations made by NGOs on several occasions,» he said. The Council of Europe receives regular recommendations on how to link human rights to environmental protection, the head of its land planning department, Maguelonne Dejeant-Pons, remarked. «Certain initiatives, including the European Landscape Convention of 2000, were useful developments. But we still have a long way to go,» she said. «We need an addendum or a specific protocol on environmental protection.» There is a general will in Europe to maintain a healthy environment but this will is couched in different terms in the constitutions of the various EU states, according to Marc Verdussen, professor at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. Some constitutions, such as those of Greece and Germany, impose the obligation upon the state (and other authorities, including the judiciary) to protect the environment. In the Greek Constitution, protection of the environment is not just the state’s obligation but also the citizen’s right. The Greek Constitution also makes clear the collective obligation of protecting forestland. Verdussen also praised the role played by Greece’s highest administrative court, the Council of State, «which has shown significant sensitivity to environmental issues.» Olga Papadopoulou, associate judge on the Council of State, stressed that Greece’s constitution obliges all authorities, including the judiciary, to take «all necessary measures, preventive or remedial, to protect the environment.» And since its revision in 2001, the constitution specifies that environmental protection must be safeguarded «within the framework of sustainable development.» «However, cases of conflicting interests between environmental protection and major economic development projects have not always been straightforward in terms of the priority of the rights of each side,» Papadopoulou conceded.

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