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Environmental Destruction: A Crime Against Humanity?

Professor Philippe Sands has a unique meaning in the field of human rights and the environment. In his illustrious career, he has appeared as a lawyer and attorney in many international courts, from disputes over maritime borders to pollution, whaling and genocide. He has also published 17 books on international law, including Lawless World, which fueled the public debate on the Iraq war. His most recent work, The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice in the Footsteps of a Nazi Refugee, follows the success of East West Street, which explores the creation and development of the world’s changing legal concepts of “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” . . Sands is a co-founder of the Center for International Environmental Law and author of two seminal texts in the field.

BirdLife is particularly excited about Sands’ support and advice for our One Planet One Right campaign to add the right to a healthy natural environment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Here we get a glimpse of his work, his level of success and optimism, and why international law regarding the environment is too important to be left to international lawyers.

A universal human right to a healthy natural environment – it is almost unbelievable that it doesn’t exist yet. The concept of human rights is constantly expanding (e.g. the rights of women, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ +). Are you optimistic about including the environment?

The human rights world in which I am involved is in its earliest stages of development. When you return through human existence, you speak of millennia. It is only in the last 60 or 70 years that we have seen the idea that laws at a global level could protect the good of the environment, the good of the individual, and the good of the community. The world will not change overnight, human rights will not be fully protected overnight, the environment will not be fully protected overnight.

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So is the outlook for the planet bleak?

It’s a long game so I’m not looking for overnight change. What keeps me going are the little indicators of success: a strange case here, a strange case there, a judgment from a court in one part of the world, a judgment from the International Court of Justice in another. I believe that it is possible to change consciousness, and that the law helps – this explains why I can be relatively optimistic.

I think the world is a better place than it was in the 1930s. Then a country could kill half of its own citizens without violating a single rule of international law. That can’t happen anymore. It doesn’t mean that the murders will stop, it doesn’t mean that the looting of the environment will stop, but it does mean that there is a new standard that says you shouldn’t – and that’s a good thing.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and related concepts of international crimes against humanity and genocide emerged from the ashes of World War II, as set out in your book East West Street. Does the right to a healthy natural environment have its place in this context?

It might well be appropriate to view major environmental degradation or crimes as international crimes – there is no innate contradiction or error in bringing environmental crimes to this level given their consequences. The evolution of universal human rights only dates back to the late 1940s and early 1950s, and our environmental awareness, laws and rights are even more recent – from the 1970s – so this is all still in its infancy and incremental. Small (but important) steps have been taken – but they make a difference and give me optimism.

Are these steps moving with sufficient urgency to ensure the health of the planet?

In terms of the environment and climate, and whether enough changes will be made before a point of no return is reached – I don’t know. In the event of a disaster, there are real changes in international law. Nothing can really happen with climate change, and it can be too late before a disaster strikes – then the law really does intervene.

The history of international cooperation is the history of disaster followed by reconstruction, and I have long thought that in the environmental field, it is the impending collapse that is taking action. With climate change, it just hasn’t gotten bad enough and the risk is that it will be too late.

Recognition of a human right to a healthy environment could therefore be a key tool for an effective response to the dual crises of climate and biodiversity loss. International law is too important to be left to international lawyers – mobilizing the public to support this new human right is the right thing, a great thing, and I’m happy to help.

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