Of human rights, water rights and the rights of Mother Earth

When Eleanor Roosevelt helped draft and gain acceptance for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [UDHR], she started something big. Adopted by the fledgling United Nations in 1948, the UDHR’s 30 original “articles” still ring so true and are so clearly fundamental that they still form the moral foundation of U.N. resolutions and actions, and of constitutions and laws in many countries.

But although her work on the UDHR was progressive and forward-thinking, Mrs. Roosevelt probably could not have envisioned some of the ways in which international human rights have broadened recently.

The first big change came in July 2010, when the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution stating that access to clean water and sanitation are basic human rights. The resolution called on countries and international organizations to “provide financial resources, build capacity and transfer technology, particularly to developing countries, in scaling up efforts to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all.”

Although activists have long quoted UDHR Articles 3, 22 and 25 as implying the right to water, until the July 2010 vote, the right had never been officially ratified by the full General Assembly. The vote was 122 in favor, zero against, and 41 abstentions [the US was one, along with, primarily, other industrialized nations, except for Germany, but that’s another story.]  It took 62 years to get water as a human right on the books. But even though the most recent UN resolution is non-binding and has not been officially added, as some activists propose, as Article 31 of the UDHR, it’s probably safe to say that Mrs. Roosevelt would approve.

Mrs. Roosevelt would most likely also be pleased by discussions—on another expansion of human rights—that took place in Cancun at the recently convened [November 29-December 10, 2010] UN summit meeting on climate change. Inside and outside the meeting hall, diplomats and activists pushed hard to establish an even broader category of human rights: the right to a healthy environment.

On December 3, 2010, a Yes! Magazine report on the Cancun summit described the effort:

Activists in Cancún and Mexico City are rallying behind the idea of environmental rights. Many support a document called the “People’s Agreement on Climate Change,” which includes a “Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth.” It’s an idealistic name for a proposal that would sound either visionary or improbable, or both—if not for the fact that the declaration represents the work of representatives from 56 countries and of tens of thousands of people who attended a climate conference in Cochabamba, Bolivia last April. The document declares that everybody has rights to basics like clean water and clean air, but it also says something even more extraordinary: that the planet’s ecosystems themselves have rights.

Yes! reports that the conference in Cochabamba brought to the table “humanity’s relationship with Pachamama, or Mother Earth.” The issue, promoted primarily by indigenous communities focuses on some big questions:

“Can we really reach a sustainable relationship with the Earth unless we stop looking at it as something to be conquered or fixed that is outside of us? How would it change our lives and our struggles if we believed, as Leonardo Boff of Brazil said,  [translated here] “Everything that exists deserves to exist, and everything that lives deserves to live?”  Or if we understood the Earth as a living thing of which we are a part, or that  life is a moment of the Earth, and the human life is a moment of life”? The clear message coming through in Cochabamba is that we have to get right with nature.”

A look at the proposed Universal Declaration of Rights of Mother Earth reveals a document that, in tone and structure, echoes that of the Eleanor Roosevelt model. Its preamble offers a letter of appreciation and gratitude to Earth, as well as taking a direct swipe at the evils of capitalistic exploitation of the planet’s resources. The preamble also makes a thought-provoking statement about the interdependence of people and Earth, noting that the declaration’s framers are…“convinced that in an interdependent living community it is not possible to recognize the rights of only human beings without causing an imbalance within Mother Earth.”

While to the cynical, the declaration may sound uncomfortably “kumbaya,” it’s so earnest that one cannot help but pause and reflect on its unique point of view. The proposed declaration defines “Mother Earth” as “a living being, and…a unique, indivisible, self-regulating community of interrelated beings that sustains, contains and reproduces all beings”

The declaration goes on to list the “inherent rights of Mother Earth, among which some of the most intriguing are:

  • the right to be respected
  • the right to regenerate its bio-capacity and to continue its vital cycles and processes free from human disruptions
  • the right to clean air
  • the right to be free from contamination, pollution and toxic or radioactive waste

Finally, the declaration spells out the obligations of humans to respect Mother Earth by:

  • ensuring that the pursuit of human wellbeing contributes to the wellbeing of Mother Earth…
  • respecing, protecting, conserving and, where necessary, restoring the integrity, of the vital ecological cycles, processes and balances of Mother Earth;
  • guaranteeing that the damages caused by human violations of the inherent rights recognized in this Declaration are rectified and that those responsible are held accountable for restoring the integrity and health of Mother Earth
  • guaranteeing peace and eliminating nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

Far-fetched? Radical? It may appear that way now, but at least someone has said it, and raising awareness is always the first step. Of course, it’s unlikely that the Cochabamba proposals will end up in any formal agreements to emerge from Cancún. But the idea of environmental rights is already taking hold. In September 2008, Ecuador formally recognized the rights of nature in its new constitution. In the United States, a handful of local governments have passed resolutions recognizing that nature has rights, including, recently, the city of Pittsburgh.

Somewhere, Eleanor Roosevelt is smiling.