|Environmental Change and International Law: New Challenges and Dimensions (UNU, 1992, 493 pages)|
|International human rights law and environmental problems|
|8. The human rights system as a conceptual framework for environmental law|
The adverse impact of environmental degradation poses consequences for all sections of human society within its circumference. But while the more developed and economically affluent are capable of creating conditions for meeting or withstanding those consequences, or at least their full effect, there are vulnerable minorities whose very survival is threatened. In their extinction mankind loses a valuable cultural content. Indigenous communities in developing countries are most susceptible to that risk because of their intricate and fragile dependence on their natural habitat. Their survival depends upon it inasmuch as it provides, simultaneously, their shelter, their sustenance, and their fundamental culture. The nature of their dependence on their habitat is so total that any interference with it would constitute an assault on their existence. The Sub-Committee on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities has described their relationship with the land as comprising their "whole range of emotional, cultural, spiritual and religious considerations."63 A thoughtless and aggressive policy that destroys their habitat, be it in pursuance of a developmental programme or in consequence of military operations, produces a traumatic end to the indigenous community. In the vast mosaic of environmental protection, indigenous peoples are entitled to particular protection by reason of their sensitive relationship to their habitat. The World Commission on Environment and Development has referred to the danger of indigenous peoples being threatened with virtual extinction unless their traditional rights are recognized. It recommends that they should be given a decisive voice in the shaping of policies and programmes for the development of their areas.64
Economic considerations responsible for deforestation and use of land for agricultural and industrial purposes can do violent injury to the survival of an indigenous people and the preservation of their culture. The right to a healthful environment is as much a right to the minority community as it is of the majority, and in a conflict between the two claims the operating principle would incline in favour of preserving that which will be irretrievably lost. The right to development in action possesses the capacity of doing irremedial injury to an indigenous culture. The arrogance of developmental economics, which seeks to pursue with missionary zeal the introduction of modern values into the lives of an indigenous people, can destroy that which it intends to promote.
Where an indigenous community inhabits an island, such island culture depends for its sustenance upon the marine environment. The sea provides food and brings tourism and commerce. A disruption of that ethos by whatever means could easily deprive the people of their only source of subsistence, leading ultimately to their extinction. Global warming produces consequences of immeasurable danger to an island existence, with fatal consequences for the indigenous community and its indigenous culture.
An indigenous people is entitled to the preservation of its culture. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by Article 22, directs the protection of individual social, economic, and cultural rights. The various facets of the right to participate freely in cultural life presupposes the maintenance by an indigenous community of its identity and its protection against assimilation by the state. It also guarantees the right to cultural participation or minimal self-determination by the minority community. Ethnocide is as significant a form of destruction as any other. Involved in the protection of cultural values is the right to life and the right to security of person construed in terms of the quality and condition of life. Protected by the doctrine of jus cogens, they are non-derogable. While some municipal constitutions have specifically provided for the protection of such minorities,65 the international law regime needs to be strengthened and reinforced in its protection of indigenous peoples.
The conflict between environmental rights and the right to development, which has been treated previously, raises the same issues in the case of indigenous peoples. The notion of sustainable development applies to their context also. Informed by social justice, it is a promise to protect their right to life and their way of life against the threat of environmental degradation.