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STRATEGIC HUMAN RIGHTS LITIGATION: USING THE LAW TO DEFEND THE RIGHT TO A HEALTHY CLIMATE.

In October 2021, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution recognizing ‘the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment’ as an important right for the enjoyment of human rights. And, on the 28 July 2022, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution recognizing the same right. This right extends beyond mere environmental concerns to include the broader concept of a safe and healthy climate that sustains life and ensures the well-being of present and future generations. Although not legally binding, these resolutions acknowledge and underscore the importance of a healthy environment, including, healthy climate to human well-being.


Despite these resolutions, climate change remains one of the most pressing global challenges of the twenty-first century, with its impact worsening over the world, particularly in the global south which bears the brunt of its impacts. To address climate change, a diversified approach to mitigation and adaptation is required. While scientific and technological solutions are critical, strategic human rights litigation is crucial in dealing with this global crisis.


Strategic human rights litigation entails the deliberate use of legal action to attain larger societal goals. Strategic litigation, according to Setzer, involves environmental, social, and political campaigns, as well as mobilization targeted not just at changing government behaviour but also at raising awareness1. In the context of climate change, this means using the legal system to influence environmental policy, hold polluters accountable, and demand action from governments and industries. By leveraging the judicial system, strategic human rights litigation can alter and focus public debate on the massive issues to address threats to human existence. Therefore, drawing global attention to human rights violations resulting from climate change. As a result, causing state parties to prioritize it and undertake decisions to combat it. The 2005 Inuit petition filed at the Inter American Commission, for example, demonstrates the impact of strategic litigation because, though unsuccessful, it drew international attention to the links between human rights and climate change2. Ultimately generating several other debates which later saw the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) report on the link between climate change and human rights in 2009.


Furthermore, strategic litigation is a powerful empowerment tool for vulnerable communities. It entails raising awareness and empowering communities to use the legal system to demand just and equitable adaptation measures. It allows individuals, communities, and organizations to hold governments, corporations accountable for environmental harm. Through these lawsuits, individuals can obtain compensation for damages, Courts can compel regulatory reforms, and prohibit harmful practices. Therefore, the vulnerable individuals are not left to bear the burden of climate change without recourse to legal redress.


Strategic litigation enhances the applicability of International Human Rights law “rights holder-duty bearer” principles therefore, mandating the duty bearer (State) to undertake measures such as establishing legal frameworks, adaptability mechanisms to effectively deter threats to human rights and take practical mitigation measures to ensure the protection and promotion of the right-holder’s rights. This duty also extends to protection of rights holders from third party actions or inactions likely negatively affect their rights.


Finally, through legal precedents governments are compelled to embrace more ambitious climate targets, impose higher emissions limits, or commit resources to adaptation and mitigation initiatives, therefore, influencing the development of environmental policies and regulations.


In a nutshell, despite shortcomings not discussed in this article, strategic human rights litigation is an indispensable tool in upholding the right to a healthy climate because it enables rights holders to hold governments and corporations accountable, important precedents are set through which governments are compelled to undertake policy reforms et al, and vulnerable communities empowered with climate related information.



Article by: Bruna Patricia Acam.



1. J. Setzer and R. Byrnes, (2020) Global Trends in Climate Change Litigation: 2020 Snapshot, p.1-17 available at https://www.lse.ac.uk/granthaminstitute/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Global-trends-in-climate-change-litigation_2020-snapshot.pdf


2. S. M-Lankford, M. Darrow, L. Rajamanya, Human Rights and Climate Change: A Review of International Legal Dimensions citing IPPC 2007: Impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability 82 (2007); Petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, p.8


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