In the world today, many enjoy unprecedented material wealth. Economic reforms and trade liberalization have opened borders to the freer flow of capital and goods, allowing economies to diversify and international commerce to flourish. However, this wealth creation comes at high human and environmental costs, largely borne by the poor and the marginalized.
The human costs are evident in the persistence of poverty and the growing inequalities between North and South, as well in the unequal distribution of wealth and opportunities within most countries. A third of the world’s population survives on less than US$2 a day.
But a fifth of the world population – that's 1.2 billion people – live in extreme poverty on half that amount.
Low income is just one result of the denial of basic rights including access to productive assets, social services and cultural opportunities.
Meanwhile, the world’s economic growth and the accompanying communications revolution foster production and consumption patterns in wealthy countries that are ecologically unsustainable. Unless corrected, all of humanity will ultimately shoulder the costs of environmental degradation.
It is the poor, however, who currently pay a disproportionate share of these costs, through the contamination and loss of the ecosystems and natural resources upon which their livelihoods depend.
But progress is possible. The international community has affirmed that all people have human and environmental rights. These are rights that should guide the distribution of the material benefits and limit the environmental costs of economic growth.
Over the past 60 years, the world community has endorsed international conventions that expanded the scope of human rights to include civil, political, social and economic rights and protections to which all people are entitled.
If respected, these international covenants would significantly reduce, if not eliminate, poverty and human indignity.
Basic human rights
Moreover, during the past 30 years the international community has also affirmed the right of all people to enjoy a healthy and sustainable environment. As with human rights, these environmental rights are not static; they expand with society’s will and capacity.
Unfortunately, basic human and environmental rights - including the right to work, food, adequate living standards, education, and a safe, healthy and sustainable environment - have not been extended to a major portion of humanity.
Under current economic policies and the associated process of globalisation, there may be little immediate prospect of improvement. Within current globalisation trends, some 2 billion people in over 120 countries will remain on the margins of economic prosperity, social development and environmental sustainability.
International human rights are outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Geneva Conventions, the International Covenants on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and various other conventions that address the rights of refugees, children and women, and prohibit torture, discrimination and genocide.
International environmental rights were first spelled out in the Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972, later expanded by the 1982 World Charter for Nature, the 1992 Declaration of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, and several other international environmental agreements.
Human rights and environmental rights are not static; they expand with society’s will and capacity.
Redressing the balance
Ensuring the fulfilment of internationally accepted human and environmental rights is primarily the responsibility of national governments and intergovernmental organisations. While each government is accountable, first, to its own citizens, rich countries have additional responsibilities towards developing countries. These include reforming current policies governing international trade, investment and development, to allow poorer countries access to the resources needed to move more decisively towards fulfilment of human and environmental rights.
Beyond governments, economic trends over the last 30 years have tended to diminish the role of the state and increase the influence of businesses, notably large multinational corporations. This transfer of power and initiative should have gone hand in hand with new regulatory frameworks, binding agreements and commitments to ensure that the private sector also assumes a larger share of responsibilities towards the fulfilment of human and environmental rights. Yet advances in that direction have been, at best, modest.