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Environmental Justice as Environmental Human Rights

Updated: Mar 18

By: John H. Knox & Nicole Tronolone

For many years, the environmental justice movement in the United States and the evolution of international human rights law concerning the environment have pursued parallel but separate paths, only occasionally noting that they share common concerns. This Article seeks to build a stronger bridge between them, in three ways. First, it presents the most detailed restatement of environmental human rights law yet published. International human rights bodies have developed a robust environmental jurisprudence setting out concrete obligations on States, including procedural obligations to provide public access to environmental information, decision-making, and remedies, substantive obligations to adopt and enforce effective environmental regulations, and obligations to prevent environmental discrimination.

Second, the Article provides the first systematic evaluation of the United States in light of that jurisprudence. The United States has elements of a strong environmental framework, but it also has a number of shortcomings and one gigantic gap: the failure to effectively address

the disproportionate environmental burdens placed on African Americans and other racialized minorities. The US government has paid lip service to environmental justice in principle, but it has failed to reform its laws, or use the ones it has effectively, to address

environmental discrimination in practice.

Third, the Article explains that, even though US courts are not open to environmental human rights claims, international human rights bodies are. Advocates could more frequently ask regional human rights commissions, human rights treaty bodies, and UN special rapporteurs to examine US failures to meet international obligations, especially obligations to prevent and redress environmental discrimination and to respect the land rights of Indigenous peoples. Although the decisions and reports of these bodies are not legally binding, they can still complement and support domestic efforts to achieve environmental justice.

In short, the quest for environmental justice is also a quest to bring the United States into compliance with environmental human rights law. Recognizing the connections between them can help in the struggle for both.


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Smith Joel
Smith Joel
Feb 26

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