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15.2: Two Kinds of Human Rights Differ in Their Relation to Human Security

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    The Criterion of ‘Grantability’

    In earlier chapters in this textbook it was established that the purification of air and water, the provision of foods and shelter, and the processing of wastes are directly contributed by local ecosystems. It follows that the sustainable provision of those services depends on the biological integrity of those ecosystems (Karr, 2006; Ryan, 2016). Likewise, the health of a population is evidently affected by the state of its ecosystems (McMichael, 2001; Daw et al., 2016), as will be discussed in detail in Chapter 17. Accordingly, it would make sense for human communities to claim that ‘their’ ecosystems have a right not be harmed or diminished in their integrity. The fact that such a claim is not usually made, and that instead the demands pertain exclusively to the human recipients of those services (as in ‘the right to a clean environment’) represents, in our view, both a grave logical fallacy and a strategic error in judgment by human rights advocates.

    The integrity of an ecosystem can – given sufficient care, experience and motivation – be maintained sustainably, barring any major external threats such as climate change. Among the conditions of such a policy would be that the total environmental impact of the human community that enjoys the ecosystem’s support does not exceed the sustainable maximum, i.e. the ecosystem’s carrying capacity. In contrast, claiming that the individual community member has a right to a certain quality of service makes no sense because no-one has the power to grant such a demand, not even the most absolute dictator, once the population’s impact has exceeded that threshold. Thus, those third generation ‘environmental rights’, including the ‘right’ to adequate health care or the entitlement not to be poor, belong in a different category of human rights, the category of ungrantable ‘rights.’ Being grantable, however, is an essential property of any right (Rawls, 1971). Therefore, a right that cannot be granted is no right at all (hence our use of inverted commas), and it makes no sense to promise or to claim it.

    For example, the language in the MDGs and SDGs tends to frame the UN’s efforts to eradicate poverty (which is generally accepted as a moral duty) as fulfilling some kind of entitlement or right. This right is ungrantable in principle according to our above definition. Such an interpretation of a moral duty of the benefactor into a right for the beneficiary is also evident in documents from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR, 2004). The laudable intention was to “prevent slow large-scale progress from masking the loss or marginalization of individuals or minorities” (O’Neill, 2006, p. 13). Yet, only someone who believes that resources are unlimited can extend their allocation as a universal right.

    The strategic error in judgment associated with claiming ungrantable ‘rights’ derives from the habituation effect that they it have on other rights. Such a claim diminishes the status of other rights to which realistic and legitimate claims could be made. For example, if the UN’s Human Rights Council added to the list of human rights the right to own a circus, clearly ungrantable, the entire list would as a result acquire a less serious, less binding, and more conditional appearance. This would be regarded as a disservice by most humanists who harbour genuine respect for human rights and concern for their enforcement. Some countries have laws that contravene basic human rights, such as outlawing homosexuality or freedom of expression. Such laws demean the way in which citizens respect (or not) the country’s laws in general. Similarly, ‘rights’ that contravene the laws of nature demean the status of all rights. The claiming of ungrantable ‘rights’ diminishes the sense of urgency with which all human rights ought to be respected worldwide. On the health care side, people become habituated to media images of sick individuals from poor countries and they take it for granted that whatever ‘right’ to health care those people or their advocates might proclaim is quite immaterial to their own privileged situation. The danger with this tacit distancing and discounting is that it is all too easily applied to more respectable rights, such as the right for political representation, to self expression, and to other presumably ‘self-evident’ rights, which compromises civil society worldwide.

    The problem of ungrantable ‘rights’ does of course not diminish the need for guarantees to promote the environmental security of communities, especially when it comes to the world’s disempowered. After all, a moral duty merely commands us to give it our best effort—no more and no less—towards a moral goal. The concept of ecosystem integrity could function as such a goal, in formulating policy guidelines that would go a long way towards such a best effort, as discussed in Chapter 9 and Chapter 10. This approach might also lead to more balanced moral reasoning, away from the heavy emphasis on rights-based arguments and including arguments from utilitarian and virtue ethics. Arguments based on rights and duties often do not go far enough to promote human security in the form of effective policies and legislation because they often do not specify clearly enough what actually needs to be done. Grantable rights depend primarily on human behaviour and attitudes whereas ungrantable ‘rights’ depend heavily on environmental resources. In the light of this distinction, the question arises whether ungrantable ‘rights’ are of any use at all. Specifically we might ask, is there any benefit in insisting on the individual global citizen’s entitlement to adequate health care, a safe environment, adequate nutrition, considering that such provisions cannot necessarily be provided even under the best of intentions?

    From Environmental ‘Rights’ to Environmental Demands

    The preceding discussion emphasised the need to use rights-based arguments prudently when debating environmental security and human security in general, and to invoke grantable rights in different ways and on different occasions compared to those kinds of demands that are based on ungrantable ‘rights’. Heretofore, we will refer to the latter as ‘environmental demands’. We do not mean to insinuate that such demands have no place in the human security debate—on the contrary: The qualities of air and water, of nutrition, of shelter, of the ways of recycling wastes, and the status of public health are still among the best indicators to assess the environmental security of a community. And they can help bolster some legitimate rights-based arguments, namely in connection with the right to justice. We perceive at least three distinct benefits how environmental demands can render human security more achievable and more equitable.

    First, in the case of a community or region that has not yet reached the maximum sustainable environmental impact, as for example, the West African country of Gabon, environmental demands can highlight situations of injustice and inequity. Based on claims for distributive justice they would help promote initiatives to elevate the quality of life for society’s poorest and their standard of living in the community. For example, elevated local incidences of cancer are often used to bolster demands for the authorities to explore possible causes and to implement local policies to improve prevention, screening and treatment. Likewise, environmental demands can direct public attention to environmental harms. Once public attention is gained, the evidence of ecological deterioration can inform policies to promote more sustainable practices and possible restoration. Thus, the ‘right’ does not refer to receiving certain benefits but to the equitable distribution of what benefits and sacrifices pertain in a particular situation.

    Secondly, in situations where the maximum sustainable impact has already been exceeded—Ethiopia might serve as an example country—environmental demands serve to highlight that very circumstance. No other physical observation illustrates the fact of ecological overshoot more clearly than the widespread squalor caused by polluted air and water, famine, and the resulting abundance of ill health (McMichael, 2001). Vociferous demands for mitigation can make a significant difference politically, specially in the context of ecological overshoot as noted in earlier chapters. Against the worldwide opposition by powerful groups, environmental demands can provide the conduit for disseminating such information and educating the public (Rees, 2004; Lautensach, 2010). The language of environmental demands is one that everyone understands, even if those demands are bound to remain partly unmet. The causal connections between overshoot and poor human security have not yet widely entered the public’s awareness. Calls for fairness and equity can help to direct public attention to regions where overshoot is worst.

    Thirdly, environmental demands are the mainstay of the discourse on justice in bioethics (Potter, 1988). An effective way to illustrate the widening gap between global rich and poor is to compare the environmental indicators that reflect the qualities of their respective lives, in addition to the often invoked data on per capita consumption. Regardless of the extent of overshoot, such comparisons highlight the injustice inherent in the global economic order, its trading schemes, and its underlying maldistribution of political power. While insisting on one’s right to a certain environmental quality is unlikely to lead to improvements, demands for equitable quality are more justifiable and authorities are more likely to heed them. This is the strategy that informs the SDGs.

    Insisting on environmental demands in those contexts represents of course only the first step in an argument that necessarily leads to a discussion of Potter’s (1988) five modes of survival as outlined in Chapter 1. The SDGs are intended to lead us from the current prevailing global mixture of mere, miserable, and irresponsible modes towards acceptable alternatives. Unfortunately their chances of success are slim because many SDGs compete with each other for physical resources, as suggested in Chapter 3.


    15.2: Two Kinds of Human Rights Differ in Their Relation to Human Security is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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