Human Rights and the Environment

Tom Kerns, North Seattle Community College

This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Reviewed Teaching Collection

This activity has received positive reviews in a peer review process involving five review categories. The five categories included in the process are

  • Scientific Accuracy
  • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
  • Pedagogic Effectiveness
  • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
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This page first made public: Oct 9, 2012


This exercise will introduce students to ways of examining and assessing potential human rights norms implicit in certain kinds of environmentally contentious situations. Students will learn about some basic human rights norms and then analyze an environmental situation to learn as much as possible about that situation by reading, talking to leaders and listening to personal stories of those who have been affected.

Learning Goals

This exercise will introduce students to ways of examining and assessing potential human rights norms implicit in certain kinds of environmentally contentious situations.

Big Ideas: moral rights and duties; human/environment interactions.

Context for Use

Using human rights standards as a way of framing environmental issues has begun to take on the shape of a movement in the past 8-10 years. Books, lectures, conferences and workshops on human rights and the environment are beginning to lay out the principles that are shaping the conversation. As Daniel Taillant, director of the Argentine-based Center for Human Rights and Environment, has said, "Everything and anything that influences the environment directly influences our human condition, and a violation of the environment is a violation of our human rights."

Timeframe: This exercise may require one class period to set up and a second class period or two for student reports. Students will probably need perhaps several days to a week for research and writing. The exercise could fit well in the middle or toward the end of a course.

Possible use in other courses: This exercise is applicable as a case study for courses in any discipline that focus on environmental issues, in environmental ethics or basic ethics courses, or in courses that explore the interface between legal and moral justice.

Description and Teaching Materials

The Assignment

For this learning activity students will:
  1. choose a specific environmental situation to research
  2. learn as much as possible about that situation by reading, talking to leaders and listening to personal stories of those who have been affected
  3. learn about relevant human rights standards and instruments
  4. consider how those moral standards would apply to that particular environmental situation
  5. produce a short paper that describes that environmental situation and analyzes it in terms of human rights norms.
The paper will
  • be addressed to classmates,
  • describe that environmental situation, and
  • describe how that situation looks when viewed through a human rights lens.
The hope is that students will come to more fully appreciate the interactions between the human world, including its moral rights and duties, and a sustainable environment.

"Student Handout", a Word document attached to this curriculum addresses the following areas:
  • Partners
You can work on this project alone if you wish, but you may also decide it's best to work in a group of two or three. If you do choose to work with others, though, each person will still write their own individual paper to turn in.
  • Choosing a Topic
An environmental situation to study and analyze in which there has already been some environmental activism involved so you're not starting completely from scratch.
  • Getting Your Topic Approved
The process of getting a project approved by your instructor.
  • Environmental Research
In researching the environmental situation you've chosen, the first thing you'll want to do is talk to people, preferably leaders, who have been actively involved in that situation, and get suggestions from them for how best to learn more about it.
  • Human Rights Research
Access to most relevant human rights documents can be found on the Human Rights Documents page of the Environment and Human Rights Advisory website.
The best human rights documents to start with would be
  • Your Paper
Specifics of the format to follow.
  • Presenting and Discussing Your Paper
Your paper will be presented to classmates orally or online. These are the parameters your instructor has set.

Student Handout (Microsoft Word 44kB Nov7 11)

Teaching Notes and Tips

  • When approving project topics, you will want make sure the environmental situations students choose meet the above suggestions and do have an impact on human beings. If the situation they choose has no immediately evident impact on human beings then this human rights approach may not be applicable in that situation.
  • You may choose to have students present their work in the form of written papers, oral reports presented to the class (with time for questions and discussion), or posted to a website or blog in a way that other students can read, respond to and discuss.


What to look for in assessing student work:
  • Does the student's paper show evidence of having carefully researched their chosen environmental situation?
  • Does the paper show evidence of the student having read or listened to any personal narratives of people who had been adversely impacted by environmental degradation in that situation?
  • Does it show evidence of having looked at authoritative sources - books, formal reports, scientific data, government agencies, etc - for information about the situation?
  • Does the student's paper show evidence of having read at least two human rights documents, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Charter on Industrial Hazards and Human Rights, etc?
  • Does the student's paper appropriately quote human rights standards from those documents?
  • Does the student's paper indicate an understanding of how those human rights standards may apply to the environmental situation they chose?
  • If the student chose to include recommendations in their paper, and if those recommendations show evidence of reflection and judgment, extra credit may be appropriate.
  • If the student's paper was engaging and compelling enough to elicit responses from other students, extra credit may be appropriate.

References and Resources