Human rights… and human duties?… or “resource rights”?

If ‘Brundtland’ might need a revision ( see previous blog) , then how are other agreements and treaties defined by mankind doing? As for instance the declaration of human rights”

It states:

  • (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services

But if there are rights, shouldnt there be any duties as well ? Not to be found in this declaration, but there are duties defined in some other institutions or cultures. Especially in cultures that have learned over ages how to practice a sustainable co-operation between man and nature. As for instance the African native culture has been summarized (by colleague Chrisna du Plessis) as follows:

1.Use no more than you need (sufficiency).

2.Respect life and all relationships between species (spirituality).

3.Nature cannot be owned,but man should take good care of it. (stewardship).

4.Without respect and attention to others there can be no peace and prosperity (social responsibility)

Its however bothersome that most people in Africa can not anymore live following these principles, as they are overthrown by influences from industrialized countries , that force them to live following western free market and WTO rules. Being pushed into a economical chasm. With landgrabbing as newest strategy: if they don’t comply with industrialized countries way of business, we come and do it ourselves. Read Naomi Klein the Shock Doctrine to see how it unfolded in South America. We , the so called developed countries, have used the last hundred years -after the “ first colonization gulf- to draft a system with new playing rules, so that we now legally can enter their territories.

There are more examples of old wisdoms of life. Like in China. Around 2500 years ago Lao Tse wrote: “Who can harmonize with troubled waters, and come to clearness little by little? Who can move with stability, and make life little by little sustainable? “

Its from that time that the main Chinese philosophies unfolded . Well known is Yin Yang, which more then any other principle exemplifies that there should be balance , that there is a negative to a positive, that there is matter and anti matter. And not to forget Feng Shui, for which nature forms the lead for planning of gardens, buildings and interiors . Less known, but deeply rooted in Chinese culture is Wu Wei, “ the art of not doing” , or “Let nature go its course” . In fact move with the flow, in stead of fighting the flow.

Here we also find the contrast with European culture. It was Heraclitus back then that came to the conclusion that you cant step twice in the same river, from which the principle known as Phanta Rhei developed: everything flows. In fact a abstract statement , while the Chinese Wu Wei includes a direction: go with the flow.

A western clinical observation versus a Eastern integral conclusion. Which has for long determined the cultural developments in both continents. And while China has moved away slowly from their cultural background, signs are that they gain new interest. In China, but also in the rest of the world . In some European countries this has led to concrete initiatives, like in Sweden, that already back in the nineties adopted a legal obligation in regard to Sustainable housing:

Housing is a social right and the aim of housing policy is to create conditions that enable everyone to live in a good home at a reasonable cost in a stimulating and secure environment, within ecologically sustainable limits. The housing environment should contribute to equal and decent living conditions and should, in particular, promote good conditions for children and youngsters to grow up in.” Swedish definition for SH Policy: Government bill 1997/98:119.

How a “good home” is and affordable cost, we will not discuss here, more important is the clause: within ecologically sustainable limits. Therefor not only rights, but also duties, obligations. That is a pretty hard statement, which of course require that the limits are documented and enforced. But you can leave that to Sweden, since its one of the countries with the most advanced approaches in establishing a sustainable society, and with results.

A less expected but even more amazing approach we find in Eastern Timor. Not that long ago established as a independent country, and in the unique position of writing a complete new constitution, from blanc pages . They did a remarkable job, when reading

section 6, entitled Objectives of the State :

f) (-the state shall-) protect the environment and to preserve natural resources;

and the detailling in article 61, Environment, :

1. Everyone has the right to a humane, healthy, and ecologically balanced environment and the duty to protect it and improve it for the benefit of the future generations. 2. The State shall recognize the need to preserve and rationalize natural resources. 3. The State should promote, in accordance with its capacities, actions aimed at protecting the environment and safeguarding the sustainable development of the economy.

Constitution of East Timor as approved by the Plenary of the Constituent Assembly on 9 February 2002

Not only the right to ecologically balanced living environment has been put into law, but even the duty to maintain and rationalize resources. And literally the state that takes the obligation and can be held responsible.

Most countries don’t have such a a far reaching commitment, but stick to “ volunteer approaches” Take the fast growing interest and government stimulated “ Circular economy”. In which the implicit suggestion is given that the resources are central,, but in fact only if there can be made business out of that. Which is of course very, very weak compared to Sweden and Eastern Timor, and not the answer to our current problems.

Moreover, the EU is taking the lead in this field , more then the member countries, when it comes to preserving our resources. Beginning of this century a joint statement has been agreed in the EU agenda on Sustainable development ( Gotheburg 2001) :

The relation between economic growth, consumption of natural resources and the generation of waste must change. Strong economic performance must go hand in hand with sustainable use of natural resources and levels of waste, maintaining biodiversity, preserving ecosystems and avoiding desertification….

Including also a first careful sign of the necessity for a new economical framework. In the mean time this has further developed, in a vision for 2050: the EU’s economy has grown in a way that respects resource constraints and planetary boundaries, thus contributing to global economic transformation.

Again somewhat stonger as in 2001. And accompanied by many communications and directives regarding resources, which is a flagship theme for the EU.

Looking again at the human rights declaration, knowing that resources are central and are the foundation of society , I have to conclude that the declaration is not sufficient:

(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services

just like in Brundtland, the standard of living is not detailed, and unknown how much health, house or food people are entitled to. There is a right to housing, But how large? That again is depending on the available resources, the carrying capacity of the earth. And since that is a closed system regarding material resources, it would be more appropriate to write: “everyone is entitled to an equal share of resources” . Which are now denied to many. (think of landgrabbing in Africa, pushing people of their land) .

Remarkable is that no one in the drafting committee of the human rights declaration was from the African continent.

Nevertheless the human rights act gives enough grip to support a legal case against governments. Last year the Dutch government was sued for being too lazy in protecting its inhabitants from climate change . The case was based on a book by Roger Cox: Revolution Justified . The case was won by the suing NGO Urgenda, and in fact could help to support politicians in taking unpopular measures ( They have to) . Nevertheless the Dutch government has brought the case to the high court, and probably the European court for human rights will follow.

There is therefor much to say in favor of a amendment of the human rights declaration. Either to add a paragraph on “ human duties”: similar to Sweden and Eastern Timor add a section with the duty to respect ecological limts. Or, and maybe with more chances of successes , draw a new “declaration on the rights of resources”.

Its not that weird: in The Netherlands we have a Political party called the Party of the Animals, protecting the animal rights. But in fact thats a metaphor since part of a wider political approach to live in harmony with nature: The party has the best climate and environmental program of all parties in the Netherlands. A Party, or better even a formal declaration for the resources would give this an even better basis , since its protects all species and resources.

In other words: To protect human rights, its required to protect resources…! And to revise our treaties and declarations accordingly.

Author: ronald rovers