Picture: billions of people across the world cannot afford to live in places that are healthy and fulfil their rights to a clean environment. This community in Accra lives alongside a large gutter that periodically floods and they easily lose all their possessions and sometimes their lives. The water is full of rubbish and mosquitoes breed there, further threatening their health.
Environmental rights. Every one of us is inherently entitled to certain fundamental rights and freedoms as established in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Specific rights have been further recognised and established by international institutions such as the World Health Organisation, the Human Rights Council, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Many of these rights are environmental rights, which recognise that every one of us has the right to adequate environmental protection that enables us all to live in a healthy environment and have access to enough quality environmental resources for a healthy life. They include, for example, the rights to potable water for drinking, clean air to breathe, and uncontaminated soils to grow our crops.
Individual countries have also established many of these rights in their own constitutions and statutes. Ghana’s water policy, for instance, explicitly recognises the right of access to adequate potable water for all Ghanaians, particularly for the poor and vulnerable, and without any discrimination whatsoever. Recognition of these rights means that when a company’s activities pollute a community’s water source or contaminates their farmlands or pollutes the air they breathe, the company is violating the community’s human rights. Even though these rights are well recognised, they are inadequately protected. It is mainly the poorest and least powerful communities in the world whose environmental rights are violated, lacking as they do the power and finances to defend their rights and their environments against these damaging developments.
This is also the case in Ghana where many poor powerless disadvantaged communities don’t enjoy their environmental rights because their environments and resources are polluted, degraded or destroyed by others from outside their communities. Those guilty of violating their rights include multinational corporations, governments and local elites. Ghana’s weak laws, inadequate enforcement, corruption, collusion and illegal practices allow corporations to avoid liability and accountability for environmental damage and ignore requirements such as Environmental and Social Impact Assessments.
Ghana has been a target of foreign corporate interests because of her wealth of natural resources including gold, diamonds, forests and more recently oil. Much of the value of these resources is lost to Ghana’s economy due to the favourable conditions given to foreign companies, including: tax breaks, profit repatriation, and removal of all obstacles to foreign ownership. Weak, ineffective and corrupt institutions that turn a blind eye to illegal practices have also resulted in loss of economic benefits and overexploitation of resources. Weak enforcement of environmental laws has resulted in the environmental and human rights of local communities being violated in the interests of profit maximisation.
Two specific examples from Ghana where communities’ environmental rights are consistently abused are: