28 June 2009

Human Rights & the Environment

John Maxwell

The Haitian constitution of 1805 was the first national constitution in history to declare that all human beings were equal with equal rights, privileges and responsibilities. After a short preamble the constitution declares that it is made –
"… in presence of the Supreme Being, before whom all mankind are equal, and who has scattered so many species of creatures on the surface of the earth for the purpose of manifesting his glory and his power by the diversity of his works, in the presence of all nature by whom we have been so unjustly and for so long a time considered as outcast children.
"Art. 1. The people inhabiting the island formerly called St. Domingo, hereby agree to form themselves into a free state sovereign and independent of any other power in the universe, under the name of empire of Hayti.
2. Slavery is forever abolished.
3. The Citizens of Hayti are brothers at home; equality in the eyes of the law is incontestably acknowledged, and there cannot exist any titles, advantages, or privileges, other than those necessarily resulting from the consideration and reward of services rendered to liberty and independence.
4. The law is the same to all, whether it punishes, or whether it protects.

"We, the undersigned, place under the safeguard of the magistrates, fathers and mothers of families, the citizens, and the army the explicit and solemn covenant of the sacred rights of man and the duties of the citizen.
Some of the duties of citizenship are enumerated in the constitution; Among them:
9. No person is worth of being a Haitian who is not a good father, good son, a good husband, and especially a good soldier.
10. Fathers and mothers are not permitted to disinherit their children.
11. Every Citizen must possess a mechanic art.
21. Agriculture, as it is the first, the most noble, and the most useful of all the arts, shall be honored and protected.
Under the Constitution, the army is the creature of the state and obedient to it; Due process is guaranteed, the house of every citizen is an inviolable asylum, and the Emperor is prohibited from making wars of conquest.
While the head of state is styled Emperor, the position is elective and not hereditary.

The entire text of the constitution may be found here:

I am no expert on constitutions but I would bet that there are few if any that attempt to define the responsibilities of citizens to the extent the Dessalines constitution did.
What is particularly striking about this constitution is the emphases placed, first on parental responsibilities, then on skill and training and finally on the on husbandry of resources by protecting and and developing agriculture.
These three principles suggest to me that the founding fathers of Haiti were, in the most essential sense, serious environmentalists understanding the duty of the citizens to husband the national patrimony in the interest of all.

'…the vilest scramble for loot'

Haiti was one of the products of the crazed scramble for gold and other emblems of wealth following European exploration of the Western hemisphere and Africa. Millions of indigenous people were exterminated or enslaved, their civilisations laid waste in a multi-century pillaging described by Joseph Conrad as "the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience".
The so-called Industrial Revolution was a process by which raw materials stolen from 'primitive' populations were transmuted into unexampled wealth by human fuel in the form slaves and serfs supplemented later by the fossil fuels coal and petroleum.
Within a century and a half of the start of the Industrial Revolution a Swedish scientist, Svante Arhenius, was warning that human activity was warming the globe by what is now known as the Greenhouse Effect.
Nobody took the threat of global warming seriously until about half a century ago when results from the first International Geophysical Year began to create alarm, strengthened a little later by Rachel Carson's Silent Spring which described all life on earth being caught in the deadly crossfire from new chemicals, plastics, herbicides, pesticides and others that were transforming the American Way of Life into the American way of Death.
Humanity began to wake up to the fact that all of us, black or white or brown, poor or rich, were on a collision course with disaster.Following the Stockholm conference on the Environment in 1972, the United Nations was moved by growing concern "about the accelerating deterioration of the human environment and natural resources and the consequences of that deterioration for economic and social development." In 1983 the UN General Assembly recognized that environmental problems were global in nature and determined that it was in the interest of all nations to establish common policies for sustainable development. The UN decided to convene the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), known by the name of its Chair Mrs Gro Harlem Brundtland, a former prime minister of Norway. The Bruntland Commission echoed the Haitian constitution when it declared that "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
The Haitians version was that no one was allowed to disinherit their children.
The Bruntland Commission prepared the way for the groundbreaking conference of heads of government – the so-called Earth Summit of 1992 at which every country in the world was represented – to design a road map for sustainable development to give all human beings an opportunity to satisfy their basic needs within the limitations of the environment's ability to meet present and future needs.
The Earth summit was an attempt to give effect to the promise of universal rights through universal action. The key element of the agreement, the Treaty of Rio – Agenda 21 –was that every community in the world should be entitled to decide its own way to sustainability and that every person should have a say in this global decision making.
It was a noble aim and every world leader signed on to it, including our own P.J. Patterson and George Bush I of the US. The signatories committed themselves to a variety of objectives, the most important of which was t h idea of community Agendas designed by the people for the people.

Spectacular Disrespect

Few states in the world have failed as spectacularly as Jamaica to honour their obligations under the treaty. We actually drew up a document to guide Local Development Planning in Jamaica but there has essentially been no action to enforce the people's rights to a clean, supportive and productive environment. The main guarantee of this, Environmental Impact Assessments, are a bad and stale joke.
The European countries, six years after Rio, drew up an agreement designed to give their citizens the rights envisaged in Agenda 21 – the treaty signed by Jamaica and nearly 200 other countries.
This agreement, the Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters – is a document which more than any other single instrument, epitomises the real meaning of democratic rights and self government in the modern world.
In the words of the UN Environmental Commission for Europe –
" The Aarhus Convention is a new kind of environmental agreement. The Convention
- links environmental rights and human rights
- acknowledges that we owe an obligation to future generations
- establishes that sustainable development can be achieved only through the involvement of all stakeholders
- links government accountability and environmental protection
- focuses on interactions between the public and public authorities in a democratic context.
The subject of the Convention goes to the heart of the relationship between people and governments. The Convention is not only an environmental agreement, it is also a Convention about government accountability, transparency and responsiveness.
The Aarhus Convention grants the public rights and imposes on states and public authorities obligations regarding access to information and public participation and access to justice.
Jamaica has more than most other countries, demonstrated a contempt and disrespect for the principles enshrined in the Agenda 21 and in the Arhus convention.
We have talked the talk, big time, but we have not only not walked the walk, we have sedulously avoided doing so.
If we go back long before Agenda 21 we will discover that Jamaica, like many other countries, treated the environment with disrespect, if not outright hostility. We destroyed the most productive protein producing piece of seawater in the world, Kingston Harbour and transformed it into the world's most beautiful toxic dump and cesspool. We did not have to do it. Even in the 1920s when we decided to use the harbour as a sink for human waste, there were well known and reasonably priced alternatives. As always, we chose the easy way, the destructive way out. Our laws in relation to bauxite mining were well meant, but were studiously ignored. More recently we have come close to destroying our premier botanic gardens, an erstwhile valuable educational and economic resource and recreational asset, like Kingston harbour, because some greedy developer wanted to put an upscale housing scheme in what would inevitably have become a private park.

Destroying National Treasures

We are trying our damnedest to destroy the Cockpit Country, an asset of almost unimaginable potential, a cultural, historical, ecological and hydrogeological resource which we have not properly explored before we decide to destroy it.
We are in the process of stealing public amenity in our public recreational beaches to be handed over to Spanish hotels and other private interests and we are in the process of transforming one of our most beautiful towns into a colonial slum dedicated to the processing of excrement and other wastes from cruise ships and to make it a tourist-only apartheid facility in which the only Jamaicans will be those who serve the foreign visitors.
Pretty soon the only beach available to Jamaicans may be Puerto Seco, handed over to the Jamaican people by Kaiser Bauxite who should never have had any ownership rights in the first place.
We are in the process of destroying Negril, fifty years ago one of the world's most beautiful beaches. The destruction is caused by illegal groynes – built against expert advice – by the UDC, a public corporation, and by sewage pumped into the Negril Morass by the UDC, which, together with the humic acid released by UDC dredging of the morass, has killed off the sand-flake producing algae and finally, by the over fertilisation of the sugar plantations on the fringes of the morass.
The morass is itself a valuable resource because it is the main guarantor of the Negril beach as well as an important nature reserve with multi-million dollar potential as an attraction for Jamaicans and visitors. We prefer instead, to build artificial attractions, featuring imported wild animals while we kill off our indigenous plant and animal life by a process of malign neglect. Because we have not thought about housing the thousands attracted to the development areas we have officially encouraged squatting and the misery, squalor and crime which accompany these developments.
But, there are of course, always the end-of-pipe solutions. The IMF killed off our 1978 plans to restore Kingston Harbour to economic productivity both as fishing grounds and as recreational area. We would have restored the hillsides, removing the squatters who destroy nearly US$100 million worth of land every year and putting them to grow food on the flat land still monopolised by sugar cane. Now, thirty years later, we are going to go back to the IMF to get some useless, expensive and counterproductive advice which will simply saddle us with more debt, more homelessness and more crime.
Two hundred years ago the Haitians said that no one has the right to disinherit their children.
Jamaicans do not agree.
Copyright©2009 John Maxwell

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