6 Oct 2020

Environmental devastation: a crime against humanity?

We talk to Professor Philippe Sands, an international human rights barrister, about the origins of the right to a healthy natural environment, and why we must act now.

By Christopher Sands, Head of Communications, BirdLife Europe

Professor Philippe Sands has unique prominence in the field of human rights and the environment. His illustrious career has seen him appear as counsel and advocate in many international courts and tribunals, ranging from maritime boundary disputes, to pollution, whaling, and to genocide. He has also published 17 books on international law including Lawless World, which catalysed public debate on the Iraq War. His latest, The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive, follows the success of East West Street, which explores the creation and development of the world-changing legal concepts of ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’. Co-founder of the Centre for International Environmental Law, Sands is also the author of two seminal texts in the field.

BirdLife is especially gratified to have Sands’ support and advice for our One Planet One Right campaign to add the right to a healthy natural environment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Here we get an insight into his work, his measure of success and optimism, and why, when it comes to the environment, international law is too important to be left to international lawyers.


A universal human right to a healthy natural environment – it’s almost unbelievable that it doesn’t already exist. The concept of human rights is ever-expanding (e.g. the rights of women, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+) – are you optimistic about the inclusion of the environment?

The world of human rights that I am involved in is in the very earliest stages of its development. If you go back through human existence, you’re talking about millennia. It’s really only in the past 60 or 70 years we see the idea that law at the global level might protect the wellbeing of the environment, the wellbeing of individuals and the wellbeing of communities. The world is not going to change overnight, human rights are not going to be completely protected overnight, the environment is not going to be completely protected overnight.

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Are the prospects for the planet gloomy, then?

It’s a long game, so I’m not looking for overnight change. What keeps me going are the little indicators of success: an odd case here, an odd case there, a judgement of a court in one part of the world, a judgement of the International Court of Justice in another. I believe that it is possible to change consciousness and that the law contributes to that – this explains why I am able to be relatively optimistic.

I think the world is a better place than it was in the 1930s. Then, a country could kill half of its own citizens without violating a single rule of international law. That can’t happen anymore. It doesn’t mean that the killings stop, it doesn’t mean that the plunder of the environment stops, but it does mean that there’s an emerging standard which says actually you’re not allowed to do that – and that’s a good thing.


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the related concepts of international crimes against humanity and genocide, came out of the ashes of the Second World War, as outlined in your book East West Street. Does the right to a healthy natural environment have its place in this context?

Considering great environmental destruction or outrages as international crimes might well be appropriate – there is no innate contradiction or flaw in raising environmental crimes to that level given their consequences. The development of universal human rights only stems from the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, and our environmental consciousness, law and rights are even more recent – dating from the ‘70s – so this is all still in its infancy and is incremental. There have been small (but important) steps taken – but they do make a difference and give me optimism.


Are these steps moving with enough urgency to secure the planet’s health?

With regard to the environment and climate, and whether enough changes will be made in time before a point of no return has been reached – that’s something I do not know. Real changes happen in international law when catastrophe strikes. Nothing may really happen on climate change, and it may well be too late, until catastrophe strikes – that is when the law really cuts in.

The history of international cooperation is the history of disaster followed by reconstruction, and I’ve long thought that in the environmental field it is the imminence of collapse that causes action to be taken. On climate change it just hasn’t got bad enough and the risk is that by the time it does, it will be too late.

So recognising a human right to a healthy environment could be a key tool in an effective response to the twin crises of climate and biodiversity loss. International law is too important to be left to international lawyers – mobilising the public to support this new human right is the right thing to do, a terrific thing to do, and I am happy to help.