Nature's rights ... left far behind

New Zealanders have been asked to think about our constitution - what it is that makes us or, as one judge described it, “the mirror of a nation’s soul”


Constitutionally, New Zealand is in a very sad minority.

Unlike 177 out of 193 other nation states, we do not recognise in our laws, at all, the thing that arguably matters the most - the foundation upon which everything else is built - the right to a healthy environment.

I guess we never think about this particular aspect of our foundations because - unlike some other rights that are there, many of them set in place by the United Nations in its Declarations and Covenants made after the Second World War - the limits of the proposition haven't been tested. We live in a clean place, with abundant resources, and a lot of room. We simply take it for granted; and in doing so, we're quite wrong, because what is at stake here is in fact the precondition for a right to life - or at least, to any sort of life worth living.

More than half of other countries recognise directly and explicitly in their constitutions that a clean, healthy, functioning environment is a fundamental human right. And they do so for very good reason: basic environmental standards, like clean air, fresh water, fertile food-producing soil, and a temperate climate, are also the fundamental conditions of a civil society.

As the preamble to the French Environment Charter puts it: “the future and the very existence of humanity are inseparable from its natural environment,” and, “the preservation of the environment must be sought at the same level as the other fundamental interests of the Nation”.



To continue reading, including comments on the place of Nature's rights in a constitution, click here. Submissions on the Constitution Conversation remain open until July 31.