UNITED NATIONS - An international coalition of academics and environmental activists has launched a global campaign for the creation of a new U.N. convention to protect "mother earth".
With the United Nations fighting a relentless battle against water pollution, loss of biodiversity, desertification, deforestation, climate change and a depleted ozone layer, the campaign for a "Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth" has taken added significance.
"It is not too late to change course and improve our relationship with Mother Earth," says U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro. "But time is running out," she warns.
Maude Barlow, a lead campaigner for the U.N. convention and chairperson of the Council of Canadians, a citizen's advocacy organisation, said: "We hope that one day a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth will stand as the companion to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights as one of the guiding covenants of our time."
The campaign has also been boosted by the fact that the United Nations is commemorating two key environment-related events this year: the International Year of Forests and the beginning of the International Decade for Biodiversity.
"It took a long time to get the world to accept the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," Barlow told IPS.
"It will not be an easy struggle to have the rights of nature understood and adopted. But it will happen one day," she predicted.
Last month, a group of scholars and environmental experts from around the world launched a new book titled 'The Rights of Nature: The Case for a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth and Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth and Justice.'
Speaking at the launch in New York Apr. 21, Shannon Biggs, director of the community rights programme at Global Exchange, said: "Today's environmental laws place commerce above nature, and in so doing they legalise harm to ecosystems."
"We see communities across the world, including the United States, taking action to change this model in recognition of the rights of nature, and to protect our environment, our communities and our future," said Biggs, author of 'Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots.'
Addressing the U.N. General Assembly in April 2009, Bolivian President Evo Morales made a strong push for the proposed new Convention.
And in December, the General Assembly adopted a resolution calling on all 192 member states to share their experiences and perspectives on how to create "harmony with nature".
A draft Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth was approved at the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba, Bolivia in April 2010.
The draft declaration was formally presented to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in May last year.
Barlow told IPS the rights of nature are based on the notion that the natural world is a fully operating system, a community, with its own laws. It is therefore necessary for humans to construct laws that are compatible with the laws of nature.
This means promoting human and community development in a way that protects nature and promotes sustainability, said Barlow, a former U.N. Adviser on Water.
"What might it look like if we created laws to give the earth and other species the right to exist?" she asked. "If we believe that rights are inherent, existing by virtue of our creation, then they belong to all nature, not just to humans."
"We are not talking about every insect or fish, for example, as having the same kind of individual rights currently understood for humans," she added.
However, under a system that recognises the rights of nature, it would be unlawful to drive a species to extinction or to destroy a watershed.
Technically, the Gulf could sue British Petroleum for that disastrous oil spill. And the ocean around the nuclear reactor in Japan could sue the owners, she said.
Asked about the link between indigenous peoples and the protection of Mother Earth, Barlow said indigenous peoples are in fact, the inspiration for the declaration and it is no coincidence that it came out of a summit filled with indigenous leaders in Cochabamba Bolivia last year.
Recognising the rights of nature would essentially open up a whole new front in the advancement of "third generation" rights, those rights dealing with self determination, economic and social development and collective responsibility to protect and preserve natural resources.
"The rights of nature as a concept is totally compatible with the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and completely complements it," she added.
Asked about future plans, Barlow told IPS there are moves to present the concept, book and declaration to the climate justice community in Durban in December at the Conference of Parties (COP 17) and to the water justice movement in Marseilles in March 2012 at the World Water Forum.
She said there are also plans to get the proposed Convention into the agenda of the Rio+20 conference on the environment in Rio next April.
In the end, she said, "We are trying to say that there is no such thing as a human right if the earth cannot sustain life and it is no coincidence that where poor people are dying, so is the water, forests and air around them."
The rights of humans and nature are deeply intertwined, and "we forget this at our peril", she added.
So far at the United Nations, "we have had an interactive dialogue on harmony with nature".
Barlow said the full declaration is probably a way off in terms of ratification at the United Nations, but several countries, including Bolivia and Ecuador, have adopted laws recognising these rights and others are expected to soon follow.