Welcome to Human Rights Here

Dear Reader,

We are delighted to introduce you to Human Rights Here, the new blog of the Netherlands Network of Human Rights Research (NNHRR)! Human Rights Here (HRH) aims to support the critical exchange of research, analysis and ideas between scholars and practitioners. If you are reading this statement, this includes you!

Our feeling was that we needed a blog that could forge a closer connection between human rights research and rights in practice. We envision HRH to be inclusive - promoting strategies resulting in an awareness and culture of human rights for all stakeholders.

Stakeholder groups include government and international organisation officials, practitioners, civil society and non-governmental organisations, national human rights institutions, independent administrative authorities, students and the media. We are ambitious and would like our audience and contributors to extend beyond The Netherlands. We therefore welcome contributions addressing human rights topics relevant to national, regional and international audiences.

The blog’s focus on Human Rights “Here” - on the ground - will be operationalised by:

  • Publishing high-quality contributions submitted by academics as well as by practitioners;
  • Requesting contributors to demonstrate and discuss the societal relevance of their piece;
  • Reaching a broad range of stakeholders in society, among others through an accessible yet professional language and clear analysis; and by
  • Posting occasional blog entries on events demonstrably relevant to human rights, such as academic conferences, and legal or political developments.

Join us in celebrating the launch of HRH by reading one of our first blogs, and please consider making a contribution!

Sincerely,

Human Rights Here (HRH) Editorial Board

Elif Durmus
Stephanie Rap
Felisa Tibbitts
Aikaterini Tsampi

Promoting health and environmental rights through participatory noise mapping in the city


Photo credits: https://scistarter.org/noisetube

Anna Berti Suman*

Tilburg Institute for Law Technology and Society, Tilburg University, Tilburg, The Netherlands

*Telephone: +31134668403; E-mail: a.bertisuman@uvt.nl.

Postal address: Prof. Cobbenhagenlaan 221, 5037 DE Tilburg, The Netherlands.

Excessive noise levels represent a pressing issue seriously affecting people’s health and wellbeing in contemporary cities. High levels of noise can threaten both mental and physical health, causing persistent stress and impinging over environmental rights such as the right to a healthy environment. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has often reflected on the connection between environmental protection and human health. In a number of cases, some expressly dealing with noise-associated nuisances, the ECtHR has been lenient in identifying causal links between environmental harm and resulting health effects. In the Dubetska case, for example, the Court found a breach of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) enshrining the respect for private and family life because of severe water pollution. The Court noted that it is “often impossible to quantify [pollution] effects in each individual case” (para 106) but it suffices that pollution is “in clear excess of applicable safety standards [creating an] elevated risk to health” (para 111) to determine a breach of Article 8 ECHR. Specifically addressing noise-induced pollution, in the Deés case, the Court again affirmed that the mere fact that the noise exceeded substantially statutory norms was sufficient to constitute a violation of Article 8 ECHR. This open interpretation may allow citizens monitoring their environment to stand in court for violation of their right to health or to a healthy environment whenever they can demonstrate a substantial exceeding of (national or international) environmental standards.

The right to a healthy environment was recognized at the first global conference on the environment held in Stockholm in 1972, through the enactment of Principle 1 of the Stockholm Declaration. Yet the Declaration for its non-binding nature does not create a true obligation for the states to respect such a provision. It is rather the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe’s Aarhus Convention, adopted in 1998 and having the nature of a binding legal text, which at its preamble recalls Principle l of the Stockholm Declaration (and Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development). The Principle reaffirms the right of every person to a healthy environment, to which realization the rights of access to information is considered functional. This understanding of access to environmental information as a means to ensure a healthy environment is particularly relevant for this discussion on civic environmental monitoring and production of environmental information. In the European region, the right to a healthy environment has evolved through an extensive interpretation of relevant provisions of the ECHR as the Convention itself does not explicitly refer to the environment. The ECHR has indeed assessed environmental human rights’ infringements against other rights recognized in the Convention, such as the right to life and physical integrity (Article 2 ECHR) and the right to privacy, home and family life (Article 8 ECHR). Over recent history, requests have been advanced by scholars to urge the Council of Europe to adopt a right to a healthy environment but, up to now, the Council has not embraced this push to include in the ECHR such a right. Also the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, as interpreted by the Court of Justice of the European Union, played a significant role in terms of environmental protection. Article 37 of the Charter is the most relevant for the aim of this discussion, affirming that “a high level of environmental protection and the improvement of the quality of the environment must be [..] ensured in accordance with the principle of sustainable development.”

High noise levels may seriously threaten the enjoying of the discussed rights. Proximity to transport hubs often worsens the noise burden that the dwellers have to bear. Political and economic interests related to the growth of transport networks in the city frequently conflict with the interests of the citizens for a peaceful living environment. Increasingly, lay people (that is, non-expert people or experts not acting in their professional role) are engaging in measuring environmental parameters affecting their own health. These actors can be described as  ‘Citizen Scientists’.  The phenomenon of grassroots’ actors monitoring environmental condition is bringing in new evidence on the effects of persistent high noise levels – among the other environmental factors – on human health. Such evidence can inform policies aimed at governing noise risks and foster a higher respect of the right to health and individual and collective environmental rights. Practices of participatory noise monitoring qualify more specifically as ‘Citizen Sensing’.  ‘Citizen Sensing’ can be defined as a sub-set of Citizen Science entailing the monitoring of environmental (health) parameters using smartphones and networked devices, which may foster citizen participation in tracking environmental (health) risks. ‘Risk’, in this context, can be defined as the probability or threat of damage or any other negative occurrence caused by external or internal vulnerabilities (e.g. environmental risks), which may be avoided through pre-emptive action, and which affects public health. ‘Noise’ can be framed as an unwanted sound that is perceived as unpleasant, loud or disruptive to hearing and which, in some cases, can impact public health.

‘Citizen Sensing’ practices take place in the social context of an ongoing debate questioning the exclusive role of authorities and professional scientists in taking decisions and producing knowledge over risk problems affecting citizens’ daily life but also – and importantly – health and environmental human rights. Such a debate entails the fundamental question on whether political and social issues are better resolved through reliance on technical expertise only or, rather, also including civic knowledge and deliberation when fundamental rights of the concerned citizens are at stake. The discussion is also, ultimately, a reflection on boundaries: what counts as legitimate knowledge for informing (environmental) decision-making is increasingly blurred. Leaving affected people’s input out of the debate may be seen as a way to reinforce environmental injustice(s). Moreover, projects of participatory monitoring not only engage laymen but often include also experts, just not acting in their professional role, which demonstrates that the divide between citizens and experts is not straightforward (anymore). In these experiences, expert opinion and lay perception meld and complement one another, rather than compete, pushing for forms of participatory democracy ‘on the ground’. Lastly, laymen engaging in such initiatives ultimately aim to ‘cross-check’ official environmental data, challenging or aiming at restoring trust in appointed institutions. In doing so, as recognized in the preamble of the Aarhus Convention, sensing citizens draw a link between access to environmental information and promotion of healthier environmental conditions.

One may question why citizens engage in such alternative or complementary monitoring practices when official environmental impact assessments - mandatory under domestic legislation - already provide for public participation and consultation. The problem is that, often, citizens perceive these ‘institutional venues’ for public engagement as detached from their actual needs and as too formalized. Moreover, in case of highly politicized infrastructural projects, citizens may struggle to ‘trust’ officially offered spaces for participation as they expect the institution will not take account their perspective. Lastly, citizens could consider it more effective to appeal to (social) media instead, publishing there their data and claims on noise. This way, ‘Citizen Sensing’ becomes a way to actuate participation and environmental rights otherwise. A case, the NoiseTube project in Paris, shows this potential. Tackling the issue of noise pollution, the NoiseTube project was initiated in Paris by the Sony Computer Science Laboratory in 2008. Choosing as an example a project that started even before the ‘boom’ of ‘Citizen Sensing’ (identified by Boulos et al. in 2011) and that is still active and growing today demonstrates that these practices can be sustained over time. The project was launched to develop a “new participative approach for monitoring noise pollution [..] enabling each citizen to measure […] exposure in his everyday environment and participate in the collective noise mapping.” The project entails citizens gathering, analysing and sharing risk information on open access, collective noise maps, by installing a free application on GPS-equipped mobile phones (yet, ownership of a smartphone is a gate-keeper). Engaging with the measurements, citizens can gain an understanding of their daily exposure to noise but also contribute to creating a collective data source on noise based on local knowledge for improving institutional governance.

Ultimately, this can be seen as a form of ‘enhancing’ environmental rights, both giving people control over environmental information for taking individual and collective action and making them more informed on noise trends and thus more able to argue with competent institutions on noise management decisions. In the end, as recognized by the Aarhus Convention, knowing about your surrounding environment is the first step to be able to argue about eventual violations and demand actions for environmental protection. That said, it can be concluded that ‘Citizen Sensing’ has a potential in terms of generating awareness among the public on environmental issues and creating citizens cross-check mechanisms of institutional information. The citizens with their own measuring equipment flip the relationship with the institution(s) responsible for the risk problem, from passive recipients of information to active collectors, thus claiming their role in a space not traditionally reserved for them. The sensing individuals, this way, become able to discuss on an informed basis the data gathered by themselves with the data presented by experts. As found by the ECtHR in the Deés case, the citizens may eventually become able to prove that perceived noise levels exceed statutory norms and thus demand intervention from the competent authorities. These participatory systems cannot substitute official noise monitoring platforms. Yet, they can bring fresh new evidence, which can trigger a social but also judicial debate and ultimately promote the respect of health and environmental human rights. Lastly, these initiatives may bring useful data to decision-makers, attending to the fact that often local knowledge is not sufficiently taken into account in official interventions.

Bio

Anna Berti Suman is a PhD researcher at the Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology, and Society (The Netherlands), currently also Visiting Researcher at the European Commission Joint Research Center. Her PhD project aims at investigating how grassroots-driven Citizen Sensing can challenge and ultimately influence environmental risk governance. Anna has work and research experience in environmental risk policy (Ecuador), water management (Chile) and the public health sector (London). Besides academia, Anna volunteers as pro-bono environmental lawyer for non-governmental organizations.

Child-friendly procedures and practices for refugee and migrant children in Europe


Photo credits: Special Representative of the Secretary General on Migration and Refugees, Council of Europe

By Stephanie Rap

On 9 December 2019 the Council of Europe (CoE) launched the report Promoting child-friendly approaches in the area of migration. A review of standards, guidance and current practices as part of the activities taking place during International Human Rights Week. In the report guidance is given to CoE member states on how to make their asylum procedures and practices more in line with the rights, interests and needs of refugee and migrant children.

Since 2013, hundreds of thousands of children have arrived in Europe, many travelling unaccompanied and separated from their families. Although, the total number of children arriving decreased by almost 70% between 2016 and 2018, the number of unaccompanied and separated children has increased during this period. Some countries received more children than others – and the Southern European states are known for having received the majority of refugee and migrant children.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and as of today it is almost universally ratified. The CRC recognises rights to which all children are entitled and it is the first international instrument to acknowledge the unique needs of refugee and asylum-seeking children, including children without parental care (Article 21) and children requiring refugee protection (Article 22). The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the monitoring body of the CRC, has noted that the CRC rights are not limited to children who are citizen of a state, but must be available to all children – including asylum-seeking, refugee and migrant children – irrespective of their nationality, immigration status or statelessness (General Comment No. 6, para. 7). In line with the CRC general principles, states have a legal obligation to ensure that migrant and refugee children’s basic needs are met (Article 6), that the child’s best interests are a primary consideration (Article 3(1)), that they have a right to be heard (Article 12) and enjoy their rights without discrimination (Article 2). States must adopt a child-specific approach to migration practices, policies and decision-making (General Comment No. 22). At the regional level, in Europe, quite some initiatives have been undertaken to safeguard the rights of refugee and migrant children, among others by the Council of Europe.

In 2010, the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers adopted the Guidelines on child-friendly justice, recognising that “specific protection and assistance may need to be granted to more vulnerable children, such as migrant children, refugee and asylum-seeking children.” In 2016, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe appointed a Special Representative on Migration and Refugees with a special mandate on the protection of refugee and migrant children. In 2017, based on the findings of the Special Representative the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe adopted an Action Plan on protecting refugee and migrant children in Europe (2017-2019), with the purpose of improving children’s access to their rights, access to information and to child-friendly procedures.

The report, that was compiled as part of the Action plan, brings together international and European standards on child-friendly practices in the context of migration and illustrations from practice of initiatives, programmes and procedures on the ground that serve to implement these standards. The examples of every day practices that meet the needs of children aim to support legal professionals, policy makers and frontline professionals who seek to implement or advocate for a child rights-based approach to migration.

One of the findings of the report is that a gap can be identified between the standards set by the various instruments and the reality of refugee and migrant children’s lived experiences. Refugee and migrant children struggle to have their needs met, their rights fulfilled and their voices heard. While there are many projects, initiatives, programmes and interventions offered by states and non-governmental organisations across Europe that support the vindication of the rights of refugee and migrant children, these are not always available to every child; nor are these consistently applied from one country to the next. Many practices generally appear to be ad hoc, small scale or one-off and sometimes very localised, among other things due to limited resources and funding. In order to address this gap, the report illustrates a number of good and promising practices that implement the children’s rights standards. One important barrier that exists to wider application of child-friendly approaches is a lack of awareness of how to make practices more child-friendly. The report provides a first step in sharing knowledge and experience between countries and hopefully this will lead to increased awareness and improvements for refugee and migrant children arriving in Europe. The most important task for professionals is to really listen to what children themselves have to say to develop practices that are more in line with their needs, interests and wishes.

Bio

Stephanie Rap is Assistant Professor in children’s rights at the Department of Child Law, Leiden University, the Netherlands.