Public Comment

Commentary: Breathable Air Is a Human Right, Too

By Rita Maran
Friday December 08, 2006

Human Rights Day comes but once a year, on Dec. 10. It’s the same date in every country around the world no matter what the local religion or culture or nationality. On that date, people around the globe—not just here in the Bay Area—commemorate the adoption by the United Nations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Back in 1948, people first got to hear this quietly revolutionary declaration by the United Nations, that had the full support of the United States. All the governments that were and are part of the UN agreed that every human being’s rights are automatically entitled to protection, thanks to the brand-new operating principle called “human rights.”  

It turns out that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the single best-known and most-utilized human rights document ever to see the light of day. Its operative terms are as powerful today as they were back then. The human right to be alive was first laid out 58 years ago, in the Universal Declaration, but human rights movers-and-doers couldn’t know as much as we know today about the scientific connection between the environment and the right to be alive. The rights first identified in the Declaration have gained strength, over these years, keeping pace with changes in the world’s technology. Only in the past decade or so, for example, have we come to understand that the air we breathe is an intrinsic part of the rights to which everyone can lay claim. 

The laws of our land have not until recently been much concerned with the right of people to grow up breathing unpolluted air. The term ‘environmental racism’ did not yet exist, for example, although the practice was widespread in industrialized societies, and is still so today. 

If, right now, we can succeed in identifying clean, breathable air as a right, our children will not have to take up that fight later on. These days for the first time, the Supreme Court is hearing arguments concerning the environment and climate change. Whatever the Court’s decision in this new field, we can be certain that the right to a healthy and sustainable environment, called for in international human rights agreements, is always going to be an intrinsic part of our community’s concern.  

What’s at stake? Nothing less than reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and associated global warming, reduction of mass extinction of biodiversity, protection of globally-endangered species, and a continued commitment to protect the ozone layer. 

Life in the Bay Area brings with it the added enrichment of knowing that here, the global actually translates into the local in productive and creative ways. For the most part, the federal government tends to respect the Universal Declaration’s protected rights, despite its refusal to sign on to the global agreement on climate change and clean air (the Kyoto Protocol). Taking the initiative locally, mayors around the Bay Area are enacting ordinances that will reduce energy usage, bring about switching to renewable sources, and revamp our communities’ environmental policies. All of us have something wonderful to look forward to: being beneficiaries of cities’ local implementation of the Kyoto principles.  

And I can look my new great-granddaughter squarely into her big dark eyes and say “It’s OK, little Rumi, we’re working on it. Breathe deep—deep—and be healthy. It’s your right.” 


Rita Maran teaches international human rights law UC Berkeley, and is vice-president of the United Nations Association-USA East Bay. Rumi Joon Maran, great-granddaughter, lives in Los Angeles and is nearly 6 months of age.