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Why Planetary Health needs Lawyers

Updated: Mar 2, 2023

by Dr. Sanita van Wyk

Planetary health, a “field focused on characterizing the human health impacts of human-caused disruptions of Earth’s natural systems”, deals with global issues of human health within functioning natural systems. Accordingly, the prominent role of professionals working in the areas of medicine and science is apparent. However, the role of lawyers working within the bounds of international, regional, and national jurisdictions are less clear. I thus argue that planetary health requires a functioning legal regime, referred to as planetary health law.

Climate change, unplanned human settlements, population growth, and the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources are adversely impacting our natural systems and, consequently, human health. To restrict factors leading to the global deterioration of planetary health, more regulation and effective governance are fundamental requirements. This need can be addressed by lawyers within functioning systems of international, regional, and national law.

At the core of planetary health law, we find global health law, international human rights law, and international environmental law.

The starting point in understanding global health law lies in understanding the need for a multinational approach to health security. Global health law can be defined as “a field that encompasses the legal norms, processes, and institutions needed to create the conditions for people throughout the world to attain the highest possible level of physical and mental health.” Global health law plays a crucial role in delivering healthcare in the age of globalization, and aims to do so in an equitable manner.

Also encompassing the principle of equity is the second column of planetary health law, namely international human rights law. As described in the preamble of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, there is recognition in international human rights law of “the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights [including the right to health] of all members of the human family”, which rests on foundations of “freedom, justice, and peace in the world”. This definition is in line with the proclamation contained in the Constitution of the World Health Organisation (WHO), stating that “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being”.

In establishing the legal determinants of health, the interconnectedness of health and international human rights law is further clarified in the research performed by the Lancet Global Health Commissions, wherein it is recommended that both law and medical students ought to be exposed to fundamental international human rights law during their tertiary studies. The link between human health and international human rights law is thus undeniable. Such a link cements international human rights law as the second field of planetary health law.

The third foundation of planetary health law is international environmental law. International environmental law moves beyond traditional state borders to address transboundary and international environmental concerns. Integral components of international environmental law include subjects such as earth governance law and sustainable development law, since the subject area tries to regulate global issues such as transboundary pollution, biodiversity loss, and climate change.

There are three prominent sources of soft law, which indicate the historic and intrinsic connection between human health, planetary health, and international environmental law. Firstly, the Report of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm, mentioned the “physical, mental, social health of man in the man-made environment” as a critical area of concern in the global environmental law arena in the 1970s. Secondly, in the Brundtland Commission's seminal report, sustainable development was defined, in 1987, as “development that meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” – a definition which is still applicable today. Finally, illustrating the historic and intrinsic connection between human health and international environmental law is the first principle in the Report of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. It provides that “human beings are at the center of concerns for sustainable development” and “they are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature”. Based on these historical sources of soft law, international environmental law is established as the third field of planetary health law.

Planetary health law is greater than the sum of global health law, international human rights law and international environmental law, since it necessitates harmonious legal practice extending beyond these three legal silos, with an additional common purpose of achieving planetary health. May planetary health law inspire a call to action to all lawyers who can contribute to the growing field of planetary health.

About the Author : Dr. Sanita van Wyk is a mentee at Women Leaders for Planetary Health. She works as a Postdoctoral Fellow in International Environmental Law and as a Lecturer of Law at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. She is also a qualified Attorney of the High Court of South Africa. She was previously a researcher at the Berlin Centre of Caspian Region Environmental and Energy Studies (CREES) at Freie Universität Berlin in Germany, and is the author of the book entitled: The Impact of Climate Change Law on the Principle of State Sovereignty over Natural Resources ( Her primary fields of research include international law, comparative law and environmental law (including sustainable development, climate change and climate litigation in the European Union and Southern Africa).

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