"The contribution of environmental protection to the realization of basic human rights, and the role of human rights in protection of the environment are undeniable. Substantive rights such as the right to food, health and the right to life itself will not materialize for all of the world's inhabitants unless we maintain a clean and healthy environment with a sustainable base of environmental and natural resources. Certainly, the full potential of human rights cannot be realized when an increasing portion of the world's inhabitants find their human potential constrained by a polluted and degraded environment and are relegated to hopelessness in extreme poverty."

UNEP Executive Director, Klaus Topfer.

The first signpost to linking human rights with sustainable development came about with the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly of the Declaration on the Right to Development, which explicitly affirmed the human right to development. This proclamation was strengthened by the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights as well as by the various world conferences and summits, which took place under United Nations auspices during the 1990s. These brought basic human rights and freedoms to the fore, and culminated with the Millennium Declaration and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The goals were based on an integrated and interdependent set of human rights, identified as the underpinning of the process of economic and social development. In parallel, there was a redefinition of the process of development itself, a shift away from the purely "economistic" approach to development, towards development, defined as human development. The latter was defined as a comprehensive, people-centred economic, social, cultural and political process through which all the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all individuals and entire populations can be realised; civil and political rights, economic, social and cultural rights.

Added to this came the concept of sustainability, first formulated by the World Commission on Environment and Development in the Brundtland Report, defining the concept of sustainability as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The "Earth Summit" in Rio (1992) further reaffirmed and defined the principle of sustainability in its final declaration and set a specific agenda (Agenda 21) for its implementation.

Threats to the environment or serious environmental hazards may threaten the lives of large groups of people directly. In this context the connection between the right to life and the environment is an obvious one. An appreciation of the interrelationship between the two rights goes beyond this and was summarised by the 1994 UN Report on Human Rights in the following proposition:

1. There is a strict duty upon States, as well as upon the international community as a whole, to take effective measures to prevent and safeguard
against the occurrence of environmental hazards which threaten the lives of human beings.

2. Every State, as well as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), should establish and operate adequate monitoring and earlywarning systems to detect hazards or threats before they actually occur.

3. States which obtain information about the possible emergence of an environmental hazard to life in another State should inform the State at
risk or at least alert UNEP on an urgent basis.

4. The right to life, as an imperative norm, takes priority above economic considerations and should, in all circumstances, be accorded priority.

5. States and other responsible entities(corporations or individuals) may be criminally or civilly responsible under international law for causing serious environmental hazards posing grave risks to life. This responsibility is a strict one, and should arise irrespective of whether the act or omission in question is deliberate, reckless or negligent.

6. Adequate avenues of recourse should be provided to individuals and groups at national, regional or international levels, to seek protection against serious environmental hazards to life. The establishment of such avenues of recourse is essential for dealing with such risks before they actually materialize.

7. Maintaining a healthy, well functioning society is important to sustainable development. Social cohesion exists where: people feel part of society; family and personal relationships are strong; differences among people are respected; and where people feel safe and supported by others.

8. Building alliances to achieve common goals is one aspect of social cohesion. These can support the joint effort required to care for and protect the environment and can help to build strong national and local communities. Building social cohesion helps to create what is sometimes called ‘social capital’, the networks and social norms that help society to function effectively.