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Recognizing the State's Positive Obligation Can Help Protect the Right to Life: An Interpretation of the Constitution in Anthropocene

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A researcher at the University of Tsukuba is pursuing a study into how human rights can be protected in an age of Anthropocene when human survival is threatened by the environment, from the perspective of the Japanese constitution. He has made two main conclusions: to guarantee human rights in such an age, it is necessary to guarantee the right to life, and the state must acknowledge its positive obligation.

Tsukuba, Japan—A study being conducted by a researcher at the University of Tsukuba is looking into aspects of right to life and welfare right pertaining to liberty rights and social rights (i.e., those protected by the state's positive action). When studying the right to life, social rights issues such as improving the environment and protecting public health are now just as important as those relating to civil rights such as the death penalty. Moreover, the welfare right is another vital concept to consider when protecting the aforementioned rights. The first, as encapsulated in Article 25 of the Japanese constitution, is maintaining an environment necessary for sustaining life, and protecting that necessitates the "promotion and extension of social welfare and security, and of public health" as contained in that article. The second is "the right to maintain the minimum standards of wholesome and cultured living," which is based on the presumption of sustaining life.

The right to life is also discussed in international law in Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the UN Human Rights Committee has said that states have a duty to protect the right to life from reasonably foreseeable threats. Thus, it can be considered that countries are being requested to undertake a positive obligation to protect rights.

It is widely accepted that the welfare right, which is related to the right to life, is an abstract right and therefore it is not generally thought that the state has a positive obligation regarding the welfare right. It is generally argued that positive obligation cannot be recognized because of the welfare rights' conceptual uncertainty, incompatibility, methodological vagueness, and budgetary requirements. However, given the practical meaning of the right to life and welfare right in the Anthropocene age, a persuasive counterargument can be made against all of those points. For instance, curfews do not require budgets. This indicates that a state's positive obligation to guarantee human rights by preserving public health does not always require a budget. Considering that inadequate measures may result in violation of the right to life, specific and effective action must be taken to protect human rights appropriately.

Given the limits of academic research, there is a need to examine the relationship between environmental issues and the right to life in terms of social values. In doing so, there is a need to consider adopting precautionary measures so as to prevent serious damage, even if scientific knowledge on the subject is not yet sufficient.

Discussion is needed on discrete issues such as determining the most appropriate measures based on scientific knowledge to counter environmental problems and pandemics.

This study involves discussion of the need to impose positive obligation on states with emphasis on the human right to life, but doubts remain regarding the ability to take action to address environmental issues while prioritizing individual human rights. Thus, due consideration of environmental limits is required. This leads to a new way of considering human rights based on "post-Anthropocene" values that go beyond the human-centric or Anthropocene values of the Anthropocene age. We need to see concepts such as rights and human rights in a new way that incorporates the environment as a constituent element of society.

Original Paper

The article, "Human Rights in the Anthropocene: The Right to Life and State's Positive Obligation in the Japanese Constitutional Law" (in Japanese) was published in No. 33, Human Rights International.


Assistant Professor AKIYAMA Hajime
Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Tsukuba

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