The Common Heritage of Mankind

I have been researching on the topic of global citizenship for the past six months. My research is finding ways to expand understandings of human rights in two ways. Firstly, by expanding what ‘human’ should encompass and secondly, by asking what the breadth of the ‘rights’ discourse should be. What that means, in simple terms, is that more-than-humans (non humans, animals, artificial intelligence, nature and corporations) are all part of the global society that I envision. One where decision-making becomes truly democratic, all actors and living beings are involved. Whether you call it eco democracy, a Parliament of Things, or a Zoóp, it must permit deliberation on sustainability issues by all involved rather than an imposition of human-centered decisions on all living beings.

My investigation has taken me back to an existing Public International Law concept known as “The Common Heritage of Mankind.” This principle is connected to the deep sea bed and outer space, as well as the two polar regions of our planet. Nevertheless, the idea has also been borrowed in International Environmental law, in two instruments: The Stockholm Declaration and the Rio Declaration.

The Rio Declaration contains one of the main tenets of environmental law found in Principle 15 which states, “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.” This principle, also called the precautionary approach, is the underlying basis for measures to enjoin environmentally harmful acts by States.

I wonder, however, whether we should not also emphasize Principle 10, which provides:

Environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level. At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes. States shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available. Effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy, shall be provided.

I am particularly interested in the phrase “all concerned citizens.” This seems fitting as a basis for including more-than-humans in the access to decision making and in the access to judicial and administrative proceedings. I have argued for that in a series of Instagram posts. Some with student reflections and another with a scholar who has written widely on eco democracy.

Do you see a place for more-than-humans in sustainability discussions?


Legal Skills Lecturer in The Netherlands. (J.D. Columbia University; PhD Maastricht University International Human Rights Law.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *