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Upholding the right to health and a healthy environment

By: Gloria Estenzo Ramos February 06,2020 - 08:34 AM

During the campaign period, candidates would commit to programs that they think would best serve the interest of their constituents. Public infrastructure such as roads and buildings are easily the most popular. Sadly, health and environmental concerns do not get as much prioritization as we would like them to do. 

The crisis situation brought by the coronavirus  compelled the authorities to focus on public health and safety, with lots of bumps along the way, including the issues on responsiveness and transparency. 

But the question lingers: How long will public health be a primordial concern?

The health of the people and of our natural world are survival issues that deserve to be accorded the highest priority among the hierarchy of priorities of any government.

It is not coincidental that these rights are especially highlighted in the Declaration of Principles by the 1987 Constitution:

Section 15. The State shall protect and promote the right to health of the people and instill health consciousness among them.

Section 16. The State shall protect and advance the right of the people to a balanced and healthful ecology in accord with the rhythm and harmony of nature.

Both rights are intertwined. As the Supreme Court through the ponente, former Chief Justice Hilario Davide, emphasized in the landmark Oposa ruling: 

“While the right to a balanced and healthful ecology is to be found under the Declaration of Principles and State Policies and not under the Bill of Rights, it does not follow that it is less important than any of the civil and political rights enumerated in the latter. Such a right belongs to a different category of rights altogether for it concerns nothing less than self-preservation and self-perpetuation — aptly and fittingly stressed by the petitioners — the advancement of which may even be said to predate all governments and constitutions. As a matter of fact, these basic rights need not even be written in the Constitution for they are assumed to exist from the inception of humankind.”

Do we need to highlight again, to borrow the words of Chief Justice Davide, that the advancement of “self-preservation and self perpetuation” predate all governments and constitutions? 

If they are now explicitly mentioned in the fundamental charter, it is because of the well-founded fear of its framers that unless the rights to a balanced and healthful ecology and to to health are mandated as state policies by the Constitution itself, thereby highlighting their continuing importance and imposing upon the state a solemn obligation to preserve the first and protect and advance the second, the day would not be too far when all else would be lost not only for the present generation, but also for those to come — generations which stand to inherit nothing but parched earth incapable of sustaining life. The right to a balanced and healthful ecology carries with it the correlative duty to refrain from impairing the environment.

To serve the people is the reason for being of any government. It requires authorities to ensure that the environment that our people are in is healthy, safe and sustainable. 

Cebu City Councilor Alvin Dizon’s call for the city to purchase air pollution equipment unmasks the dire state we are in – not only do we lack the device to monitor air pollution and the compliance of regulated sectors, we do not know the real state of the air we are breathing in. 

How can we possibly address issues when we are kept in the dark on the real state of affairs? The call for urgency and  transparency in the data that government has reverberates.

We certainly need more champions who fight for our rights.

Finally, let us reflect on the meaning behind the constitutional provisions guaranteeing our rights to life, health and a healthy environment, as construed by the Court in the above-mentioned Oposa ruling.

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