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"Rights of Nature – a vehicle for sustainable development? Operationalisation and critique from an international and comparative law perspective". Research financed by the National Science Centre, Poland; grant no. 2021/43/B/HS5/01839.

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Durabilité et le droit

"Durabilité et le droit. Perspectives internes et internationales". PHC Polonium project, financed by Campus France and Polish Agency for Academic Exchange (NAWA).

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RoN Talk

"Rights of Nature – a solution of Europe?". Una Europa Talk, Brussels, 15 November 2022.

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Research financed by the National Science Centre, Poland; grant no. 2021/43/B/HS5/01839

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Discussions about sustainable development and environmental protection are indissociable from the issue of legal guarantees. Legal systems in their current shape are sometimes criticised as overly anthropocentric and excessively focused on the socio-economic development, without taking into proper consideration the need for protection of nature. According to some, the natural environment is not merely a resource, but a value in itself; a living being, which deserves to have rights independently from human will. This is the basis for a concept described as Rights of Nature (hereinafter: RoN), in Polish: prawa natury / prawa przyrody. The idea incites many controversies of a both theoretical and practical character, as a concept remaining in conflict with current regulations and legal traditions. Legal subjectivity of nature can undermine i.a. economic freedom.  

Although radical changes are sometimes needed, in this case it is unclear whether RoN as a basis for environmental protection would bring tangible benefits. This ambiguity is becoming increasingly problematic; although the first legal acts taking account of RoN were adopted no earlier than in the beginning of the 21st century, the concept of RoN keeps appearing in a growing number of contexts and is being considered as a potential foundation of new environmental policies. RoN bring hope e.g. as to preservation of the natural heritage, the fight against climate change, protection of polar regions, or restriction of exploitation of celestial bodies. Nevertheless, due to the necessity of adjustment of numerous elements of legal systems – from definitions to procedures – implementation of RoN can be a costly experiment, leading to undesirable effects.

The main task of the project is to assess whether RoN are an adequate, necessary, and proportional vehicle for implementation of sustainable development goals, which strive for a balance between care for the environment and growing socio-economic needs. We aim to adopt a critical viewpoint, verifying successively the allegations against the concept of RoN. RoN are sometimes contested as a culturally foreign legal experiment, which is based on outdated premises and cannot overcome the weaknesses of the classical environmental law. Their aims could potentially be achieved by less controversial methods, which do not require a change of the axiological foundations of law. Furthermore, it may be impossible to base RoN on ideas which so far have been serving human interests, and the justification of RoN may prove difficult to accept for many communities. The preliminary analysis suggests that the RoN-based solutions would be unfit to replace the solutions based directly on the Sustainable Development Goals defined in the UN 2030 Agenda.

The current scholarship devotes a lot of attention to the roots of RoN, derived from the philosophies of indigenous people. It is not a coincidence that the cradle of RoN lies predominantly in former colonies – however, it results in a geographically narrow perspective being adopted by many authors. Our ambition is to examine the question of RoN through the prism of international and comparative law, to estimate their chances of success in other legal cultures and at the supranational level. We also want to restructure the debate, separating RoN from other notions – such as animal rights – which are often analysed together due to a thematic link, but have different grounds and cause disparate consequences.

Although the research will be mostly focused on law, we will include the achievements of other disciplines, most notably philosophy, political science, anthropology, religious studies, sociology, economy, geography, and biology. This interdisciplinary approach, integrating the theoretical findings of various sciences and the outcomes of implementation of RoN, will allow us for a thorough analysis of further dilemmas – both existing and hypothetical. The research outputs will be publications: monographs in Polish and English, as well as a series of academic papers in English. Besides, we plan to conduct interviews with persons involved in the legal aspects of environmental protection – including representatives of indigenous people – and publish summaries on a website of the project. The results in their entirety will constitute a valuable source of information and opinions for researchers, decision-makers, legal practitioners, and citizens interested in environmental protection. 

Principal investigator: Piotr Szwedo

Timeframe: October 2022 – September 2026

PHC Polonium project, financed by Campus France and Polish Agency for Academic Exchange (NAWA).

NAWA logo.Campus France logo.This two-year project (2021-2022) is based on cooperation of researchers from the Jagiellonian University and Université d'Orléans with academics from six other French universities: Université Haute-Alsace, Université Paris Descartes, Université Sorbonne Paris Nord, Université de Valenciennes, Université Paris-Saclay, Université Paris II Panthéon-Assas.

The scientific goal of the cooperation is to propose a definition of “sustainability” in a legal context. The law constitutes a reaction to reality, while serving also as a planing tool for the future. Its functions are increasingly important in the context of globalization, social transformations and technological breakthroughs: the challenges of modernity have an international dimension and an evolutionary trajectory that is difficult to predict. Anticipating the future, legal standards must secure and reassure, while maintaining flexibility. Reconciliation of these competing needs is beyond the scope of legal technique stricto sensu; assuming that we account for how diverse the sources of normativity can be, just to mention the specificity of international law and the importance of standards issued by private actors.

The notion of “sustainability” corresponds to all of these objectives, emphasizing the definition and preservation of
the desired balance, despite constantly changing circumstances. Being the modern keywords, sustainability and sustainable development define standards, influence rules of interpretation, constitute an index, even a regulatory tool, escaping the traditional soft law/hard law dichotomy.

The realization of the postulate of “sustainability” requires the definition of its normative content. The vagueness that today surrounds the notion of “sustainability” results in significant risks. The multiplication of uses – whether in legal acts, scientific texts, or in political discourse – leads to distortion and instrumentalization of the notion. Opening the way to populist exploitation, it threatens the coherence of the corresponding normative system.

Proposing a definition of “sustainability” presupposes, first, an analysis of its current meaning. This should take into
account the diversity of legal traditions, approaches and axiologies involved. Only then will it be possible
to evaluate the dynamics and the possible evolutions of the studied concept and, if necessary, to indicate the desired tracks. Such is the ultimate goal of the project.

Project leaders: Pierre Serrand, Piotr Szwedo

Timeframe: 2021 – 2022

Brussels, November 15, 2022

The text visible below comes from an announcment posted on the official Una Europa website. Please see the bottom of this note for a video of the event. 

Should forests be able to sue us? Should rivers and oceans have the right to defend themselves in court?

Deeply rooted in indigenous philosophies, the concept of Rights of Nature is increasingly discussed in Europe and beyond as potential legal tool to safeguard our environment.

Join us in Brussels on 15 November for a unique Una Europa Talk at the intersection of sustainability, policy and law.

Leading academics from the Una Europa community will share different perspectives and examples on the Rights of Nature concept and discuss the European dimension with policy representatives and the audience.


  • Silvia Bagni, Comparative public law expert, Università di Bologna
  • Pierre Brunet, Legal Theory expert, Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne
  • Linnea Luuppala, Environmental philosophy expert, University of Helsinki
  • Piotr Szwedo, International trade and investment law expert, Jagiellonian University
  • Thierry Lucas, Biodiversity Coordinator Europe, United Nations Environment Programme
  • Lena Helińska, Law and science expert, Jagiellonian University (Moderator)

Rights of nature – a promising concept?

Existing legal frameworks for environmental protection and climate action are often considered overly anthropo-centric – prioritizing human interests through incentives for social and economic development. The concept of Rights of Nature shifts the focus by recognising nature as a subject of law, a being with its own rights.

The approach may sound promising and has, in fact, been used in a growing number of legal contexts, ranging from its inclusion in the Ecuadorian Constitution to a recent initiative to protect a Spanish lagoon.

But many doubts remain as regards a potential implementation in Europe: Is the concept compatible with our legal systems or will it trigger turmoil? And is our society ready for such change? Are there alternative concepts?

Get registered for the Una Europa Talk to hear expert views and join the debate. Seats are limited.

Una Europa’s commitment to sustainability

Una Europa shares an aspiration for the ‘sustainable university’ as an institution that rises to meet global environmental and societal challenges. With its Sustainability and Climate Protection Strategy, the alliance commits to a series of concrete courses of action in teaching and research, governance, operations and community development. Under the 1Europe project, Una Europa piloted new educational programmes in the field, such as a Microcredential and the Lifelong Learning Certificate in Sustainability. An interdisciplinary joint Bachelor programme in Sustainability is also underway.

The video