Bangladesh Supreme Court Upholds Rights of Rivers

Mari Margil
4 min readAug 24, 2020

The rights of the rivers of Bangladesh have been upheld by the country’s Supreme Court.

The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh upheld the 2019 decision of the High Court (in Writ Petition № 13989) which declared that the Turag River and all other rivers in the country are “living entities” with rights as “legal persons.”

In this landmark decision, the National River Conservation Commission is declared “in loco parentis” for the rivers of Bangladesh, to protect and conserve them, and prevent pollution and encroachment. The Commission will serve as a guardian for the rivers, to ensure their rights and the riparian ecosystems are protected. Further, under the Bangladesh decision, the rights of the rivers may be enforced against both private and public (government) entities.

The lead attorney for this case, Manzill Murshid, of the organization Human Rights and Peace for Bangladesh, will speak on the status of rivers at the October 2020 Global Forum on the Rights of Nature and the Human Right to a Healthy Environment. The Global Forum is being co-hosted by my organization, the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights, as well as Dignity Rights International and the Global Environmental Rights Institute at Widener University Delaware Law School.

Rights of Nature Laws and Court Decisions

Bangladesh joins a growing number of communities, tribal nations, and countries in securing a new form of legal protection for nature which recognizes that nature is a living entity with legal rights. (See: Rights of Nature Timeline)

A community in the United States — Tamaqua Borough, Pennsylvania — was the first place to secure legal rights of nature in 2006. In 2008, Ecuador became the first country in the world to recognize the rights of nature in a national constitution. The Ecuador Constitution enshrines the rights of nature — or Pachamama — to exist, regenerate, evolve, and be restored.

In the following years, courts in Colombia and India declared rivers and other ecosystems as having rights. National laws have been adopted in Uganda, Bolivia, and New Zealand, and local laws have been enacted in Brazil and the United States. In the Philippines, Australia, and Sweden, national and state-level legislation has been introduced. As well, the Yurok, Ponca, Menominee, and other tribal nations in the U.S. have passed rights of nature laws and policies.

These laws and court decisions secure rights of nature as a whole, as well as rights of a specific ecosystem or species.

This is pioneering a new way forward in which nature is no longer treated as simpily existing for human use. Rather, nature is being recognized as a living entity with legal rights of its own.

Nature and Legal Personhood

The Bangladesh court followed the path of other courts and countries by recognizing the rivers as legal persons with legal rights. With this status as a legal person, the rivers become possessors of legal rights. Legal personhood is the means by which legal systems today recognize entities as being able to have and exercise legal rights.

However, legal personhood was never intended to be applied to nature or ecosystems, and thus is not a perfect fit. As more laws and court decisions are established which recognize legal rights of the natural world, I have advocated for a new legal framework — legal naturehood — to ensure the proper enforcement, defense, and interpretation of the rights of nature.

Need for Change

For far too long, nature has been treated as existing for the use of human beings, and the severe consequences of this relationship — in which humankind has acted as a “ruler” over nature (as Colombia’s Constitutional Court wrote) — has resulted in a massive new species extinction event, the decline and collapse of ecosystems around the globe, and of course, climate change.

We need a fundamentally new relationship with nature. Bangladesh is providing new and necessary leadership in this transformation of nature from right-less to rights-bearing.

It is a recognition, at long last, that we depend on nature, we need nature, and that nature not only needs, but deserves, the highest form of legal protection that human written law provides.

There is an opportunity to learn more about this case from Manzill Murshid, lead attorney on this case in Bangladesh. Advocate Murshid will present at the Global Forum on Rights of Nature and the Human Right to a Healthy Environment being held October 1 and 2, 2020. Registration is free and is now open. The conference will be held on Zoom.

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Mari Margil

Mari Margil serves as the Executive Director of the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights.