Insights & Analyses

Human rights? Three rivers granted legal personhood in New Zealand, India

April 7, 2017

New Zealand and India welcomed three new people to their countries last month, and none of them are human.

In separate decisions, New Zealand’s Whanganui River and India’s Ganges and Yamuna Rivers won the same legal rights as a living person as the two countries seek to provide a more robust legal framework for protecting the waterways’ cultural and ecological value.

The Whanganui River became the world’s first to achieve legal personhood after a 140-year negotiation between the government of New Zealand and the local Māori tribe. The river will now have two guardians – one from the tribe and one from the federal government – to represent its interests in any legal proceedings.

“We have fought to find an approximation in law so that all others can understand that from our perspective treating the river as a living entity is the correct way to approach it, as in indivisible whole, instead of the traditional model for the last 100 years of treating it from a perspective of ownership and management,” said Gerrard Albert, lead negotiator for the tribe, in an interview with The Guardian.

Just days after the Whanganui decision, a high court in the Indian state of Uttarakhand passed down its own ruling that the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers are people under Indian law. The two waterways, some of the most polluted in the world, will be treated as minors and were even appointed “parents.”

This means that those rivers now have inherent, legally-enshrined rights, so polluting them will be the legal equivalent of harming an actual human. The rivers now can also, through their “parents,” bring legal cases directly against polluters, without needing to prove that actual humans were hurt.

It’s not unprecedented for non-humans to be granted the rights of a person. The concept of corporate personhood has long been a subject of debate in the United States, for example. But these two decisions represent a novel approach to advocacy – providing a legal identity and personal (if not human) rights to specific entities in nature as a means of protection.

Interested in learning more? Join us at the K(NO)W Identity Conference May 15-17 in Washington D.C. for a panel on “The [Unexpected] Business of Identity.”