The Rights of Rivers approach aims to enshrine the river as a legal entity entitled to basic rights. Its rights might include the rights to exist and to thrive, as well as right to restoration. Besides creating rights for nature, such approach also creates obligations for humans as custodians of surrounding natural resources. This Tool discusses the origin of the Right of Rivers approach, outlines the six basic rights recognised in the Universal Declaration of River Rights, gives examples of how the Rights of Rivers vision has been implemented in practice around the world, mentions few practical challenges, including the difficulty to recognise the legal personhood of transboundary rivers.
Historically a number of indigenous communities have attributed personhood to nature and its phenomena, recognising that it need protection rather than treating it as a commodity. In 1970s, Professor Christopher Stone coined the concept of “environmental personhood”, arguing that an environmental legal entity possesses three primary rights, similar to a corporation: to enter into contracts, to take legal action to protect itself and has legal standing in court (Stone, 1974). Such rights-based approach contests a traditional legal regime of natural resources being in property-based ownership, or simply speaking, belonging to whoever owns that physical space (government, a private individual or a company). It also introduces a framework where nature is a subject with personhood whose rights should be enforced by a court of law. Since then, river rights have gained significant attention both in political and academic settings, exploring what is the scope of their rights and what types of litigation they could entail.