AN HISTORIC MOVE, UN DECLARES HEALTHY ENVIRONMENT A HUMAN RIGHT
‘The right to a safe clean healthy and sustainable environment is one of the most important human rights of the 21st-Century. Our home, this beautiful blue green earth, is the only planet in the universe known to support life. Yet, humans have created a global environmental crisis, involving the climate emergency, collapsing biodiversity, pervasive pollution and a surge in emerging infectious diseases of zoonotic origin, like COVID-19. The right to a healthy and sustainable environment includes clean air, safe and sufficient water, healthy and sustainably–produced food, asafe climate, flourishing ecosystems and biodiversity, toxic-free environments where people can safely live, work, study and play. This right also includes a procedural toolkit including access to information participation in decision-making and access to justice with affective remedies. Finally the right to a healthy environment includes a guarantee of non-discrimination so it can be enjoyed by everyone, everywhere. The time is now to recognize and implement this vital human right.’
David Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Environment, Oct., 2021
It’s official! On 28 July 2022, the UN General Assembly, the main policy-making organ of the United Nations, has adopted a resolution recognizing that living in a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is a universal human right.
The resolution, based on a similar text adopted on 8 October 2021 by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva recognizing access to a healthy and sustainable environment as a human right essential for the full enjoyment of all human rights and, among others, calls upon States and international organizations to adopt policies and scale up efforts to ensure a clean, healthy and sustainable environment for all.
This right that was not included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights back in 1948. So, this is really a historic resolution that will change the very nature of international human rights law. The resolution will help reduce environmental injustices, close protection gaps and empower people.
It was a resolution five decades in the making
In 1972, the United Nations Conference on the Environment in Stockholm, which ended with a historical declaration, was the first one to place environmental issues at the forefront of international concerns and marked the start of a dialogue between industrialized and developing countries on the link between economic growth, the pollution of the air, water and the ocean, and the well-being of people around the world.
UN Member States back then, declared that people have a fundamental right to “an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being,”calling for concrete action and the recognition of this right. They called for both the Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly to act.
Since 2008, the Maldives, a Small Island Developing State (SIDS) on the frontline of climate change impacts, has been tabling a series of resolutions on human rights and climate change, and in the last decade, on human rights and environment.
In the last few years, the work of the Maldives and its allied States, as well as the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Environment (David Boyd) and different NGOs, have been moving the international community towards the declaration of a new universal right.
Support for UN recognition of this right grew during the COVID-19 pandemic. The idea was endorsed by UN’s Secretary-General António Guterres and High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, as well as more than 1,100 civil society organizations from around the world. Nearly 70 states on the Human Rights Council also added their voices to a call by the council’s core group on human rights and environment for such action, and 15 UN agencies also sent a rare joint declaration advocating for it.
“A surge in emerging zoonotic diseases, the climate emergency, pervasive toxic pollution and a dramatic loss of biodiversity have brought the future of the planet to the top of the international agenda”, a group of UN experts said in a statement released in June 2021, on World Environment Day.
Why is the recognition of the right to a healthy environment as a universal human right so important?
So many people’s lives around this planet are affected by the climate crisis and environmental degradation. Literally billions of people today are breathing air that’s so polluted it’s going to reduce their life expectancy by years.
Billions of people around the world still don’t have access to clean water or enough water. Billions of people around the world are not eating healthy and sustainably produced food, and all of us are suffering because of the decline of biodiversity.
People need to understand that biodiversity is really the foundation of life on this planet. If it wasn’t for the plants and the trees that are producing oxygen, we wouldn’t be able to breathe. If it wasn’t for the ecosystems that filter water we would be in deep, deep trouble.
The reality is that we need a safe and livable climate in order to flourish as humans and that is why the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is so critically important.
Why is it important that the wider UN membership has recognized this right?
It’s important because in the face of the triple planetary/environmental crisis we’re facing – rapid climate change, the loss of biodiversity and pervasive toxic pollution. As mentioned by the UN Secretary-General, the newly recognized right will be crucial to tackling the triple planetary crises.
Each of these issues has its own causes and effects and they need to be resolved if we are to have a viable future on Earth.
The consequences of climate change are becoming increasingly apparent, through increased intensity and severity of droughts, water scarcity, wildfires, rising sea levels, flooding, melting polar ice, catastrophic storms and declining biodiversity.
Meanwhile, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution is the largest cause of disease and premature death in the world.
Finally, the decline or disappearance of biological diversity – which includes animals, plants and ecosystems – impacts food supplies, access to clean water and life as we know it.
General Assembly resolutions are not binding, meaning countries don’t have a legal obligation to comply with them, so how could they be held accountable?
Countries don’t have a legal obligation, but they have a moral obligation.
For example, in 2010, the General Assembly passed the resolution recognizing for the first time that everyone has the right to water and sanitation. That resolution similarly was not legally binding or enforceable, but it was a catalyst for a cascade of positive changes that have improved the lives of millions of people.
This is because countries responded to that resolution by changing their constitutions, their highest and strongest laws. So, Costa Rica, Fiji, Mexico, Slovenia, Tunisia and others did that. And most importantly, States really made it a top priority to deliver on fulfilling their obligations to provide people with clean drinking water.
So, these resolutions may seem abstract, but they are a catalyst for action, and they empower ordinary people to hold their governments accountable in a way that is very powerful.
“Governments have made promises to clean up the environment and address the climate emergency for decades but having a right to a healthy environment changes people’s perspective from ‘begging’ to demanding governments to act’ Mr. David Boyd.
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